Written by Art Petrosemolo
We’re all preparing for the Christmas season.
For Christians, the holiday is the celebration of the birth of Jesus and is sacred. Among Anabaptist communities (Amish, Mennonite and Church of the Brethren), “Jesus Is The Reason For the Season” is more than a bumper sticker.
For my first holiday season in Lancaster County, I got curious about the traditions of the Plain community and my research led to a story for the Lititz, Ephrata and Elizabethtown newspapers. I got some terrific help from Garden Spot Village staff Juanita Fox and Chet Yoder. Here’s what I leaned.
Second Christmas was my first discovery. The practice dates back at least to the 1700s among Lutheran and Reformed churches. Here, it started in the early 1800s and is a two-day celebration. On December 25, Amish and Mennonite communities celebrate as a family with special meals not unlike wedding dinners. On the 26th, they may visit with extended family, friends and relatives, to give gifts and celebrate the commercial side of the holiday.
I was surprised to learn the Amish hold a Christmas church service only if the 25th is on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday but there seemed to be no definitive answer as to why? However, I also learned, if Christmas is mid-week, the Amish Sunday service closest to December 25 always includes the appropriate scriptures readings. Mennonite Churches may hold a service or not depending on the church or meetinghouse.
Singing and caroling for the Amish and Mennonites is taken seriously and many groups sing at nursing homes and for shut-ins, sharing homemade treats.
Plain families with children always reinforce the sacredness of the holiday. Children are taught at an early age that Santa Claus is not a real person. “How can I teach my youngster that both Jesus and Santa Claus are real and then, three years later, have to say no Santa is not real?” a mother told me. “We focus on Christmas as a religious holiday and although we certainly give presents, the children know they are from their parents.”
Amish and Mennonite schools may hold religious Christmas programs that include stories, songs and short plays to honor the meaning of the season. It is probably one of the few times Amish children perform before an audience.
Some in the Plain community may decorate their homes with Christmas cards from friends. They may also put candles in their windows to represent Christ’s birth but they will not include lights or a Christmas tree.
For the Church of the Brethren, Christmas traditions parallel those of the Amish and Mennonites – focusing on the birth of Christ as the Prince of Peace.
Brethren believe that Christ did not command the disciples to celebrate worship service and they say the New Testament does not show any accounts of the early church celebrating Christmas.
The Brethren believe that Jesus Christ was the greatest gift of Christmas so the day was and continues to be one of devotions at home or at a worship service.
In early Brethren households, mothers or grandmothers might bake cookies or a cake associated with the Christmas season from their ancestral region in Germany. Christmas hymns were not part of Brethren celebrations until well into the 19th century. And although families might sing a few songs in household devotions, there is not a tradition of caroling.
The Pennsylvania Brethren were not deeply steeped in German Christmas customs. Most of the customs that Americans associate with Christmas today, including Santa Claus bringing presents, Christmas trees, lights, and carols, were inventions of the Victorian era. During the 20th century, these practices expanded and by that time, Church of the Brethren people were much more accommodating to American culture and slowly began to pick up some of these customs, especially by the last quarter of the 20th century.
Any discussion of Lancaster County holiday traditions must include the Moravian community since it is such a large part of the Lititz community traditions. The German nativity scene or diorama called a Putz – first used in Lititz at its founding in 1756 – continues to be a major part of the Moravian holiday celebration. The Putz is a visual aid for a family teaching the Christmas story to children and can be much larger and more ornate than a simple manager, nativity scene.
For the Moravians, who trace their church founding back to 1457 and have been in Pennsylvania since establishing a settlement in Bethlehem in 1741 and in Lititz in the 1750s, the 26-point star – a recognizable church symbol – takes on even more meaning during the holiday season. It dates back to the early 1800s when it was first put together by German school children as a mathematics project.
The Moravians used Christmas trees as part of their holiday celebration as early as the 1700s and long before it became a tradition in the United States. Another Moravian custom is the Illumination. It refers to the custom of putting a lighted candle in each window of the settlement after dark, a custom continued today.
A truly unique celebration of the sacredness of the season has been held early in December for a number of years by the Alleghany Mennonite Historical Association (AMHA) at the 19th century Mennonite Meetinghouse on Horning Road in Brecknock Township.
The AMHA oversees and maintains the simple structure built in 1855 to serve the Alleghenyville area and used for services for 99 years. A Mennonite cemetery sits opposite the Meeting House with stones dating back to the 1700s.
The meetinghouse lacks electricity, permanent heating or plumbing but comes alive for two nights in December with the soft light of candles and the voices of 100 church members and guests led in carols by a traditional Mennonite song leader.
In 2017, more than 100 people found their way to the Meeting House on December 4th and 5th to take part in the carol sing and officially start the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.