When Santa Claus and his reindeer circle Ohio on Christmas Eve, they will bypass the homes of Amish families in central Ohio. The jolly red-suited gent who is welcomed with cookies and milk in millions of homes across America, and who is the focus of songs and decorations, is not included in the Amish celebration of Christmas. For them, he is believed to be pagan and so is the idea of a decorated Christmas tree.
They are just not Christian, Harley S. Hochstetler said as we chatted at the Dutch Valley restaurant near Sugarcreek, Ohio. On an all-too-short visit to Wayne and Holmes counties, I wanted to learn how the Amish celebrate Christmas. I knew why I didn t see any Christmas lights at farm homes on a nighttime drive through the countryside: No electricity, no lights. That s easy. But how do the families who cling tight to their religious conviction and traditions spend Dec. 25?
I am a longtime admirer of the Amish community in Ohio. I find it thrilling to drive through the area and see the farmland stretching for miles and the immaculately white buildings, and to meet a horse-drawn black buggy. Even at this time of year, when no one is working in the barren fields and gardens, it s great therapy for the soul and most satisfying to the body to stop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Try not to order pie, I dare you.
Mr. Hochstetler, owner of Hochstetler and Son Construction in Sugarcreek, continued our friendly conversation. I found the people I questioned about Christmas very cordial, as I have on previous visits when I have asked about their customs.
We still believe Christ was born on Christmas, he said. And we keep Christ alive every day in the year.
Mr. Hochstetler and other plain people I chatted with described Christmas among the Amish as a social time, and gifts are exchanged. Christmas Day is spent with families. The extensive outlay of food includes many kinds of baked goods and homemade candy. Pumpernickel bread, cutout cookies, and fruitcake are among the popular treats, according to the holiday baking schedule at Troyer s Bakery in Applecreek.
But the feasting hasn t always been so abundant for Mr. Hochstetler. I remember when I was a child in Pennsylvania, we didn t have much. I got up early on Christmas to find my plate. There was one banana, one orange, and a piece of candy. Sometimes there would be three or four nuts, he recalled.
Elizabeth and Delbert Troyer, who I met while shopping in Sugarcreek, agreed that Christmas is a big day to be with families and for feasting. We do a lot of singing, Mr. Troyer emphasized. Most of the Christmas hymns are sung acapella in German.
For the Troyers, it will most likely be a very large family gathering on Dec. 25. They have been married 56 years and have 35 grandchildren, plus some great-grandchildren.
Though it is customary for the Amish to exchange Christmas gifts, Mrs. Troyer added, they are needful gifts.
When I asked 17-year-old Melissa Miller, who was working at a Walnut Creek cheese store, what she would like for Christmas, she said a new dress.
She then explained that the fabric for a dress would be a gift from a friend, but her mother would make the garment. Homemade clothing for men and women is the common in Amish families.
When I stopped at Mrs. Yoder s Kitchen, my favorite Amish restaurant well, one of them at Mt. Hope, at least 50 Amish women, some with their children, were eating in the dining room.
I asked if it was an early Christmas gathering, but it was explained that the entire week is the annual Deer Hunter s Widows Week. A coupon is published in the newspaper that entitles the deer widows to an all-you-can-eat chicken dinner with salad bar and dessert for $7.99. More than 500 women attend during the week.
If you have wondered why, when you are in Sarasota, Fla., you see Amish restaurants with authentic food, there s a good explanation. Hundreds of people from Ohio Amish country travel on Pioneer Trails buses to the Sarasota area each winter. The Amish district near Sarasota is called Pinecraft.
The bus makes three trips a week and sometimes there are four buses leaving the same day, Mr. Hochstetler said.
He will be on one of them in February for a long holiday in a warmer climate.