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This story was orginally published in an earlier edition of The Amish Heartland. For the sake of privacy, names have been changed.
As the last leaves of autumn tumble and twirl to the ground, John and Mary Miller have finished preparations for winter. The potatoes have been dug, and winter squash gathered in from the garden. The basement shelves are lined with brightly colored fruits and vegetables sealed in glass jars. It is a time to be thankful for life and health, and for the earth's provision. The Miller family's thoughts begin to turn to the approaching holiday season.
It is important to an Amish family that their children enter into the season with an understanding of the true meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The children have helped to decorate their classroom at school with pumpkins and dried leaves. Their teacher has helped each child to cut out a construction-paper pumpkin and write on it one or more things for which they are thankful. A "horn of plenty" display features, instead of the usual produce, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety and the fear of God.
This training is reinforced on Thanksgiving morning when the family gathers for devotions. Each member of the family circle shares something for which he or she is grateful to God. Five-year-old Susan seems to find this game easier than her older sisters and parents do.
"You have to think about it," she giggles, while she reels off various household items - the sewing machine, dishes and lamps - that she appreciates.
The adults and older children observe the morning as a time of fasting and prayer. Everyone looks forward to the larger family celebration that takes place at noon at Grandma and Grandpa Miller's house. They join almost all the Miller brothers and sisters, along with their spouses and children, for a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner.
The dinner usually consists of turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot vegetables, and freshly baked bread, along with the salads, fruit and desserts that are the contributions from each visiting family.
"Dad just loves to eat," laughs Mary, so the table is loaded with a feast more than ample for the multi-generational crowd.
After lunch, the adults settle back for a long visit, and the occasional "forty winks." Seventeen-year-old Linda and fifteen-year-old Marie gather with a few female cousins in an upstairs bedroom to chat. The boys head outside for a volleyball game or an exciting round of "Rabbit," a game similar to Dodgeball. At the age of 13, Andrew might be old enough this year to go rabbit hunting with some of the young men. Elizabeth and Susan join their little-girl cousins who have brought their dolls, complete with diaper bags, clothing and accessories. From time to time throughout the afternoon, everyone partakes of the leftovers laid out on the dining room table.
Thanksgiving Day over, the children who attend the Amish parochial schools head back to school on Friday, while any who attend the local public schools get an extra day off. Amish schools do not usually dismiss classes for long holidays. This allows school to close for the summer in late April or early May, much earlier than the surrounding public schools.
But now the anticipation of Christmas has seized the students. Linda, who is a teacher in a neighboring school, has her hands full, dealing with excited scholars as she plans and rehearses the play, recitations and songs the students will perform for their parents on the day before Christmas. The pupils trade names and begin to shop for the gifts they will exchange with each other. Seven-year-old Raymond recalls with great fondness the battery-operated fire truck he received last year.
"He was so excited; he couldn't wait to get home to play with it," says his mother with a smile.
Older students exchange wallets, books and pen sets, for example. The younger girls enjoys gifts such as tea sets and dolls.
At home, the Miller family gathers around the table in one of their favorite activities: designing and creating their own greeting cards. They will make a hundred or more cards, each a hand-made work of art. They use rubber stamps and colored ink to create beautiful scenes on the front, and they write appropriate sentiments inside. colored pencils and markers, decorative cutouts and scalloped-edge scissors are used to make one-of-a-kind designs. As Christmas approaches, family members distribute the cards to fellow church members, family, friends and classmates. The cards they receive in return are strung across a living room wall to be read and enjoyed for weeks.
Mary and her sisters gather at their parents' house for a daylong session of cookie baking and candy making. They bake and decorate hundreds of Christmas cookies, and they make hand-dipped chocolates.
"The Buckeyes are my favorite," says Mary, referring to the chocolate-coated peanut butter balls that are a family tradition at Christmas.
Finally, Christmas morning arrives, and the excited children are up early, eager to open the gifts that have been wrapped and displayed as decorations just inside the front door for several days. Andrew has been hoping for a hunting rifle, since he recently passed a safety course and has obtained a hunting license. But he still enjoys the gift he received two years ago - a shiny new bicycle, which he rides everywhere, even from the house to the barn. Another year there was a miniature barn that John made himself, working in the shop after the children were in bed each evening. The barn, complete with sliding doors, fences and plastic farm animals is still a much-loved toy. But the Christmas past that the older children remember best is the year they looked out the window to see a pony being led to a new home in their barn.
But before this year's gifts can be opened, everyone gathers in the living room for family devotions. The reading of the Gospel account of the birth of Christ is a reminder of the meaning of Christmas. If Christmas Day happens to fall near the end of the week, the Millers' church district will sometimes hold services on Christmas morning, instead of the usual Sunday observance, but there is no hard and fast rule on this (it depends on what is convenient for the family hosting the bi-weekly services in their home).
At last, the children are free to play with their new toys for a while, until it is time to pack up the family in the two-seater surrey for the trip to Grandma and Grandpa Keim's house. Everyone bundles up warmly - the Millers do not have a kerosene heater in their buggy, as some Amish do. Instead, they "dress accordingly," as John puts it, and cover themselves with heavy buggy robes for the two-hour trip to the home of Mary's parents.
Once there, the relatives sit down to a hearty feast, much like the Thanksgiving banquet. Grandma Keim has little gifts for all "36 or 37" of her grandchildren, a custom she started when there were only a few little ones. Their parents protest in vain that it's too much for her, but she loves to pick out something for each age group, keeping abreast of what is "in" for both boys and girls. Last year, she bought gel roller pens, tablets, coloring books and stickers.
John and Mary usually have a present for Grandma and Grandpa, too. Last year's gift was a gift certificate to the local department store; they redeemed it for a set of folding snack tables.
The young cousins show each other the gifts they received from their parents, and then they settle down to play. since the Amish teach their children to value simplicity, and prefer to emphasize the religious meaning of the holiday, the Miller children usually expect only one gift each. They appreciate what they receive, knowing that it came from their parents, not a jolly elf in a red suit. John and Mary have agreed not to exchange gifts with each other, considering that they have eight children to shop for and a mortgage payment on their nearly new home. John admits, with a shy smile, he gets some teasing about that, but he and Mary both are content to see the happiness on their children's faces, and to enjoy the day with family.
Depending on the day of the week, the children will return to school, and John will go to work as usual on December 26th. New Year's Eve is observed by a gathering of the church for prayer and hymn singing, as well as a carry-in dinner featuring the traditional sauerkraut and sausage.
January 6th is "Old Christmas," a tradition the Amish brought with them from 18th-century Europe. The Millers keep it as a family day, with visiting and feasting much like that on Christmas Day, but no gifts are exchanged. Amish businesses are closed on this day.
"We just enjoy a day at home," Mary says.
And so the Amish holiday season ends as it began, with parents and children thankful for their home, their health and each other.