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One of the most anticipated events of the year for both the Amish children and their parents is the Christmas program. One former Amish teacher shared with me just how much preparation and detail goes into the Christmas event. (Traditions may vary from school to school and order to order.)
Amish teachers typically begin preparing for their Christmas programs in late October or early November. They will assign a poem to recite along with a recitation and a part in the play to each child. The upper grade students are given the opportunity to start at least one Christmas Carole. during the program. This can vary from school to school.
Students prepare a Thanksgiving singing for their parents on Thanksgiving day. Family members gather to hear their children sing, enjoy snacks and the company of one another during the holiday season.
Following the singing, the children will exchange names for a gift exchange. The teacher assigns a price limit and the children will write a couple ideas of what they might like on the back of the slip with their name on it.
The Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday, the teacher gives the children their parts for the play. "It takes a lot of memorization and practice," said a former Amish teacher who wished to remain anonymous. The children would be given a week to work on their parts on their own.
While the children studied their parts endlessly, they would often try and do it in secret when they were home. They wanted it to be a surprise to their family, explained the former Amish teacher.
Students would often suggest and volunteer props for the play. Slowly things would start disappearing from their households and end up in the classroom. The former teacher could remember when the students managed to bring in a table and chairs from their home.
The children would make their own costumes for the play as well. It would not be uncommon to find an Amish teacher shopping in the discount fabric section during the holiday season to find scraps to piece together for costumes.
"Not all schools wear costumes or have props," explained Lester Beachy, another former teacher and Amish writer. "My students would wear similar colored shirts and dresses to the program.
Dozens of practices take place in the weeks leading up to the big day. A full run of the show is put together so that the teacher can give his or her comments and critiques on the performance. The day before the big show, a dress rehearsal is held and teachers are invited from other schools to watch and score the performance and give tips to the students.
On the day of the performance, one more dress rehearsal is held in the morning. This gives those with small children a chance to see an early performance if they don't want to be out too late. The rest of the afternoon is spent putting up final decorations in the classroom.
Decorations are usually very simple and can include paper cut outs of stars and snowflakes and paper chains hung from the ceiling. Often times, the older female students will decorate the class room with pine branches and battery operated candles.
The most elaborate decoration is often the chalkboard mural. The murals typically depict scenes from the bible such as a recreation of Bethlehem and the nativity scene and wintery scenes with candle lanterns in the snow.
Finally the evening of the big play has arrived. Friends, family and neighbors gather in the small schoolhouse to see the excited children present their play. It is not unusual to have standing room only during the program.
Gas lights are lit with foil coverings to cast a glow on the stage for the young performers. "You can always tell for the children that this is a very big thing for them," said Beachy.
The program usually lasts about an hour and a half and usually consists of Biblical verses and scenes from the Christmas story. As the children take turns reciting their lines and poems and singing their verses, a nervous teacher sits just off stage offering guidance to those that may forget their lines.
The former teacher recalled a time when one of his younger students became nervous and forgot his line. The line was "To go to Bethlehem to see the Christ child lay," but instead the child nervously spat out "to go to Bethlehem to see the holy child," and hurried off the stage.
Another child accidently dropped the baby Jesus (portrayed by a doll, not a real baby) but never broke character. She scooped the baby Jesus up and proceeded to say, "well, he seems alright," which in turn had the audience roaring with laughter.
"I don't think there is any other time where the teacher and pupils feel more connected," said the former teacher. "There's a feeling of accomplishment for the students that did so well."
Following the program the students exchange their gifts. Each child holds up their gift and announces who it is from. Then it is time to leave. The adults often linger to chat with one another while the children scurry off to play in the snow.
The school is cleaned up the following day and often times the older students would return to help. The students typically have the next few days off to enjoy the holiday season with their families.