Plain communities Holiday traditions

By on December 20, 2017

The Alleghany Meetinghouse lacks electricity, permanent heating, or plumbing, but comes alive and magical with the soft light of candles and the voices of 100 church members and guests led in carols by a traditional Mennonite song leader each December.

Families throughout Lancaster County are 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 the Brethren), “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” is more than a bumper sticker.

Competing with the religious’ celebration, however, is a Santa Claus-fueled, holiday, gift-giving frenzy that kicks off the day after Halloween and ends with the January clearance sales. It’s two months of sharp contrasts in Lancaster County as parents work with their children to balance the sacred and the commercial.

As a second-generation Italian American with strong family traditions, I wanted to learn about local cultural and religious traditions — and there are many — that made the holidays special in Lancaster County.

My grandparents were 19th century immigrants from Naples, Italy, and Christmas Eve was very important for us. Our meatless dinner was called La Vigilia (the Vigil) or the Feast of Seven Fishes. It had multiple courses and lasted several hours. It was followed by midnight mass at the Catholic church to begin the Christmas celebration.

With online research and the guidance of Drs. Jeff Bach and Steven Nolt at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, I explored a number of German and Pennsylvania Dutch holiday traditions that have stood the test of time.

Amish and Mennonites

Second Christmas was my first discovery. Dr. Nolt indicates it is an old German practice that 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 Dec. 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 liked an explanation I received from an Amish folk figure in Paradise who said he thought the tradition came from the story of the shepherds visiting the Christ child early on the second day.

Dr. Nolt says that in the midwest the Amish do not celebrate Second Christmas but, instead, observe what they call Old Christmas on Epiphany (traditional date of the arrival of the Magi) on Jan. 6, to visit with relatives.

I also 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 Dec. 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.”

Some families may tell the German folk story to children of the Belsnickel, a crotchety, fur clad gift bringer who visits before Dec. 25 to check on children’s behavior. However most in the Plain community told me their offspring were taught that the gifts they received were from their parents.

I learned adults exchanged practical items like clothing and kitchen items. With an eye toward keeping the family closer, electronic gaming devices, so popular in the English community, are usually not given to children in Plain families.

Amish and Mennonite schools may hold religious, Christmas programs for parents and friends, put on by their first to eighth grade students. The programs 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. Putting candles in their windows to represent Christ’s birth also is a visible sign at many Amish and Mennonite homes during the season. A star or some garland might be used in more culturally assimilated families, but certainly no lights or Christmas tree.

Many early German immigrants, however, used evergreen as part of their Christmas celebration and Christmas trees (a 1600’s Lutheran tradition) dates back in Lancaster County to 1821. Some families hung their trees upside down because it resembled Christ being crucified or as my research also indicated, it kept many of the edible ornaments out of reach of mice.

Church of the Brethren

For the Church of the Brethren, Christmas traditions parallel, in many ways, 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, Dr. Bach explains.

Brethren never recognized saints like St. Nicholas nor did they observe an Advent with wreaths and calendars. 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.

Moravians

Any discussion of Lancaster County holiday traditions must include the Moravian community, 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 nativity scene. Many people are moved when they see a Putz for the first time.

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 long before it became a tradition in the United States. Another Moravian custom is Illumination, the custom of putting a lighted candle in each window of the settlement after dark, a custom continued today.

The community’s Christmas Eve candlelight service, also is known as a lovefeast (based on the ancient tradition of the early churches described in the Bible where meals were partaken in unity and love), is where sweet buns and coffee are served and congregants receive a lighted candle at the end of the service. It proclaims that Jesus Christ came to be the light of the world.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

Alleghany Meetinghouse

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 18th century Mennonite cemetery sits opposite the Meeting House with stones dating back to the 1700s.

The church and grounds deteriorated after it went out of regular use in 1954 with only occasional weddings or youth groups events being held at the site.

In 1994 the AMHA was formed to oversee the meetinghouse and restore its simple beauty and to host several events there each year. The meetinghouse is used today for an annual meeting in July, a hymn sing in September and a unique old fashioned Christmas carol sing for two nights in December.

The meetinghouse lacks electricity, permanent heating, or plumbing, but comes alive and magical with the soft light of candles and the voices of 100 church members and guests led in carols by a traditional Mennonite song leader.

The meetinghouse was built of native sandstone and measures just 27 by 35 feet; the building materials originally cost $377. The building contains nine windows and two doors and the narrow back of the church is a ladies’ cloak room and nursery

In 2017, some 100 people found their way to the Meeting House on Dec. 4 and 5 to take part in the carol sing and officially start the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

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