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An Amish farm near Heuvelton, NY. Photo: Karen Johnson-Weiner
An Amish farm near Heuvelton, NY. Photo: Karen Johnson-Weiner

Old Christmas an old tradition for many Amish in the North Country

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For most of us, Jan. 1 marks the end of the holiday season, whether that's a sad goodbye or a relief.

But for some Christians, including many of the Amish people in the North Country, Jan. 6 is another day of celebration: Epiphany, or "Old Christmas."

Karen Johnson-Weiner is a professor of linguistic Anthropology at SUNY Potsdam. She's been working with the North County's Amish for years.

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Reported by

Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

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She says all Amish don't celebrate Old Christmas, but the Swartzentruber Amish do. They're the conservative "Old Order" community living in St. Lawrence County around Heuvelton, De Peyster, LaFargeville, and Morristown.

Homemade Amish candies are a major feature of the Amish Christmas celebration. Photo: Karen Johnson-Weiner
Homemade Amish candies are a major feature of the Amish Christmas celebration. Photo: Karen Johnson-Weiner
These groups also celebrate Christmas on the Dec. 25. Both days are visiting days, and big days for eating homemade candy — but one thing distinguishes the two, Johnson-Weiner says: "Old Christmas is a fasting day, which means that you fast until noontime, and so as one person told me it's more fun to go visiting on December 25th, because then you're not fasting in the morning, you get started celebrating from the time you arrive."

Johnson-Weiner says traditional Old Christmas meals are very similar to non-Amish Christmas meals: families will serve turkey, chicken, ham, or other meats as a main course: "it's butchering time, so many people will be having fresh sausage, they're butchering cows and pigs this time of year now that it's colder and the meat's more easily kept."

There'll be lots of pies, too, Johnson-Weiner says, but then "there are always lots of pies."
North Country Amish do sometimes give practical and usually homemade Christmas or Old Christmas gifts, Johnson-Weiner says, most of the treat for the children is in the wide variety of homemade candy that families make at this time of year.

"There are no Christmas trees in Amish homes, they don't have Christmas trees, and they're not decorating their homes for Christmas. There's a reason for Christmas, and that I think is paramount for the Amish. And the celebration is really about getting together, being with family, visiting friends, eating a good meal, and having candy."

Johnson-Weiner says Amish parents "aren't going to go into debt buying the latest toys for their children….If a gift is being given it'll be made, usually, there'll be gifts for the schoolteacher, little gifts for the schoolteacher. In higher groups of Amish there may be store-bought gifts, but again, they'll be reasonable gifts, they'll be useful gifts, books, or gloves or new scarves, or some nice lotion. Things like that, that will make sense, that will be about making someone happy, not about buying the most stuff."

People all over the world celebrate Epiphany in various ways, but it's not widely celebrated in the United States. Johnson-Weiner says it's likely that the value the Amish place on tradition is a big part of the reason many Amish groups still celebrate the holiday. "It was always there, and I think that's why you probably see it in some of the more traditional Amish groups, because they're less likely to have changed some of the traditions."

Johnson-Weiner herself will be in Washington, D.C., this year for Old Christmas, but she says her daughter has already claimed much of the Amish candy she'll be bringing, "so we'll be taking Old Christmas down to her."

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