Christmas is a time of celebration, feasting and gift-giving throughout the world. And while most people celebrate it on December 25, the Amish communities also celebrate on January 6, or Old Christmas. It’s always exactly twelve days after Christmas was the traditional date of the Three Wise Men coming to Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus.
In the Middle Ages, “Old” Christmas the culmination of twelve days of feasting. This is where we get the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” December 25 began the feast, which also coincided with the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. But in 1582, the Julian calendar (based on the phases of the moon) was discarded in favor of the Gregorian calendar by Pope Gregory XIII. After that, throughout Catholic Europe Christmas Day was to be celebrated on December 25. But Protestant groups, including the Anabaptist ancestors of the Amish, dissented from these calendar modifications and kept to the Julian calendar, having their celebrations on January 6.
The Amish have kept this tradition of Old Christmas, even while later adopting the celebration on December 25. But their traditions may not be the same as mainstream America. In some of the more liberal Amish orders, members may decorate their homes and give gifts, while other orders may keep to more simple traditions. Old Christmas, however, is regarded as the more religious of the two holidays and members will fast until noon, then have a big meal later in the day. This is a time for families to get together. You will find that Amish-owned businesses are closed on January 6 as well as businesses that are staffed by Amish.
With all the hoopla and commercialism in the Christmas season, there is a movement among some Amish to reject the December 25 holiday entirely. In a recent article by Jennifer Ditlevson in the Holmes County Shopper newspaper, she interviewed Chris Miller of the Mennonite Information Center in Berlin. As a member of the Old Order Amish, Chris states that “The younger generation is more for education and reading and the older ones are more traditional, doing things because that’s the way they’ve always been done. But it’s not going to take long for Amish not to celebrate Christmas on the twenty-fifth.”
It’s a fascinating thought that an ancient Christmas tradition that began as early as 354 AD could still be so important in 2010. So, when you look at the calendar on January 6 and see the holiday marked “Epiphany”, you’ll know that all around Holmes County, there are families who are celebrating the holiday as a holy and festive day.