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Amish Christmas plain and faithful

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LANCASTER, Pa. -- In a red barn behind a brick house on Strasburg Pike there sits a spanking new buggy. Christmas came early for Moses Junior.

At 16, he got his first carriage, a hand-me-down that rattled and needed a new set of wheels. For two years, he rode this rolling countryside of dairy farms and cornfields in that buggy. But now, with a girl to court, Moses Junior wanted a new carriage. Not the traditional courting buggy, a two-seater open for all to see. But a closed carriage with a 20th-century spin: a hand-crank windshield wiper and a speedometer.

"His dad said OK. . . . That'll be his Christmas present," Moses' mother explains, as she sits in the big kitchen at the back of the brick house. "So he's not looking for anything else. We spent so much."

But Moses Junior won't be forgotten Christmas morning.

"I got him an alarm clock," says his mother, Barbara, who, in the custom of the "plain people" of the Old Order Amish eschews automobiles, electrical appliances and other modern conveniences and shudders at the thought of her name appearing in a newspaper. "I [didn't] want him to wake up Christmas morning and not get anything."

In this, the oldest Amish settlement in the country, families with names like Stoltzfoos, Lapp and Fisher will gather tomorrow at their modest homes to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Theirs is a celebration as simple as a manger scene. Absent are the garish lights and mistletoe, the Christmas trees (fresh-cut or fake, they are to the Amish a vestige of pagan idolatry), the visages of Santa that decorate shopping malls, storefronts and living room mantels from Los Angeles to Lancaster.

And while presents -- be it a new lunch pail to take to a one-room schoolhouse or a battery-operated, computerized chess game to ponder between chores -- are exchanged, the true gift for the Amish this holiday season is the son of God.

"We try to keep to the real meaning of Christmas," says Naomi, Moses Junior's 20-year-old sister, who wears the traditional Amish dress -- a shift the color of lavender and black pinafore -- and small white prayer cap on her chestnut hair.

Theirs is a humble life governed by the word of God. "Be not conformed to the world," the Bible says, and earthly trappings are disavowed. Photographs or publicity can lead to a swelled head. The needs of the community supersede those of the individual. And yet, there are degrees of conformity.

So too during the Christmas season, as families come together to sing hymns, whether in English or the High German of their ancestors who fled religious persecution in Germany, Switzerland and Alsace and arrived here in the 1700s.

For some, Christmas Day will be a prelude to the real celebration, a dinner during the Christmas season that gathers all of the family around the same table. In homes where a dozen children were raised and the family tree has branched out thick as a maple, finding a day on which everyone -- children, spouses and grandchildren -- can meet for dinner might take a week or two.

For others, tomorrow will be a smaller family affair now that the big dinner is over.

Amish-Mennonites Katie and Menno Fisher celebrated their Christmas last Sunday. Gathered around a table 18 feet long were the couple's five children and their spouses and nine grandchildren, from 13-year-old Crystal to 3-month-old Karmen.

"That's one thing that we all like to do, sit down at the table," said Mrs. Fisher, whose church, a more progressive sect that broke from the Old Order Amish in 1925, tolerates the use of telephones, electrical appliances and other conveniences.

"It's getting to the point where we're going to have to do something [to accommodate everyone]. I can't put all the boards in the dining room table I have now," she said.

They sang "Silent Night" and "Hark the Herald Angels." They read the Christmas story according to Luke and feasted on roast turkey with bread "filling," mashed potatoes, dried corn, coleslaw, carrot cake and caramel pudding.

With the dishes cleared, out came the presents. Like their more conservative brethren, Amish-Mennonites do not have a Christmas tree. At the Fishers' -- Mommy and Dawdy, to their grandchildren -- the gift-giving begins with the youngest child.

"With 20 people, there's no way we can buy for everybody. So we pick a name," said Mrs. Fisher, 53. "I always like to involve the little children. If you don't start when they're little, they won't know what Christmas is all about. They need to know why we give gifts because Christ gave his life to us."

A son-in-law received a battery charger; the matriarch of the family a green sweater and cologne. Raised in an Old Order Amish home, Mrs. Fisher remembers the homespun treats that awaited her 13 brothers and sisters on Christmas morning -- a plate with an orange, apple or hard candy, a doll, a game of checkers, Old Maid cards perhaps.

"My, how we played that day with that one little thing we got," added her widowed sister, Ada Fisher, 67, who wears the white prayer cap but lives in a suburban rancher decorated with evergreens, poinsettia and a ceramic Christmas tree she made.

In the countryside beyond Lancaster, a way of life remembered by the Fisher sisters is more than a Christmas memory.

December has hardened the ground there, and the limestone fields, so plush and green in spring, have given way to the stubble of autumn's corn. Tobacco stems lie bundled by the side the road, while a windmill spins lazily in the chill wind.

The indigo and purple dresses of Amish women and the high-waisted black pants of their men flap like flags on backyard clothes lines. In the wood shops, toymakers use air-driven power tools to make dollhouses, hobby horses and trains while the women sell quilts stitched by hand from a room off the kitchen.

But even here, in this placid patch of rural life, the modern world creeps in.

The toymakers and quilters have business cards and brochures to sell their wares by mail. New homes sport satellite dishes -- indicating that Mennonites, the least conservative of the sects of Anabaptist origin, live there -- or non-Amish.

Even an Old Order Amish family like Moses Junior's will rent a van and hire a driver to make the many-mile trip to visit relatives. (The family moved from a farm to suburban Strasburg Pike more than a decade ago when the father, Moses Senior, decided carpentry proved more profitable to provide for his family.)

Sister Naomi presses her prayer cap with an old hand iron, but uses a few squirts from an aerosol can of spray starch. She uses snaps -- instead of straight pins -- to fasten her dress. Mother Barbara makes chocolate Santas and other Christmas candy in the light of a gas lamp but hops a ride in a neighbor's car to buy candy boxes so she can sell her wares. At Christmas, the boys in this family "want what's out there in the world," says the mother. Baseball cards, trucks, electronic games.

And yet the spirit of Christmas past still holds true.

"We celebrate Christmas as the day Jesus is born. We keep it as a religious holiday," she says. "Otherwise you'll get too carried away. We feel the kids will just look for gifts and forget about Baby Jesus."

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