January 1, 2010

Legends of “Old Christmas”

Category: News — Ira @ 4:47 pm

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“Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.”

—William Shakespeare: Hamlet
__________________________

The date never had any particular significance when we lived in Aylmer. It was a cold winter day, just like any other. The Aylmer Amish, mostly Daviess County stock, simply weren’t tuned in to the old Swiss-German lore that had been passed down through hundreds of years and many generations. Either that, or they just didn’t care.

But it wasn’t long after we moved to Bloomfield until we heard the murmurings. I was fifteen years old, and for the first time in my life, I learned that January 6 was Old Christmas. The day when folks celebrated Christmas before the Gregorian Calendar was adopted, way back when.

Old Christmas was a holy day. A somber day. And, I would learn, a day of unspoken fear pulsing from the dense fog of a dark and shadowy underworld. It was utterly devoid of all the festivities and good cheer of Dec. 25. All members of the church were required to fast that morning. And not work much that day, besides the necessary barnyard chores. But most of all, no one, but no one, was expected to be out and about that night. We were sternly warned to stay close to home. And stay inside.

People whispered furtively of that day with dread and foreboding. And the details trickled out, details preserved from some deep collective cultural memory of lurking malevolent evil, retold and passed down from generation to generation not by written history, but solely by word of mouth.

On January 6, Old Christmas night, the spirits were out. Evil spirits. Unleashed upon the land. Halloween was child’s play, compared to this. And on that night, and only on that night, one had better not lower his guard, or one might see and hear unspeakable things.

Even then, for the first year or so, I remained blithe and pretty much uninformed. I could feel a vague sense of uneasiness about Old Christmas, but most were reluctant to talk about it much.

And then one Sunday, as Old Christmas approached, a young Bloomfield preacher took it upon himself to teach specific details on what supposedly came down on that night. As a warning. A wiry nervous spindle of a young man, he stood and earnestly spoke of things, some of which I had never heard before.

These were powers from the darkness. And without faith, they would remain dormant. But on that night, at midnight, according to the young preacher, there were several evils that might be unleashed.

He stood there, tense and nervous, wringing his hands. Stammered and stuttered and cleared his throat incessantly. Some might feel these things should not be spoken of, he hemmed. So as not to tempt any young people out there to go and try this stuff. But he would share it as a warning, as he believed these things had actually happened in the past. And they were real.

He needn’t have worried about me. I wasn’t about to go in search of any spirits. I sat there, mesmerized, and absorbed this new dark knowledge.

The words tripped out in short chopped phrases, interspersed with warning after dire warning.

At midnight, if you ventured out to the water pump on your well, stooped down and listened, you would hear a voice. Emerging from the depths. The voice would speak to you, tell you of things to come. You would be as God and know the future.

At midnight, if you walked backward down the stairwell in your house, holding a mirror positioned so you could look over your left shoulder, you would see the one you would marry in the future. Assuming you were single, of course.

At midnight, if you went out to the barn, the cows and horses would speak to you in human tongue, in human voices.

And finally, if you slipped a comb under your bed before you went to sleep on Old Christmas night, you would wake up at midnight and see the devil.

You had to believe these things would happen. And expect them to happen. And act on your faith. That’s what the preacher said. After more dramatic warnings of how one should never try these things at home on that night, never tempt evil to unveil itself, the preacher meandered off on another subject. I sat there, fascinated and appalled.

As the years have passed, my thoughts have returned now and again to the strange things I heard that day. I’ve pondered them in my heart. Wondered if there was really any substance to the tales. The rational mind rejects such things as old wives’ fables. Old Amish fables. Superstitious folly, based on fear and ignorance.

But I don’t know. I didn’t then. And I don’t now.

The stories had to come from somewhere. Such tales are not woven from the air, out of nothing. At some point in the distant past, someone had to experience the events the preacher described.

Someone had to listen at a well at midnight. Someone backed down the stairs, peering over his left shoulder through a mirror. Someone went to the barn at midnight and heard something strange. And someone placed a comb under the bed and awoke at midnight to see something so evil that it could not be described.

Someone with faith in dark things.

Someone. Somewhere. Sometime.

But through the years, I have never met a single person, anywhere, who claimed to have experienced first-hand even one of those events.

I’ve met people who claimed to know someone who had. Always second-hand hear-say. Once I heard my sisters speak of some girl in northern Indiana who supposedly had backed down the stairs, holding a mirror to reflect over her left shoulder. She saw flames of fire. And the cousin of some of my friends placed a comb under his bed one Old Christmas night. He claimed to have awakened at midnight and seen the devil at the foot of his bed.

It might be just an Amish thing. It’s part of their identity. They’ve preserved the old customs in more ways than one. Somehow, they cling to old sayings. As mainstream culture did before the advent of modern media.

The Amish are steeped in the strange and supernatural. Ancient wisdom from dubious sources. Signs and wonders. Some have visions. Some have seen angels in the skies.

Each community has its own dark sayings. Its own legends. Its own beliefs. The more plain and conservative the church, the more steeped in superstitious fear.

In Daviess County, the land of my fathers, they know nothing of Old Christmas. But the old people there have an ancient saying. If it rains into an open grave, there will be an unexpected death in the community within two weeks.

In 1989, I attended my grandfather John Yoder’s funeral in Daviess. In early January. On the day of his funeral, the clouds swept in and rain poured into the open grave. An old woman, a bent and wrinkled old crone, dramatically proclaimed the dark saying, almost like a curse. She had seen it all before. She spoke with resigned confidence born from generations of knowledge and experience.

Within two weeks, a local Amish man in his thirties, with no history of health problems, collapsed and keeled over dead. Heart attack or stroke or some such thing. The Daviess people murmured quietly. They knew well the real reason for the young man’s death.

The dark sayings seem to fulfill themselves. And perpetuate themselves to the next generation of young people who see and believe.

Growing up, we heard many strange and terrible tales from traveling preachers from other communities over the years. Usually from the larger settlements. Northern Indiana and Holmes and Arthur, Illinois for some reason come to mind. Probably because their preachers told the wildest stories.

Stories of beer joints and demons lurking overhead, visible only to Amish eyes. Of a tombstone in one Amish country graveyard that has been seen to burn eerily at night with unearthly fire. Of the two fire-singed men who showed up at the wake of a rebellious young Amish girl who had lived a wicked life in Arthur, Illinois. Two smoke-blackened men who walked in unannounced and uninvited, viewed the corpse, looked at each other, and nodded. Then disappeared without a word into the night and back to hell, from whence they had emerged to claim their own.

Stories of the devil and all his works.

Stories specifically and conveniently designed to frighten into submission any young person who might rebel or harbor heretical thoughts of leaving the fold of the Amish church. That’s the bottom line. It always was. It always will be. To hold the youth at any cost. By any method necessary, including raw irrational fear.

It’s the only way the Amish culture can or will survive. That, and harshly shunning those who do leave as a warning to those who would like to.

The stories are what they are. And the tales about evil spirits on Old Christmas night. Told and retold from one generation to the next. Oral renditions of dark memories and dark practices, some of which likely predate the dawn of our cultural past. Remnants of which survive and even prosper today, in both memory and practice.

I believed it all for many years. If you heard it from a preacher in a sermon, it was as unquestioned as the gospel. Today, I’m pretty much an agnostic as to whether the stories and legends are actually based in truth. Could be they are. Could be they’re not. They are real enough, I know, to those who believe.

But once implanted, some old habits, some old customs are almost impossible to let go. Even for those who have otherwise shed the last vestiges of the Amish lifestyle.

Old Christmas. January 6. Even today, I’m always quietly aware, quietly alert as the date approaches. Not out of fear, but from a deep sense of respect for my cultural heritage. And deep respect for what I was taught in the days of my youth.

On Old Christmas night, you won’t catch me wandering around outside.

Especially not at midnight.

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(33 Comments) »

  1. I’ve heard fragments of all these stories over the years. Somehow I was spared the darkness of old Christmas. To me old Christmas was a day off work; a day to get together with friends and play hockey or monopoly. Now that I think of it, everybody always went home before dark. I’ve also heard bad things will happen if it thunders on a leafless tree, if somebody walks through the house with a pitchfork; and something about an upside down loaf of homemade bread.

    Once on Halloween night in Arthur, some friends and I were driving around and someone absent-mindedly suggested checking out the glowing tombstone. We all decided it’s probably not true, but we won’t tempt the devil.

    Wow, this post commands attention. Not that I ever do, but I certainly didn’t skim or power-read this one.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — January 1, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

  2. Another one; Hang out laundry between Christmas and New Years, and expect a funeral soon. Do field work on Ascension day and expect a failed crop. I’m sure there are more..

    Comment by Eli Stutzman — January 1, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  3. I haven’t thought of Old Christmas in many years…In the eighties I lived in Fla. At 19 yrs old I went to an ex-Amish friend’s house for supper on Jan. 6th. As we were leaving prior to midnight the friend gleefully launched into a long rambling history of this dark, cursed nite..Included was a story of the Devil sitting in the back seat of ex-Amish youths’ cars.. Terrified beyond words, my roommate & I headed home in our beat-up blue Dodge Dart..On the 3 mi. journey, we never looked into the back seat or used the mirrors…

    There was an unspoken agreement that even if we had 4 flat tires we would continue home on the rims rather than stopping…We survived…Looking back now that event seems beyond ridiculous but that nite I felt real “Amish” terror…great blog, Ira.

    Comment by Nate Wagler — January 1, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  4. Ouch, I almost feel very sorry for those people who allowed themselves to believe such stuff! Mind you, I do believe that “spirits” exist, by faith and “real-life” (thanks to brain bleeding). Where are their love & faith? Where God is where there’s no fear. Yeah, I know… I still refuse to go visit a certain old Indian cemetary alone!!

    Comment by Jean H — January 1, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  5. Your post illustrates another difference between OO Amish and OO Mennonites, the church of my birth. People outside those cultures often lump the two together because they both drive horse and buggies and dress plain, but in some ways they are totally different cultures.

    Comment by Ava S — January 1, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

  6. Reading this made me feel very sad for the culture of FEAR and DARKNESS. Yes, there is darkness and evil spirits, but as Christians, we do not need to live in fear and terror–we have the Power of God behind and around and over us as our Protection and Shield. No need to fear like that.

    Comment by happymom4 AKA Hope Anne — January 1, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

  7. Right or wrong, I witnessed an egg standing on end at midnight of old Christmas night! It was not an illusion, it was the real McCoy.

    Comment by Andrew — January 2, 2010 @ 1:52 am

  8. Wow! That is an approach to Epiphany/Old Christmas I have never encountered. Throughout the history of the Church January six was celebrated as the day of Christ’s baptism and the revelation of the Trinity in that Gospel account. In spite of having parents who grew up Amish, and many relatives who still are Amish, this is a new one for me. Very enlightening.

    Comment by Leon — January 2, 2010 @ 8:02 am

  9. Wow- never heard a lot of this before. My OO grandma, though, believes some wild stuff. Just never heard that any of it was associated with Old Christmas.

    Comment by Ann — January 2, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  10. Local tradition here in Jamesport has the “evil night” on Old Christmas eve (the night before). Also, if midnight is a big deal, how do the evil spirits deal with time zones? Do they start on the east coast and work their way west? It seems if someone invites the spirits in, they will come, no matter which day it is or what time it is.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — January 2, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

  11. Fear and torment as a way to control.

    After reading the blog last night I asked Elizabeth: are the doors locked?

    Many memories came flooding back. Fear of the occult, power of darkness, fire from graves, spirits groaning in the hay loft, nooses hanging from rafters, stories, tales and threats of terror to demonize any young person …… harsh severe judgement on sin, no hope….a way of life.

    I am thankful today that love is stronger than evil ….. and there is one (Jesus) that delights in us coming to him with all our terrors ….

    1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” Thanks be to Jesus who is LOVE.

    Thanks for the excellent blog.

    Comment by Ivan Gascho — January 2, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

  12. Creepy! But the Bible teaches very clearly that these things exist, all kinds of evil happens when people are so bound by the spirit of fear.

    These preceding paragraphs are so true. It is my testimony of growing up Amish.

    Comment by Amy — January 2, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

  13. Sorry, the copy function did not cooperate. I was referring to the paragraph where you state that stories such as these, quote…. are specifically and conveniently designed to frighten into submission any young person who might rebel or harbor heretical thoughts of leaving the fold of the Amish Church…

    Comment by Amy — January 2, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  14. You didn’t mention the one where you put out a pan of water and if it freezes there will be the initials of the person you will marry, frozen in the ice. You needed to check it at midnight! Two sisters did that, and one had initials in her ice and the other had a grave stone. Of course the story goes, she died some time later.

    Comment by Rachel Hochstetler — January 4, 2010 @ 7:14 am

  15. I am shocked by the story pertaining to Old Christmas and I would like to inform your readers that the Lancaster County Amish do not celebrate or even know about Old Christmas. I only recently found out that there are Amish settlements that do so. Also I am told that this day is more important to them then the Dec 25 Christmas day. Am I safe to assume that they also are involved in this way? It sounds to me like they are playing with fire and are involved with spirits that are not compatible with the Christian faith!

    Comment by Humdinger — January 4, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  16. In response to the above comment, The Lancaster Amish do observe and know about old Christmas. I live in heart of Lancaster Amish Country and while I am not Amish myself I work with and have plenty other connections to them. Though I will say that I have never heard them connect any of these superstitious beliefs or encounters with Old Christmas. Actually most of time when they are asked about why they observe Old Christmas, the typical response is that they are not sure what all the reasons are other than it is a day to take off work, Usually fasting and later in the visiting friends and family.

    Comment by Amy — January 4, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

  17. I have lived in Lanc Co. all my life and maybe you know more about the Amish than I do. I would like to talk to you about this subject sometime. Contact Ira for more info.

    Comment by Humdinger — January 5, 2010 @ 6:36 am

  18. After a lot of thought I have come to the conclusion that some people are getting 2nd Christmas (Dec 26) mixed up with old Christmas. 2nd Christmas traditionly is set aside for visiting family or to be with friends.

    Comment by Humdinger — January 5, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

  19. Growing up and living in the Northern IN Amish community, I don’t know of any that are taught the “creepy’ legends that you spoke of. I know that they do, however, celebrate Old Christmas and take a day off work. I spoke to several Amish and ex-Amish co-workers about Old Christmas, and what the day is for. One late-thirties ex-Amish guy said he hasn’t got a clue! But a forty-something lady (ex-Amish) and an early-twenties girl (still Amish) both agreed that it was a Christian holiday. Celebrating either when the Wise Men came to see Jesus, or the actual day of Jesus’ birth. The younger one had never heard such stories. The older one remembered hearing some strange story about Old Christmas when she was a young girl, but even back then it was told as a joke, and not anything to be taken seriously. Granted, these have all grown up in more “progressive” districts. I don’t know what some of the very strict districts teach.

    Interesting post, Ira, but I am saddened that there may be (and probably are) Amish that live their lives in fear and superstition.

    Comment by Mary — January 5, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

  20. These stories werent “taught” as a part of their belief, it was more of a legend that you didnt want to mess with. Our teaching about Old Christmas was that it was “likely” the correct day Jesus was born.

    Comment by Rachel Hochstetler — January 6, 2010 @ 10:46 am

  21. In response to #18, I reread all the comments and find no reason to believe anyone is getting their dates confused.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — January 6, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

  22. In reponse to # 21 I indicated they got their dates confused concerning the Lanc Co amish only, as they have 2nd Christmas as a visiting day. The outsiders see they have 2 days off for Christmas so they assume the 2nd day must be old Christmas.

    Comment by Humdinger — January 6, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

  23. I was at an Amish home in Holmes Co. last night (Alt Grischdaag) for a singing and eats. About 9PM I joked that I needed to get home to hear what the animals in the barn had to say. Everyone my age and older smiled a knowing smile (everyone of them had gone out to the barn at midnight at some point in their youth to see if the animals talk). All the 20-somethings and younger had a confused look on their face. The old fogies had to explain the legend that animals talk at midnight on Old Christmas. It was explained as though it was a dumb belief (which it is- even though I went out to the barn one Old Christmas at midnight) and everyone chuckled.

    When I was young Jan 6 was the day my Amish friends got presents. Dec 25 wasn’t a big deal. Today the two days seem to be about equal in importance among the Wayne/Holmes Co. Amish. Yesterday not much business took place in Eastern Holmes Co. Restaurants, lumber yards, some banks, etc were closed.

    I mentioned the holiday on Facebook and got details from all over the world of how Jan 6, “Epiphany” or “Kings Day” “Drei Koenige Tag” or “El Dia de los Tres Reyes” is celebrated in Switzerland, in Mexico and in Costa Rica and other places. It’s a big deal.

    One more thing: when Humdinger speaks, you’d better listen!

    Comment by John Schmid — January 7, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  24. I’m teaching English in Austria, and my mom Sue pointed out that the belief in evil spirits being out this night has similarities to the tradition of the Glöcklerlauf that I got to observe on January 5th, the night before “Old Christmas.” Incidentally, Orthodox Christians still celebrate Christmas in January, on the 7th right now I believe.

    Anyway, in the Salzkammergut in the northwestern Alps, in the towns of Ebensee, Gmunden, Bad Ischl, and a few others, January 5th is the Glöcklerlauf. Men from the community build paper lanterns in many different shapes and colors that they carry on their heads. The lanterns often have colorful pictures that are lit by the candle inside, or are in the shape of stars. The men also wear very loud cow bells on their belts.

    The combination of the lights of the lanterns and clanging of the bells is supposed to drive away evil spirits, as I heard a father explaining to his little boy, “Sie vertreiben die bösen Geister.” Years ago, Austrians believed this night was an especially dangerous night, much as the Amish did. Today, its just a really beautiful tradition.

    Comment by Jadon Nisly — January 8, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  25. Humdinger is correct in saying Lancaster Co. Amish do not observe “old Christmas” on Jan 6. I grew up in an OO Amish home in LC, and never heard of old Christmas until my husband’s brother married a girl from Ohio and she told me about the Ohio Amish tradition of having a holiday on that date. She didn’t tell me about all the stories that go along with the tradition.

    Lancaster Amish do have 2nd Christmas on Dec 26, which simply is a day to have family gatherings.

    Comment by Sonny56 — January 11, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  26. Quite an interesting blog, I must say. And to those who doubt, some of these traditions are carried out as we speak. Very recently I heard of a young man planning to leave the Amish church, but his parents were hard set against it. It went on quite some time, finally his mother saw(????) or dreamed she saw black figures outside his bedroom door in the dead of the night, presumably spirits. So the young man has now given up joining another church. Who will be held accountable on the day of judgment for such “sightings?”

    Comment by Rachel — January 11, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

  27. I live in Bloomfield Ia the same community which you must be talking about, to this day I have never heard such a wild story you just wrote. I think sombody has got their wires seriously crossed.

    Comment by D J — January 12, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  28. Dear Ira, greetings from Berlin, Germany. You got already 27 comments on “old Christmas”, and here comes another one.

    I also do have rural roots, both parents grew up at dairy farms. I was brought up as a secular Lutheran, the mainstream denomination in my family. In your recent blog and comments I was very much surprised to find some superstitious things, by which I was scared as a child.

    That’s why I don’t think that these kind of sayings are an exclusive Amish invention to keep teenagers close to the faith. Could it be that they express(ed) the nameless fears of rural and less literate individuals, who know that living and dying, seeding and harvesting are not completely in human hands? Maybe a lot of the old sayings will vanish but not the fear behind them, only today teenagers have to watch horror dvds to experience these deep feelings.

    With my best wishes for 2010.

    Gisa

    Comment by Gisa — January 14, 2010 @ 7:06 am

  29. Thank you for saving and publishing these. These are the words, whether they be superstiton, folklore, warnings or just the ravings of an old crone. They are the underlying beliefs that formed the kinships of our clans.
    Thank You

    Comment by Randy Causey — January 7, 2011 @ 12:25 am

  30. Braucha was not allowed in our communities. Nor was this stuff. Thanks for sharing this. I did hear of this more with the Swartzentrubers.

    Comment by A B Liver — January 6, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

  31. P.S. Sorry that you had such fear based ministers.Peace to you, Ira

    Comment by A B Liever — January 6, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

  32. I never knew it came from the amish i grew up in north carolina and i was told by my granny that on old christmas they sat around the table and it was set for dinner and open your front door and back door and wait for midnight and she said you will find out who the next person in your family is to die the spitits will enter your front door and leave through the back and also if you had a mirror you will see your husband to be. so yeah old christmas gives me the creeps still to this day i always try to be asleep before midnight

    Comment by bf — November 2, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

  33. Some of these legends are absolutely true! But a tweak is in order for those that are. If you want to know who you’re going to marry in the future a mirror and stairs are not needed. Simply walk into the room where your parents are and presto! you will marry someone just like them. (Unless, of course, there’s divine intervention. Whew!) No need to put a comb under your bed to see the Devil. Go to any neighborhood where pimps, prostitutes and drug addicts hang out. The Devil has each of these poor souls on his leash. If you want to know what the end times will be like, read Revelation.
    If you believe in God, you believe in a spiritual world. These spooky, strange and sinister things happen every day.

    Comment by Francine — January 19, 2013 @ 1:14 am

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