For most Americans, Amish means a tourist destination in Lancaster County, PA. Quaint people with quaint customs, at whom you may gawk, as long as you do not photograph them.
If you live about two hours WNW of Lancaster, in Centre County, the Amish are local famers, neighbors, and – if you are lucky – friends. My wife and I managed to become the last. The immediate benefit is an understanding of what it means to be Amish.
These are deeply religious people, who live their faith. They dedicate their lives to their god, their families, and their communities. The community church is the centerpiece of their lives and the bishop is there to guide them. They are primarily farmers. However, some perform millwork, furniture making, and construction within the community. Others may work in shops run by the English – the Amish word for Americans outside their society.
Amish daily life varies among different communities. Some reject almost everything from the modern world. Others have found a comfortable accommodation with piped in natural gas for cooking and a community telephone, for limited purposes. This includes arranging for transportation, when travel by horse and buggy is impractical: they may ride as passengers, but may not operate a motor vehicle.
Our friendship with one family began at our local farmers’ market. Rather than rush through our weekly Friday shopping, Theresa would routinely stop, chat, and especially notice how their children – who were frequently present, when we first met decades ago – were growing. Then, after more years, how they in turn had their children in tow.
Visits to the farm of the head of the family – particularly, Theresa’s annual visit to participate in picking and shelling peas followed. Subsequent offers of assistance with travel solidified our friendship: first for health services, (our local families accept modern medicine), and then for shopping for items not available locally.
A year ago, this included an invitation to a daughter’s wedding. This is a true privilege and honor, linked to friendship. It was a beautifully unique experience, and as distinct in its customs as the simple Baptist wedding ceremony and reception that we attended in Kansas and the ultra-orthodox Jewish celebration in Pennsylvania.
The Amish plan weddings for October and November, after the harvest and before poor weather make travel difficult. These are community – i.e., the members of the local church – events: the posting of the banns (the announcement of the intent to marry) serves as the invitation to the community. Word spreads to the extended family. Only the few English – non-Amish outsiders – receive personal invitations.
By convention, weddings take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the home of the bride’s parents. This is a practical consideration. All organization is communal. Sundays are the day of rest. It takes at least a full day to finish food preparation and final set up.
In this case, it also involved putting up a temporary building that seated 400, with attached kitchen. It then takes a day to finalize everything for the next wedding. Friday is clean up. Saturday is preparation for the Sabbath.
The families of the bride- and groom-to-be invited 10 of we English to a celebration that, over the course of 16 hours saw – by my estimate – 600 attendees. (People, especially men, came and went during the course of the day, as all had farms and businesses to keep running.)
Amish religious services have an indeterminate length. The center of the service is the bishop’s sermon, which he delivers spontaneously and lasts until he decides that he has said what he intended to say. For weddings, the additional prayers, etc., follow the sermon. The language of the entire service is the local German dialect.
Because congregants come and go during services, our hosts suggested that we could arrive near the end of service, as none of us spoke German and were of various faiths. As it happened, the sermon ran long, by about an hour.
The order of the service was less alien than I anticipated, as it has several superficial characteristics of Jewish services in the Orthodox tradition. Men and women sit separately, facing each other across a center aisle. The wedding party stood out, as the only exception to this, in the middle two rows.
The men all wore black, with white shirts and they almost universally had beards. The women dressed very modestly, with head coverings. There was much standing, chanting, and responsive prayers in a language other than English.
However, there were differences. The men were bareheaded. The scripture was decidedly Christian, except for the actual section that was the wedding. I could pick out enough Hebrew Testament names to know that the bishop was discussing Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah and Rachel.
There was also frequent kneeling. Even this infrequently observant member of the Hebrew faith will not take a knee as part of a religious ceremony. It is a testimony to Amish dedication to hospitality that no one gave us a second glance during the service or made a comment afterward. It was a rare reminder of what it truly means to be the other.
The end of the service marked a clear shift from the formal and restrained to the relaxed and celebratory.
Everyone moved outdoors. The young broke into groups to socialize or play volleyball and other games. Those adults close to the families of the bride and groom gathered to chat in the bride’s family home, one well designed to hosting large groups. (The Amish rotate their biweekly Sabbath services among the homes of member families. Hosting 80-100 guests is not a challenge.)
Meanwhile, in the temporary structure, congregant chairs moved to stacks along the walls. Tables appeared. Places were set. Bowls of food appeared, as dining is both communal and family style.
Of necessity, dining was in shifts, with dozens of women of all ages assuring that all went smoothly. However, weeks of preparation assured that no one lost an opportunity to taste everything.
Plain food does not mean poor food. Turkey and pork, potatoes, bread, all varieties of pickled vegetables, tureens of celery soup, water, and cider left everyone full. No alcohol, of course.
Lunch required three shifts. Honored guests, including all the English went first. Then the majority of other adults, with their younger children took over.
Finally, the unmarried teens came in – alternating male/female, but with the requirement that none already knew the person on either side very well. Wedding season for the Amish is also the time to begin courtships.
Note: despite all the structure in Amish daily life, the religion and culture values free will and individual choice. This starts with the basic tenet of Anabaptist sects: the commitment to god must be a free, adult choice. Therefore, while setting boundaries on the interaction among the unmarried males and females, they do not arrange marriages. If you are not interested in pursuing a courtship with your tablemates, there are two other meals that day and other weddings that season and in future years.
After lunch, the adults return to the house. The younger children resume play. The teens remain in the dining hall, put chairs in the center, and spend time singing hymns of their choosing, sometimes polyphonically.
The 4 PM light meal was more casual, as some guests had left. Some tables again held teens alternating by gender, although some shuffling of places was apparent.
We stayed through the start of the evening meal, where the newlyweds occupied a place of honor and near the wedding cake. Seating was by families, with special provisions for we English, near – but not part of the wedding party.
Many seemed prepared to continue the social part of the day well past our departure, around dark. Certainly, a good time was had by all.
The Amish believe that their adult images violate their religious believes. With permission, you may photograph young children. However, on this important day, and as honored outsiders, I avoided using my phone’s camera around any guests. I did take a few photos, to give a feel for the setting: the parking lot; a view of the farming valley; and a willing non-human subject.