An Amish Schoolhouse Christmas, part 1

Once upon a time, I was a teacher in a most unusual setting. I taught in a little one room schoolhouse without electricity or running water. (Nope, I’m not 120 years old, either.) While not a member of the community, I was the schoolteacher in an Old Order Amish settlement.

The settlement was a new one and very small at the time. It was made up of young, growing families with no one free to take over the school responsibilities. So in an unprecedented move, they looked outside their community, asked around, and offered the job to me, an English (i.e., non-Amish) 20-something. Who could turn down an opportunity like that? Well, apparently, a lot of people could. Not everyone would enjoy spending 8 hours a day in a different culture, teaching children in 8 different grades, and all without modern technology or conveniences. But I couldn’t pass up the chance and that was lucky for me.

People have asked me what it was like. Think Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books, except that for me, it was an entirely different culture, including the language. It was an incredible experience and the stories could probably fill a book.

card with a handmade ornament, made for me by Elizabeth, a 5th grader

One of the highlights of the school year was the annual Christmas program. Around Thanksgiving I chose and passed out the recitation parts to all my scholars. The older children were given long Christmas poems, with an impressive number of stanzas to memorize. For the youngest scholars, I chose shorter pieces from my book of Amish school poems and “pieces.” Besides their own pieces, a few would share a poem, each taking a stanza or two. I also picked out several Christmas carols for us to practice. The children would memorize the poems on their own at home and as Christmas drew closer, we practiced our songs and took turns reciting for a few minutes before the end of every school day.

handmade cards

The Christmas program also included gift-giving. We drew names in early December, with each child drawing the name of a classmate or that one slip that simply said, “Teacher.” Oh, the pressure on the child who drew Teacher’s name, and how envied the child whose name I drew! Besides a special gift for the student whose name I drew, I also bought a small gift for each of my students.

Christmas break in Amish circles is typically short, usually only taking Christmas Day off. So the program was scheduled for Christmas Eve. Children are children the world over and Christmas brings out the squirreliness in all of them, Amish included. We did our usual morning routine and I followed it with a few simpler lessons, in hopes of giving the restlessness an outlet. After a quick lunch, it was time to get ready for our company. We had to clean the schoolhouse, make sure all the Christmas artwork was hung, and do one last practice of the program….

Spending Money to Save Money

I can’t resist reading all the “how to save money at Christmas” articles online during the holidays. Frugal gifts, inexpensive meals and treats, DIY decorations–all the suggestions are interesting. Keeping things simple seem to be the overall theme.

But I’d like to suggest that spending less and taking a minimal approach during the Christmas season isn’t always the best long range strategy. Instead of saving money during the holidays, I often spend more than I usually do. Way more, actually. I’m flinging money around at a madcap pace.

Me on a recent spending spree

As a new housewife, I was happy to find butter and chocolate chips on sale and appreciate my one-time bargain. It meant that my holiday baking would be cheaper.  But then one year it clicked that I should take advantage of all these bargains. Instead of buying just the butter I need for the week plus an extra few pounds for my Christmas baking, I should buy enough butter to store it in the freezer so I won’t have to buy any for months. And as for chocolate chips, why not buy enough to last most of the year while they’re almost half the price? It was a light bulb moment for my dimly lit self. It’s not as if those bags of powdered sugar are going to spoil (ever). Things like sour cream and cream cheese won’t last forever, but they’ll be good until the expiration date, assuming I have enough refrigerator space to store them.

I also like to buy gift cards at local businesses that offer a bonus. One restaurant last year included a free meal with a gift card purchase. Well, as long as I’ll eat there next year anyway, why not pay for it now and get an extra meal? And those online companies that give you a bonus when you load a gift card? You can load one for yourself to use throughout the year.

I haven’t always been able to take advantage of the holiday sales, especially at first. It took me a year or two to modify my spending patterns. In spite of how you may feel during your intentional shopping spree, you’re not actually spending more. You’d be buying groceries for January and beyond anyway, so you’re just spending money earlier AND at lower prices than you would after the new year.

And then comes January. The little extra planning and shopping in December gives me a head start on simplifying my life for the rest of the year. And if there’s anything I can do to avoid having to leave my cozy home in January, I’m happy to do it.

Pioneer Life in Kansas, by Mary Barrett, 1912, Part 10

Oh, joy! the man–a white man, too–had seen her and was waving back at her!

All this the little tot told the older sister who was vainly trying to hide in the short buffalo grass, but the sister would not believe that help was really at hand, but lay there face downward, overcome with fear.

The brave, blue-capped soldier swooped down upon them and leaping from his horse gathered the little tot who had stood up so bravely that he might see her in his arms, at the same time catching sight of the frightened child lying on the ground.

“Both here, thank God!” the rescuer exclaimed and raising the now nearly exhausted children to the horse’s back, he leaped on behind. Encircling each in a strong arm, he bore them gently into the fort and laid them more dead than alive in the father’s arms!

The father sobbed aloud for joy, kissed the sunblistered hands and faces of his rescued darlings and chafed their little feet, now sore and bleeding from the long tramp through the dry buffalo grass.

Women, the wives of the officers, gathered round the little ones and ministered kindly to their needs.

The happy father and kind neighbors would have given the waifs all they wanted to eat, which at the time would have meant certain death, but not so with the kind nurses who had taken charge.

The children were first bathed, dressed comfortably and put to bed, then tea was made, a few crackers crumbled in and at stated intervals a teaspoonful of this was given. A slim diet indeed, it seemed to the starving children, yet this was the only safe course to pursue.

It was many days before the children were strong enough to be trusted in the hands of the men to be taken home, but finally the start was made, much to the relief of the anxious father and the men who had come with him.

No word had been sent to the waiting ones at home. It was not thought safe to send even a part of the men back with word, as it might require all the posse to make a safe journey back from the fort.

So while the anxious ones waited at the fort more anxious ones waited at home! Days came and went, nights passed and no message came to relieve the mind of the almost crazed mother; if she could only know, could only know!

The neighbors did all they cold to comfort her, but their own hearts were almost broken too, for were not their husbands on the chase who knew what might have been their fate?

The last thing at night and the first thing in the morning those waiting souls did, was to strain their eyes westward toward the setting sun in the hope of catching sight of the returning posse!

The journey from the fort home was of necessity made very slowly on account of the convalescent state of the children but at last it was done, the little ones again lay safe in the mother’s arms and all rejoiced over the safe return of the dear ones.

I was not been able to trace, Mary Barrett, the author of this article, but I have been able to discover the Bell family that she spoke about. The father, Aaron, was born in Illinois in 1829, and married, Nancy, when she was only sixteen years old. The girls, Margaret and Sarah, who were taken by the Indians were the couple’s third and fourth of their eventual eleven children. Margaret the elder, married, had two children and passed away at the age of 67. Sarah, the brave little five year old, married at 22, had one daughter and passed away when she was 26 years old.

Pioneer Life in Kansas, by Mary Barrett, 1912, Part 9

After quenching their thirst and resting awhile, they again started on their ceaseless search for “home.” The second night they slept under a lone tree. In the night a hoot owl began his hoarse cry in the branches above and the little wanderers, wakened out a sound slumber, crouched close together in fear, till the coming of day, expecting every minute that an Indian would jump down from the tree and scalp them!

However, when day began to break and a huge bird stretched his neck and flopped his wings and soared out of the tree and away, away, the little girls forgetting for a time their sorry plight, laughed heartily at their being “scared all night at a bird!”

With the coming of daylight the now almost famished and exhausted children started on again in their fruitless search for home. On and on they went across the unknown country, never knowing where nor in what direction, hoping that the rise of the next hill would surely bring them in sight of home!

The third night they came across a dugout which had just been vacated. The children never knew whether the late occupant just left or had been killed by the Indians.

There was bread and meat and cooked beans in the box cupboard and the poor starving children were afraid to eat it! They were afraid the Indians had killed the occupant and poisoned the food so with plenty at hand to appease their hunger, they, with stronger will power than is often found in children of such tender age, refrained from eating and laying themselves down on the bunk the dugout contained, they slept for the first time in many nights with a roof over their heads.

The next morning they were sorely tempted to eat, but being afraid they forbore and started out again the morning of the fourth day, having taken no food at all and only that one drink of dirty water!

All day they tramped and rested, rested and tramped, the hunger growing more intense each minute and the thirst, the awful, maddening thirst, making it hard for them to talk.

In the late afternoon of the fourth day of their tramp, the wanderers looked away across the prairie and saw a moving object. At first they could not tell whether it was a buffalo, a wolf, or what it was. But the object, whatever it might be, was moving and coming in their direction!

Soon they could make out that it was a man on horseback and he was galloping like mad, toward them.

“Oh, it’s an Indian!” gasped the oldest child, “let’s hide quick!” “No,” said the tot of five summers, “I ain’t goin’ to hide, I b’lieve its a soldier huntin’ us, an’ I’m goin’ to stand up where he can see me!”

The older child dropped flat in the grass in an effort to hide but the younger one stood bravely up and waved her tiny hand!