On a cold December night outside the Shipshewana Furniture store in Indiana, a towering imitation Christmas tree is decorated with sparkling blue-green lights. Then comes a hurried clip-clop, and a shuddering rattle. A heavy black Amish buggy and its horse rumble past, cast in sharp silhouette against the shimmering Christmas tree.

It is a scene that is in this world, but not of it.

It is a scene you will see almost nowhere else.

It is Amish Christmas.

While Shipshewana relies on 1.2 million tourists a year and cultivates an image of a classic Christmas town, what it wants for us and what its residents plan for themselves are two different things.

Amish Christmas is about dialing down, not up.

Amishman Amos Miller, of Middlebury, Indiana, is the ticket taker at the carousel on the top floor of the Davis Mercantile building in Shipshewana, Ind.
Amishman Amos Miller, of Middlebury, Indiana, is the ticket taker at the carousel on the top floor of the Davis Mercantile building in Shipshewana, Ind. (Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press/MCT) (Ellen Creager)

Food. Singing. Family. A day off. That's about it.

"What I look forward to most is having the family come," says Amos Miller, a local Amish man with eight children and 38 grandchildren -- all of them living close by except for one daughter who moved a shocking 100 miles away.

Lights, decorations, fancy presents, trees and even religious services are not part of the Amish holiday.

"We don't do like that," he says, his face clear and smooth, his small beard and plain, pressed clothes speaking of an orderly life. "But a lot of Christmas songs are sung."

For people weary of the clattering Christmas machine, blaring TV ads and their screaming "buy-buy-buy" incantations, a December visit to Amish country in northern Indiana is a relief.


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The buildings are white. The furniture is plain. No rowdy bars, because there is no alcohol. There's not a single TV in the hotel lobby, or in restaurants or anywhere else blaring ESPN or Fox News. It's all white fences and rural living. I look out my hotel window and see horses and black buggies. Along the road, winter has stripped the leaves off the trees, and the fields are bare with stubble. The houses have driveways, but no cars. And I feel embarrassed when my cellphone rings.

The Amish are part of a strict Anabaptist group that came from Switzerland to America in the early 1700s. In general, they shun motor vehicles, electricity from the grid, TV, phones and computers. They leave school after the eighth grade, dress in old-fashioned garb, marry young and have lots of children. Northern Indiana has 21,560 Amish, one of the biggest populations in the nation.

Appreciating the duality of Amish Christmas in Shipshewana is Levi King, a local businessman who owns JoJo's Pretzels and some other shops. He grew up Amish in Lancaster, Pa., until age 7, when his parents left the faith. Nearly all his relatives are Amish. His wife grew up Amish, too.

Amish buggies parked outside the Dollar General store on a winter’s morning in Shipshewana, Indiana. (Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Amish buggies parked outside the Dollar General store on a winter's morning in Shipshewana, Indiana. (Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press/MCT) (Ellen Creager)

He estimates that four in 10 business owners in Shipshewana are formerly Amish and that 15 percent are currently Amish. He also has many Amish employees, and they all are relying on holiday tourists to buy lots of gifts in the lushly holiday-decorated shops -- even though the Amish themselves tend to give small practical things like flashlights or stools for Christmas.

Unlike many other religious folk, the Amish do not want to change you, or convert you, or talk you out of buying an iPad or that garish big-screen TV for Christmas. They just hope you'll stop by and pick up an Amish-made desk, quilt or a big wheel of cheese, and stay in a nice Amish hotel and dine at a local restaurant, and enjoy the sights so different from your own life.

The best thing about Christmastime in Amish country?

"When there is snow on the ground, you might still hear the clop-clop of the horse, but you won't hear the buggy," King says. "It's silent."

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