Saloma Miller Furlong
Author and Speaker

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Traditional Amish Courtship Practices

Thanks for giving us a fuller view of “rum springa.” I was curious about what traditional courtship would entail. Going out to dinner is the most benign kind of date in mainstream American culture. That this would be more threatening than getting drunk on the regular basis, was surprising.

Okay, AnnnieM, I am ready to tackle your question about “traditional courtship” among the Amish. As I mentioned earlier, “bed courtship” is controversial, even among the Amish. In fact, bed courtship has often been the reason for families who were concerned about this practice to start up new communities. It is not clear to me what traditions these new communities have started around courtship. But to my knowledge, none of them include the “benign kind of date in mainstream American culture” of going out to dinner together. Most of them include a boy driving a girl home from a young folk’s gathering. As far as I know, the only differences are what they do in the girl’s home when they get there.

Here is an excerpt from a story I had published entitled “Sarah’s Courtship, which was a story loosely based on my paternal grandparents and describes bed courtship:

That same evening, Lester asked Sarah if she would accept a date with Jacob. She knew young folks in Geauga used bed courtship as their dating method, like they did where she lived, in Mercer County. The first date with someone could be embarrassing, especially if they didn’t go to a young folks’ gathering first. She twisted her head covering strings and accepted the date.

Sarah watched Jacob through her window as he unhitched his horse from the buggy and led him into the barn. She lit the oil lamp on the nightstand and put on her light blue nightdress. Her stomach did a somersault when she heard Jacob coming up the stairs, but she sat calmly on the edge of the bed. She looked at the squares of the patchwork quilt until she heard the soft knock on the door. “Come in,” she said. The door opened, and Jacob came in, looking nervous.

“I found the room all right. I didn’t want to wake the little ones,” he said. He took off his hat. He smoothed down his curls, but it did no good. They stuck out like unruly springs. He was short and stocky with big shoulders, a round face with freckles, and blue eyes.

“Did Lester tell you which room?” she asked, aware how tight her night dress fit over her breasts. She felt bare without her hair covering.

“Yes, but sometimes he likes to play tricks on people, so I wasn’t sure,” Jacob answered. He paused, then he asked, “How many children do they have now?”

“They just had their fourth.”

Jacob sat on the chair by the window to take off his shoes. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and took it off, leaving his white undershirt on.

His feet don’t stink like Joe’s, Sarah thought as he went to the other side of the bed and pulled back the covers. Jacob got underneath the covers with his pants on.

Sarah leaned over and blew out the lamp. The found each other in the dark and settled in for a night of “shmunzla” (hugging and kissing). Jacob smelled of fresh air and faintly of horses.

Sarah hadn’t enjoyed her other dates. Henry’s teeth had gotten in the way, and John had grabbed at her night dress, trying to open her buttons. She pushed his hands away, but he kept trying. Finally she said, “Do net!” (don’t!) and he had turned his back and gone to sleep.

Jacob was different. His kisses were smooth and gave her new sensations in parts of her body she hadn’t felt before. When they fell asleep in each other’s arms, their sleep was as soft as their kisses.

At four in the morning, Jacob hitched up his horse and drove home for chores. Sarah missed his warm body next to hers. She lay awake and imagined another date with him next week.

I’ve been told that bed courtship originated in Europe when our ancestors were being persecuted and practiced “bundling.” A young couple would hide from the authorities in an upstairs bedroom, where it was often quite cold. They would get under the covers in a bed that had a board down the middle to separate them. The board disappeared somewhere along the line, so bed courtship is what remains. Naturally, the temptations are very great and not all couples abstain from sex before they are married, resulting in premarital pregnancies. As I mentioned before, this is embarrassing for the families involved, but most often the solution is for the couple to get married.

I had fantasies of going out to dinner with someone, but it was totally unheard of in my home community. I don’t know why, and my guess is not many Amish people do. Some things are never questioned or challenged – rather it is a tradition that always has been as far as the Amish are concerned. Thus traditions are kept.

My niece left the Amish several years ago. She was telling my sisters and me about some of the goings-on among the Amish young people. One young man had a whole collection of CDs that was found by the parents. The parents destroyed them, so the young man said to his friends, “That does it, now I’m going to get a haircut!” In mainstream America many youth will rebel against their parents by NOT cutting their hair, but for Amish young men, getting a haircut means getting one done in a barber shop, not in the style of the Amish. When I laughed about this incident, my niece looked at me funny. She was still too new out of the community, to understand how comical that sounded. It demonstrates how different the mindset is if you grew up Amish, whether it is about dating practices, haircuts, or getting an education.

 
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