Lindsae wrote: My questions is about humor in Amish culture. Do Amish people appreciate things like satire, sarcasm, etc.? Do children and families tell jokes, sing funny songs, and pull harmless pranks on one another? Do they use humor as a way to diffuse tension, deal with grief, or make people feel better?
Lindsae, the Amish have a very earthy brand of humor. They can be very funny as a group. Very often their humor centers around the human condition. Occasionally, it is at the expense of someone less fortunate, which isn’t funny in my opinion. In this post, I am focusing on what I do find funny — what David has dubbed “Amish humor.”
My maternal grandfather was a prankster. There is a family story about his first date with my grandmother that demonstrates the rascal in him. The story goes that my grandmother was staying at her aunt’s house in Geauga County, Ohio. (She was from Mercer County, Pennsylvania). She was in her late teens at the time. A young man in the community asked my grandfather, Joe, if he knows where she is staying. Joe directed his friend out to the Troy area, into the farthest reaches of the community. While his friend was on his wild goose chase, Joe went down the road and asked my grandmother, Saloma, for a date. The rest is history.
Another “prank” that backfired happened when a cousin went out one night to “surprise” her husband, who was working outside in the dark. She was planning to sneak up on him and startle him. She startled him, all right. She fell down a cellar hole and broke her foot. This doesn’t sound funny , but after the foot is healed, it is funny… in a twist of fate kind of way.
I remember in Amish school, when one of the older boys had a birthday, he had to watch his back. Inevitably, a group of the boys would sneak up behind him and “hoist” him above their heads as a birthday prank.
The day after my father’s funeral, my mother was still laughing at something my uncle had said to her when people were outside visiting after the funeral. Mem was going to sit down in one of those white plastic lawn chairs, but Uncle Gid said, “Here, let’s move it onto the sidewalk since the ground is so soft. I don’t need to see moonshine in the daytime.” When Mem laughed, she didn’t make a sound. Her face would get very red and her considerable bosom would bounce and then occasionally she would have to catch another breath and that was all you could hear of her laughter. That’s what it was like when she told us that story.
I know a young woman who just left the Amish and she has a wonderful sense of humor. She and I have had fun joking in the Amish language. I told her the story of two older women in my home community. One of them had dementia and could no longer walk and when she saw another woman walk by with a cane, she said, “Dat gehts sie mit mia schtock! Flutsch!” That means, there she goes with my cane!” “Flutsch” is a slightly derogatory name for a woman in the Amish language. I don’t know if anyone knows the exact meaning of the word.
One morning, this young woman was at my house, and she saw an older woman walking by, carrying a cane. She said, “Dat gehts sie mit mia schtock und sie iss net even am’s yousa. Flutsch!” (There she goes with my cane, and she’s not even using it!”) She is an older woman who has been walking by our house ever since we moved here. She moves very quickly for someone her age. Now I’ll always smile when she walks by… I’ll never see her the same way again. To make this even funnier, I just looked out my window and the same woman was walking by, carrying her cane, but not using it.
I cannot think of too many examples of satire or sarcasm in Amish humor. I would have to answer “no” to the question of whether they appreciate it, at least in general.
I cannot think of too many examples of the Amish using humor to deal with grief or diffuse tension. There are situations that they take very seriously, such as when someone is dying, wakes, funerals, and communion services (especially if a minister is being ordained). They would consider it inappropriate for people to joke in such situations.
It was in such a context that my mother did surprise me once. It was a week before she died, and we all knew she was dying. There were a whole group of people sitting around her, visiting in the living room, mostly my siblings and my brother Joe’s family. Mem said in a very serious tone of voice, “I would like to ask a favor.” I was thinking, “Oh boy, here it comes — she’s going to ask all of us who left to come back and join the Amish or she’s going to beg me not to ever get my life story published.” I knew if I denied her anything on her deathbed, I’d feel guilty for the rest of my life. So imagine my surprise when she said, “I’d like Saloma to do her chicken act… one more time.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry — especially when she said those last three words. Now I was supposed to perform in the midst of all this tension? I was honestly so relieved to not have to deny her a dying wish, that I managed to get up and perform my chicken and rooster act for her. I developed this some years ago, where I demonstrate what a chicken does before it lays its egg and then the cackle after it lays its egg. Then I imitate what a young rooster sounds like when he first begins to crow and how the granddaddy rooster shows him how it’s really done. In the moment I got up to “perform” Mem seemed to want us to laugh instead of cry, so I had to think of myself as a chicken.
So, yes, the Amish have a wonderful sense of humor. It took some adjusting to get used to the humor in mainstream culture, which tends not to poke fun at the self or one another as much as the Amish brand does.
Thanks, Lindsae, for this great question.