Reflections about Traditions: Both Amish and Swiss

When the Koch family was here, I asked Miriam about several traditions that I have often associated with being unique to the Amish, at least as compared to the mainstream culture in this country. I am discovering that some of these are traditions carried over from the old country. Here are some of the discoveries I made.

Dampfnudel: When I was growing up, Mem used to make white bread at least once a week and she would sometimes use part of the bread dough to make what she called "Dampfnip" for our midday meal. When I was in Germany for a semester abroad, I discovered in the student cafeteria that they had Dampfnudel, which were much like what Mem used to make. We used to eat them with brown sugar and milk, but in Germany they were offering a delicious poppy-seed sauce to go over them. Miriam is very familiar with Dampfnudel.

Morning Work: When I was growing up, we had a morning ritual, what we called Maia Aivvet, and it consisted of doing breakfast dishes, shaking out the carpets in the living room and kitchen and sweeping the floor in the two rooms. Then we also made all the beds. Miriam said this is still a morning ritual in Swiss households.

Saturday Cleaning: Every Saturday we did a weekly cleaning of the whole house and we baked bread and pies for the weekend. Miriam said that cleaning on Saturdays used to be common in Switzerland, but now many people do their cleaning and shopping on Fridays so that they have a day off on Saturdays.

Popcorn on Sunday Nights: One of the lesser-known Amish customs is the practice of eating popcorn on Sunday nights instead of dinner or supper. This is often accompanied by pie or cake that was baked the day before, and in our house we often had homemade grape juice as well. Miriam says that in Switzerland it is common for people to eat popcorn on Sunday nights.

Spring Cleaning: I know it was more common even a generation ago for people in this country to engage in the ritual of going through the house and deep clean. I was getting out of the habit of it, but this spring was different for me. Perhaps it was after that long, hard winter we endured, and partly because I knew I was getting company staying for eight days and they would see into every corner of my house, but I had a need to clean out all the cobwebs, clean the windows, the floors, move furniture, and the like. Okay, so I didn't clean out every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen, and I didn't take everything out of the closets when I changed from winter clothes to summer, but I did a deeper cleaning than I do on a routine basis.

I asked Miriam if the Swiss still do spring cleaning every year. She said they do. After a particular festival day in February, people start cleaning out their basements. And then each room is spring cleaned, and the windows are done last, once the pollen season is over. This made me feel like I hadn't done spring cleaning at all. I hadn't done anything with the basement, for example. I tell myself that this is David's domain, given he has his woodworking shop down there. But I also know that wouldn't have stopped an Amish woman from cleaning her basement. And it probably wouldn't have stopped a Swiss woman, either.

A Lullaby: I have a friend who grew up Amish who once made the connection with a Swiss man when he started singing a lullaby that she  grew up hearing, called "Schloff, Boppli, Schloff" (Sleep, Baby, Sleep). Miriam knows that lullaby.

The Swiss Countryside: Photo by Marco Koch

I find this amazing. The Amish began leaving the old country back in the 1740s. For most of us, there are at least seven generations between the generation who immigrated and our own. And yet there are so many things that got passed down through these generations. I'm sure some of these are done subconsciously, or without really thinking about why we do things the way we do. It's like that story of the woman who used to cut the ends off her roasts. Her husband asked her why she did that. She said, "Because my mother did it that way." So the husband asked his mother-in-law, why she did it that way, and he received the same answer. So he went to his wife's grandmother and asked her. She said, "So it would fit into my roasting pan."

Following traditions for their own sake has its benefits and drawbacks. I believe following traditions is central in the Amish culture — it shapes who they are. But the traditions I named here are not nearly as important as their religious traditions. When they sing those age-old German songs in their church, wedding, and funeral services that were written by our ancestors when they were imprisoned for their faith, the Amish are remembering who they are. right down into the very fiber of their beings. Perhaps this isn't on a conscious level for everyone, but it is one of the traditions that give their communities cohesion. Everyone, regardless of their apptitude for singing, can join in and become part of this "remembering."

There are days when I miss the sense of community that the Amish have. Today is one of those days. I look out my window at this glorious day in early summer, and my heart sings for all that my life is. Mixed in with this sweetness is a tinge of longing for what I left behind when I stepped out of my original community nearly 35 years ago.

Have you ever looked back and realized there was a price to pay for walking "the road less traveled by?"

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25 thoughts on “Reflections about Traditions: Both Amish and Swiss”

  1. It is interesting that the Swiss as well as the Amish have preserved all these traditions. The Amish, it seems to me, have a structure that involves the preservation of tradition. It sounds like the Swiss might too. None of these came to me from my German Swiss roots, but then my father (the German Swiss side of the family) wasn’t much into passing down anything from his childhood. My last name is Halbeisen. I just found something that says ‘Most Swiss Halbeisen’s have their family roots in one of the two villages near Basel, “Wahlen” and “Dittingen” ‘. Mine was Wahlen. Ask Miriam if she knows any Halbeisens.

    A sing along song book I’ve been helping to create is about to go to press, with the premise that singing together is a very powerful act. Are most Amish songs in a slow meter like the wedding song?

    1. Johanna, it is great to see you here, and thank you for starting the discussion.

      I also was surprised that the Swiss have maintained many of these traditions. To maintain traditions, I believe people need a common heritage to some degree. I think in our country, we value diversity, and try to incorporate people of all walks of life. I would dare to say that even though Switzerland has some cultural diversity, it is not as diverse as the mainstream culture here. Perhaps this has something to do with why they have been able to maintain some of their old traditions.

      I will ask Miriam the question you posed.

      I agree with you… singing together is a very powerful thing. In my community, the German singing in slow meter was done at church, wedding, and funeral services. At the young people’s gatherings, we sang in German, but not the slow tunes. In school we sang in German and in English, also not in slow tunes. When we sang together informally, we usually sang in English or German, also “fast tunes.” So it all depended on the situation.

      The more traditional Amish, such as the Schwartzentrubers sing only in German, and only slow or “half-slow” tunes.

      The more liberal Amish groups tend to sing in English more than they do in German. But they all still sing the slow German tunes in church, weddings, and funerals.

  2. Growing up in a Mennonite community, one thing remains the same for me–having popcorn each Sunday evening! The spring cleaning, morning work, Saturday tasks were tasks in our home too. I continue to be a part of the Mennonite Church USA but do find some of the younger Mennonite generations no longer have these rituals in their home.

    1. Judy, it is good to hear from you. Interesting that these traditions were still practiced by the Mennonites a generation ago.

      I had fallen out of the habit of eating popcorn on Sundays until Anna came to live with us, and that is when I revived the tradition. I don’t actually know if the younger generation still does in my home community. I’m pretty sure they still do the ritual cleaning, especially because they have church services in their homes, and that always prompts a thorough cleaning of the house.

      Have a Blessed rest of the week.

  3. In Switzerland, a lot of these Amish / Swiss traditions do not get passed to the younger generation anymore. (Or maybe they are of less value to them) I have been fortunate to have a wonderful Grandmother who thought me these rituals during my childhood years. And now we have the privilege and opportunity to pass them to our daughter.

    1. Miriam, thank you for chiming in. I realized after posting this, that I don’t actually know how much these traditions are being passed on among the Amish anymore either. It would be a shame to lose them. So glad you’re passing them on to Hadassah. She is a fortunate little girl to have you and Marco for parents!

      Have a wonderful holiday tomorrow!

  4. Elva Bontrager

    A segue here: I made an astonishing discovery the other day. On a website I listened to ‘psalm singing’ old-time unaccommpanied singing done by a Scots congregation that was almost identical to Amish church hymns. Literally the only difference was that the leader sang several syllables, instead of one or two, before the group joined in. It was a tune I didn’t know but I swear it was Amish!

    Google ‘Gaelic psalm singing’ or go here: It is absolutely gorgeous.

    1. Elva, this is incredible! I got chills up and down my spine listening to this. Such Beauty!

      One difference, which I’m sure you noticed, is that the women are mixed in with the men, so there is more of a mingling of the voices. In Amish church services with the women sitting in one room and the men in another, it separates out the voices a bit more.

      Thank you, Elva, for sharing this link. I hope other readers will love this as much as I do.

  5. Pingback: Reflections about Traditions: Both Amish and Swiss | Former Amish News

  6. Wow, I had no idea I grew up following Swiss traditions. Awesome! The only one new to me is the Dampfnudel. I took a Music Appreciation class years ago and for extra credit I attended a Lutheren church service to hear Gregorian Chants. I was amazed to discover that this ancient form of music was similar to the church music I grew up singing. I followed Elva’s link and listened to the Gaelic Hymns. It’s beautiful. That and the Amish singing you posted, Saloma, touches the deepest parts of my being. I close my eyes and am transported into the presence of God and back to the peaceful, stressfree days of childhood.

    1. I know, I love knowing that our traditions have their roots in Swiss culture.

      I always thought Amish church singing was like Gregorian chant, too. And now that I hear the Gaelic psalm singing, I realize this form of singing and prayer has roots in more cultures than I thought. I love your description of the places you are transported to listening to the music. It echoes my own feelings, especially the part about it touching the deepest parts of my being… my soul. Perhaps we each have a form of soul music. This is mine.

      Aleta, it is always such a pleasure to hear from you.

  7. The part about the spring cleaning made me chuckle.

    Going back to the story about the roast: I think there is something very comforting in emulating one’s parents. I often see little kids watching their parents, or even older children and other adults, like hawks, copying their gestures and phrases without even knowing what those things mean. Some kids do it more than others. My sister certainly did it more that I did.

    As for walking the road less traveled: there is always a price to pay, no matter which road you travel. And you don’t always recognize the true cost of your passage when you are paying. That’s where phrases like,”No use crying over spilt milk,” come in handy! But it is interesting to look back and see how things could have been different.

    1. Stacy, you make good points. Yes, I know that children emulate others as they are developing into adults. And I think you are right… some do so more than others. Or at least it’s more obvious.

      I had never thought about it the way you put it, but I agree that there is a price to pay, no matter which roads we travel. Because when we make certain life choices, most alternative choices become unavailable to us.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  8. You are going deep into what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, Saloma. It can be seen in all the arts, landscape, and cultural artifacts passed down from generation to generation. When UNconscious, these produce shivers of recognition at first sight, hearing, or feeling.

    I am personally interested in the Celtic connections that go even deeper than Anabaptism, connecting the Swiss and the Scots and Irish. I hope to learn more the same way you do –by travel, reading, and making friends.

    Yea to Sunday popcorn suppers. Sorry about the spring housecleaning. I learned how to do it, but I haven’t kept up the tradition. I am, however, going through 50 years of slides and memorabilia. That’s my current version.

    1. Shirley, thank you for your perspective. I hadn’t made the connection with Jungian thought, but you’re right.

      Yes, isn’t it interesting the connections with the chants? I’ll be blogging more about that later.

      Good luck with your own form of spring housecleaning.

  9. The “Schloff, Boppli, Schloff” lullaby sound similar to “Schlaf, Kindlein, Schlaf,” which I learned while living in Germany and sing it to my kids. Must be the Swiss-German version.

  10. Pingback: About Amish | Sacred Chants from around the World

  11. Dear Saloma, I am not sure which blog to post, but I Am enjoying all your blogs. I will be having Amish gentlemen working in my home in a little more than a week. They built my kitchen cabinets and will be installing them. I would like to have food for them since they are coming a long way. I am not sure what to make. I was thinking a home made baked good and fruit and maybe some lunch meats at midday. I am sure they will bring their own food, but my parents always had food for people working in their home so I feel it is appropriate, just not sure what to serve.
    Also this is kind of a two part question. I want to know the best way to apologize to my cabinet maker. I made a comment about his work that may not have been true and I feel terribly. He probably just blew it off, but I have been concerned about it and would like to say something. Thanks so much!

    1. Beth, I’m so glad you are enjoying my blog posts.

      My best advice is to be yourself — treat the Amish men like you would anyone else. If you want to apologize about a comment, saying, “I’m sorry” works just fine. And the Amish have appetites like anyone else, so whatever you offer them will likely be appreciated. It’s a good idea not to take it personally if they don’t thank you for it explicitly. Some Amish men are not so good at that.

      Good luck with your cabinets. Most Amish who are craftsmen are good at what they do. I hope you have a good experience.


  12. Yes, there is a price to pay for the road we choose. I chose to stay with an old order type congregation which has limited my options. Yet at the same time I am a dedicated old order, enjoying old order community life but also missing the benefits of living in a large old order community where there is more history related activity, having chosen instead to enjoy the benefits of living in a smaller community.

    1. Osiah, I think it comes down to realizing that we cannot have it all. So we choose what we can live with (and without). In order for me not to experience the restrictions you mention, I have to live without the benefits of living in a community of people with a shared history. May you experience the Blessings that come of staying with your people.

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