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Jan. 12, 2004 issue

For the Amish, almanacs help keep the year in order

By Robert Rhodes Mennonite Weekly Review

Where can you find weather predictions, moon phases, garden signs, a list of every Amish minister and prices for brooms fashioned by none other than Blind Syl Hershberger?

<em>Der Neue Amerikanische Calender</em>

Der Neue Amerikanische Calender

Each new year, seekers of such curiosities need look no further than the latest edition of The New American Almanac — a nondescript yearbook published for decades by and for the Old Order Amish.

The plain, black-and-white booklet commonly is known as Raber’s Almanac, after the Amish-run bookstore near Baltic, Ohio, which sponsors the almanac and showcases its wares inside.

In many ways, Old Order observers will tell you, the almanac is a microcosm of Amish life and how it has changed over the past half-century.

Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown, Pa., a sociologist who has written numerous surveys of Amish culture, including The Riddle of Amish Culture and The Amish and the State, believes the almanac is still important to many Amish people, even if the old-fashioned forecasts are sometimes of little use when it comes to actual field work.

“My impression is that the Raber’s Almanac is still important and valuable and that people still consult it,” Kraybill said.

Of most use to the Amish, Kraybill said, is the almanac’s comprehensive listing of Amish ministers — a resource, updated yearly, found nowhere else.

Included in the 48-page register are names and addresses, as well as birth, death and ordination years for each minister and bishop. All are grouped by state, county and church district.

In addition, Old Colony ministers in Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay are listed. For a time in the 1950s, Hutterite pastors also were included.

Also of value, Kraybill said, are Scripture and hymn listings for each month — used by most Amish districts in the Lancaster County, Pa., area, if not in other regions.

These listings also allow readers to record, diary-style, in whose home services were held and which ministers preached.

The lore-based garden and farm forecasts also have their adherents, though Kraybill believes these may be a bit out-of-date for more progressive-minded farmers.

“It’s still read with interest,” Kraybill said. “To what extent it’s believed, I really can’t say… . I’m not so sure about the credibility. Amish today can find better, more accessible forecasts, but what they don’t have is long-term forecasts… . So [the almanac predictions are] still consulted and believed to a certain extent.”

Though the English-language almanac has been coming out since 1970, its German counterpart has a longer history, dating to 1930 when it was introduced by bookstore founder J.A. Raber.

Der Neue Amerikanische Calender is in some ways identical with each year’s English almanac, but appears in fraktur-printed High German.

The piety quotient of the two editions often differs, too, with an inspirational poem in 2004’s English version — “Got good friends you wanna keep? / Then put ‘I’ and ‘my’ to sleep” — replaced by a dense and lengthy essay on “Die Bedentung (sic) des Todes Jesu” — “The Meaning of the Death of Jesus” — in the German.

Also in the 2004 Almanac, a moral allegory with the amusing title of “The Wild Hogs of Georgia” is replaced by a long and pious poem, “Gemeine Regeln,” in the Calender.

Constants in the two are the forecasts, minister list and bookstore catalogue, as well as the wide array of small ads offering services and products favored by Amish customers.

Among these are the long-running ad for Farmerstown Broom in Sugarcreek, Ohio, wherein Blind Syl Hershberger proffers brooms of many denominations — barn, $10; house, $8; or whisk (for many years, misspelled “whiss”), $2.75.

Ads for family histories, memorial cards, book repair and other thrifty notions also appear.

According to a history of Raber’s Book Store and the almanac by Ontario Amish historian David Luthy, the Calender started after the much-older Baer’s Agricultural Almanac stopped coming out in German.

The Calender also gave much broader visibility to the bookstore, Luthy wrote, which is housed in a separate building on the Raber family farm, like most Amish businesses.

Luthy also noted that the almanac was printed by several different firms over the years, including the Mennonite Publishing House.

More recently, the family of J.A. Raber’s son and successor, Ben J. Raber, has had the almanac printed at the Gordonville Print Shop, an Amish-run business in Lancaster County, which also sells books and school supplies through the almanac.

Though Kraybill said there is no way of knowing how many people read the almanac, it is still a common sight in most Amish homes, as well as among some plain Mennonites and Hutterites who order books from Raber’s Book Store.

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