Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
Christmas for Michigan's Amish community is filled with food and cheer. The highlight of the holiday will be stories and discussions about the religious meaning of Christmas, as the extended family gathers on Christmas Day.

CLARE, Mich. — There's no Christmas tree. No lights or glittery display outside the house. No little girls in special Christmas dresses or little boys wiggling in new Christmas suits. There's definitely no Santa Claus and maybe not any gifts.

But Christmas for Michigan's Amish community is filled with food and cheer. The highlight of the holiday will be stories and discussions about the religious meaning of Christmas, as the extended family gathers on Christmas Day.

Christmas is the biggest holiday on the Amish calendar and Michigan is home to 11,000 Amish, one of the largest populations in the country. But in keeping with the Amish way, it's a simple Christmas for simple folks — and an about-face from the Christmas excess that abounds in so many households this time of year.

"We have the quiet way of honoring Jesus coming," said Simon Miller, of Clare. "Nothing to be seen by men, nothing to bring glory to ourselves."

The Amish are sometimes called the Plain People because of their traditional signatures — the horse-drawn buggy and nondescript clothing of men in dark suits fastened with hooks instead of buttons and women in full-length dresses.

But they don't talk much about it. Most don't have telephones, although some share a phone with one or two other families.

Many Amish won't pose for photographs, considering that a form of vanity.

Most live off the grid, avoiding commercial electricity. Amish children usually attend an Amish school, and only until eighth grade.

But the Amish embrace their uniqueness as a way of protecting their people from what they believe to be outside corruption.

Church is celebrated regularly, but instead of building a facility, the members will meet in the house of member of their group.

"They have a strong sense that their church should be separate from the world," said Steven Nolt, a professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana and one of the authors of "Amish Grace, How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy." "So their dress, the way they interact with non-Amish neighbors, their nonuse of technology both separates them from mainstream society and also bolsters their own sense of community."

It's also an expression of how they believe they should live.

"Their plain dress is an expression of simplicity and humility and modesty," Nolt said. "It is a symbolic marker, a demarcation between the Amish and their non-Amish neighbors."

The Amish practice a conservative form of Christianity that dates to the late 17th century, when a group of Swiss Anabaptists — dissenters from the Catholic church — split off from the Anabaptists and followed Jacob Ammann.

The majority of American Amish live in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. The group is growing, with the Amish population nationally roughly doubling every 20 years, Nolt said, thanks to their large families and that 85(PERCENT) of those born to Amish parents remain in their faith as adults.

Not surprisingly, this time of year when many are putting up their holiday decorations or shopping for gifts, the Amish take a plain view as well. For the Amish, Christmas is quiet and gentle holiday, an observance rather than a celebration, with family and religion as the centerpiece.

"Our way of celebrating Christmas is to sit and read with the children and tell them the story of how Jesus came to Earth through the Virgin Mary and how he shed his blood for us on the cross, as a family talk about what Christmas means," said Simon Miller of Clare.

There will be gifts in some Amish households but any gifts will be useful.

"One year I got a stepladder," Miller said. "The children get clothes or something they need." Younger children may also receive a second gift, perhaps a toy or storybook, he said.

"It'd be something that makes for their imagination. Oh, we'd give a little tractor or something like that," Miller said.

And there will be Christmas dinner. It typically consists of turkey, and may include what Miller calls "Christmas pudding," a layered mixture of cream cheese and red and green gelatin.

And despite not putting up Christmas lights of their own, the Amish may well enjoy the lights of others.

"We don't want to be judgmental," said Aaron Miller, a deacon in the Old Order Amish who is not related to Simon Miller. "The children enjoy looking at the lights, but to us, that's not the meaning of Christmas. We focus on the religious part of it."