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Christmas traditions from the Moravians

Moravian Christmas in the South by Nancy Smith Thomas. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 184 pages

Easter is the religious holiday that most North Carolinians would associate with the Moravian Church. In Winston-Salem, brass bands travel about the downtown, waking old neighborhoods with hymns in the wee hours of the morning, an event that culminates at dawn in Old Salem, when the bands and thousands of people gather to celebrate the Easter Sunrise Service.

Visitors to Old Salem may also be familiar with the Moravian Love Feast. During this special church service, Moravian rolls and coffee heavy with sweetened milk are served to the congregants, with the food symbolizing the love they feel toward one another. The large coffee pot in Old Salem, in which a Confederate soldier was rumored to have hidden himself from Yankee raiders, stands as a reminder of this Moravian custom.

Now Nancy Smith Thomas calls our attention to the Moravian love of Christmas in her beautiful book Moravian Christmas in the South. Published by Old Salem Museums and Gardens, where Nancy Thomas has worked for 18 years, and distributed by the University of North Carolina Press, Moravian Christmas in the South should delight a wide variety of readers this Christmas season — those who enjoy reading North Carolina history, those who enjoy learning more about the celebration of Christmas, and those who simply enjoy fine writing decorated with intriguing sidebars and pictures.

One of the more intriguing ideas put across in Moravian Christmas in the South has to do with the development of some of our present-day Christmas customs. Thomas shows us how the Moravians, one of the earliest of all Protestant groups to North Carolina, brought from their native Czechoslovakia and Germany a love for Christmas ornamentation. Thomas gives us accounts of Moravian settlers in Wachovia, their original name for the countryside surrounding Salem, decorating their homes with greenery and small trees, and a carved Putz. (One must apply caution in the usage of this word. Thomas tells us that the word putz derives from the Saxon putzen, meaning “to decorate.” Yiddish, however, also gives us putz. Originally a name for the penis, today the Yiddish putz means a “stupid person.” To say, then, to a friend “What a beautiful putz!” may require additional explanation).

The Putz, which also included greenery and candles, eventually gave rise to the use of other Christmas decorations. The best known of these is the Moravian star, the multi-pointed star that today hangs illuminated at night from so many porches across the state.

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Thomas does not neglect other holiday traditions. Her chapter on Santa Claus and on presents gives us a look not only at 19th century Christmas practices in Old Salem, but across the United States. Here are some of the most lavish illustrations of the book: antique Christmas cards, photographs of gingerbread houses and other treats, the covers and front-pieces of various books. The 1810 St. Nicholas broadside with its German and English writing, its picture of a fireplace laden with presents, its good little girl and bad little boy, and a picture of the saint himself. His feast day, Dec. 6th, is printed in the picture, which many still celebrate by giving small gifts to their children. All these images show us how even 200 years ago there existed the blend between religious and commercial practices.

In her chapter titled “Food and Beverages,” Thomas discusses the holiday foods so strongly associated with the Moravians: ginger cookies, love feast buns, sugarcake, coffee heated with sugar and milk, and chicken pot pie. But she also goes beyond this traditional fare and delves into the eating and drinking habits of Moravians in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here are fascinating bits and pieces of history. Thomas’ examination, for example, of the role played by the apple in American drinking habits in the 18th and early 19th century demonstrates how greatly those Americans depended on apple cider. One writer has described sweet cider as the Coca-Cola of that time just as hard cider was the beer, and that the two ciders were “the country’s ‘national beverage’ by the 1820s.”

Thomas also includes a chapter on the Moravians and their love of music. Here we read the account of George Washington’s visit to Old Salem and of the pleasure he took in the Moravian serenade offered him there. Thomas leads us through a short history of the development of Moravian’s sacred music and of the bands that arose with the churches. Thomas gives us insight into the passion for sophisticated music that continues to play a key role in Moravian church services. In the passage below Thomas relates an anecdote revealing the Moravian love of both secular and sacred music:

A boy had just played a selection of Haydn in a music society concert on a Saturday afternoon. Then outside, a disapproving New England minister, asked him what instrument he would have used on Sunday to worship the Lord. The youth quickly replied with the following retort: “And shall you, sir, pray with the same mouth tomorrow with which you are now eating sausages?”

Finally, Thomas does a service both to the Moravian faith and to Christmas itself by showing us again and again the importance of children to the Moravians at this special time of year. The Putz, the tree, the love feast, the music. Moravians aimed these objects of celebration at the young for their delight and edification. For their children the Moravians tried to make their Christian faith as sweet and as palatable as one of the sugarcakes made by Winkler’s Bakery.

If you are looking for a Christmas book that delights the eye and satisfies the mind, look no further. Moravian Christmas in the South will give its readers hours of pleasure.

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