A Moravian Christmas

Possibly nothing is more festive during the holiday season than making a special trip to a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in Germany, filled with fragrant firs, twinkling lights, and warm Glühwein. Short of booking a trip to Germany to experience this first-hand, the next best thing may be to witness something akin to German Christmas traditions right here in North Carolina among the Moravians of Old Salem, in what is now Winston-Salem, Forsyth County.

Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. — Christmas, 1907

The Christmas Eve Love-Feast

The Moravian traditions are described in numerous histories and with particularly wonderful detail by Winifred Margaretta Kirkland in her pamphlet about Christmas in Old Salem. She vividly explains the Children’s Love-Feast ceremony, as well as other visual and aural sensations of the holidays in Salem. The Love-Feast is a Christmas Eve ceremony where candles are distributed, songs are sung, and sweet buns are eaten with milky coffee or tea. Particular attention is given to children of the church, providing them a central role in the proceedings. Recipes for the special coffee and other holiday treats can be found in cookbooks such as those published by Friedland Moravian Church and Fries Memorial Moravian Church.

Music is central to the Moravian Christmas traditions. Special hymns are sung at the Love-Feast and at Christmas Day services. One example from 1798 is completely in German, with a translation of a verse below.

Zur ChristnachtSecond Choir: 

Oh venerable night, a thousand suns shine upon you!

You brought the baby Jesus, so that we can reconcile with God.

That day is today, as my healing lays in swaddling clothes.

And a hymn from 1813, in both German and English, with a translation:

Zur ChristnachtCongregation:

Full of heaven’s glory and splendor, praise that night, which brought us salvation.

The spirits of that world, their light surrounded the shepherds’ faces;

For a lifetime, our thanks were also sung in their praises!

The Christmas Putz

As the caption of the photo below explains, “Every Christmas tree has its Putz:”

A typical Christmas Putz

The Putz is another central component of the Christmas holiday celebrations and a means for the community to come together, both in its construction and its display. The Putz is comprised of model buildings, small figures, and in modern times, sometimes lit with electricity. It typically has a nativity scene at its center, and can be small to accompany a tree, or large enough to even fill a room. Some are so elaborate, admission is charged for viewing.

These are a few of the traditions practiced by the German Moravians who settled in North Carolina, with their origins in Europe dating back to the 18th century. And while the inspiration may have come from Germany, the implementation has a new American – and North Carolinian – flair.