Old Salem – The Magic of a Moravian Christmas

For Moravians living in 1800s Salem, Christmas was – without a doubt – the most wonderful time of the year! It was the celebration of the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ, illustrated by beautiful illuminations placed around their homes and in windows throughout the entire community, telling children the story of Christ’s birth. 

As the Old Salem magic continues today with the delicious sights, sounds and smells of an earlier time, creating joy in the hearts of children is still the main inspiration. It’s a promise that immersing your family in holiday celebrations that join the early Moravians’ German customs with beloved American traditions will be a true joy!

“Old Salem is such a magical place at Christmas, and kids are really the lens we want to view Christmas through,” explains Tara Logue, Director of Education for Old Salem Museums and Gardens.

One of the best-loved offerings – the Joy of Christmas Evening Tours – will take place this year on Fridays and Saturdays, December 1st, 2nd, 8th, 9th, 15th and 16th, featuring guided tours and a hands-on, interactive experience for the entire family. While strolling through the district carrying traditional lanterns, guests will focus on the Vogler House, Old Salem’s Tavern Museum and the Boys’ School, observing the blend of German and English traditions that helped form the new landscape for an Old Salem Christmas.

Old Salem also delights in hosting Salem Saturdays at Christmas, held every Saturday in December, spotlighting a different theme for each weekend. On December 2nd, come enjoy music and shopping as Old Salem teams up with the Wachovia Historical Society for their Moravian Market in Salem Square. That same day, a Membership Drive table in the Visitors’ Center will allow you to purchase, for just a few dollars more than a regular ticket, a membership for unlimited visits to Old Salem year-round. 

Saturday, December 9th’s program, entitled Christmas from a Child’s Perspective, will feature a variety of activities for kids plus photo opportunities with St. Nick at the Hat Shop! The Membership Drive table will be set up in the Visitors’ Center once again.

On December 16th, enjoy the Moravian Music Foundation Christmas Fest at the Archie K. Davis Center which will feature crafts, vendors and delightful music at every turn! As Christmas Day nears, Old Salem will be open on December 23rd with activities again geared towards children and families. And, if you still have out-of-town family members visiting, Old Salem will be open December 27th through the 30th for tours and glimpses of a beautiful Moravian Christmas.

“As we like to say: Good sights and good smells,” adds Tara. “The Winkler Bakery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., and the second floor of the bakery is also a gift shop! The Tavern Museum is once again officially open, and the Doctor’s House will be open for the Christmas season as well, featuring its apothecary shop reflecting life in the 1820s and 1830s.”

As always, the traditional Candle Tea will be held December 1st through December 9th at the Single Brothers’ House and is hosted by the Home Moravian Church to highlight Moravian traditions with the community. Costumed volunteers welcome you with an introduction to the history of the Moravians in Salem followed by traditional carols and the enjoyment of coffee and sugar cake. Although it was not created until the early 20th century, the Home Moravian Church Candle Tea in Old Salem has become one of the most beloved Christmas traditions in Winston-Salem.

WHERE TRADITIONS WERE BORN

One of the true delights of visiting Old Salem is the authenticity of every detail, including demonstrations of life in the early community, depicted in these photos by the amazing Sister Deborah – a beloved member of the Old Salem community for the past 15 years. We’re told that dear Sister Deborah knows the Winkler Bakery inside and out, including the family’s history and the building itself – along with the history of every delicious baked good!

For a true glimpse of early Salem, what traditions were at the heart of the Moravian Christmas celebration? The nativity scene – or putz – was always a symbol of Christ at the center of their community. A heartfelt Germanic tradition the Moravians brought with them to America, the verb “putzen” means to clean or decorate. The Moravian Star (which had its beginnings as a geometry project at the Boys’ School in Germany) was quickly adopted by the Moravian church as a symbol of the birth of Christ and the star of Bethlehem. While traditional Moravian stars you are most familiar with have 26 points, some have as few as six and others have as many as 110!  

“The Moravian Star is really a point of local pride,” explains Tara, as are the familiar beeswax candles tied with red ribbons. Assembling those traditional candles is a favorite activity for children experiencing an Old Salem Christmas, as is rolling cookie dough for ornaments or making corn husk angels and paper snowflakes.

The Children’s Christmas Eve Love Feast was especially magical in early Salem – a service the Moravians are still known for today. During the singing of hymns, the congregation is served something to eat and drink, most often a bun and coffee. Moravians held love feasts for all kinds of celebrations, but by far the most elaborate love feasts were held on Christmas Eve.  

Moravian Christmas décor has always been tied to their religion and their landscape, and those elements are prominently featured in the events that fill today’s Old Salem holiday calendar. They adorned homes with natural greenery, rose hips and dried apples, and before the appearance of Christmas trees, they utilized a Christmas pyramid – with the “putz” on one shelf, most often surrounded by fresh greenery, moss, candles and fruit. John Lewis Krimmel’s 1815 sketch is often credited as the earliest depiction of a Christmas tree in America – and his sketchbook image was thought to illustrate a Moravian household in Pennsylvania. However, the tree depicted appears to be more of a holly tree than a fir tree.

Gift Giving in the early years of Salem was likely to center around fruit, nuts and anything considered to be a special treat – perhaps an illustrated scripture or a painting. By the 1820s, toys became more common gifts, as woodworkers and potters produced toys with a religious theme, such as a wooden Noah’s Ark. Baked goods were a true luxury, and families began stocking up on spices for their holiday baking as early as the summer months.

Rich in history and love, the Moravian Christmas experience is meant to be shared with all! For more information and tickets for the Candle Tea, visit Homemoravian.org, and for advance tickets (highly recommended as they sell out every year) for the Joy of Christmas Evening Tours, visit Oldsalem.org. Old Salem Museums and Gardens is located at 900 Old Salem Road, Winston-Salem, NC, 336.721.7350. Follow them on Instagram @oldsaleminc for updates on all holiday events.

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