If you celebrate Christmas you have traditions. You probably think your family traditions are the most special, the most precious. And, you’re right. They are. But, my family tradition is even more special and even more precious. Trust me. It’s true.
Winston-Salem, NC was the childhood home for both my mother and father. Today, there is an uncle from my dad’s side and an aunt from my mother’s side that still call the birthplace of Texas Pete and Krispy Kreme home. My Aunt Alice, in fact, still lives in her childhood home. It is a two bedroom, wood slat home with a porch swing and two working fireplaces. Precious and sweet are not precious nor sweet enough to describe it. And every Christmas, on the porch, she hangs a Moravian star.
Moravian stars populate Winston at Christmastime. They are part of the city decorations. Yet outside of this North Carolina town, a Moravian star is a rare sight. The multiple point start is a symbol of the Moravian church, a small sect of German immigrants who settled in Colonial America setting up villages in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. While they were progressive for their time they still clung to the traditional roles for men and women. And of course, they had sweet and precious Christmas traditions.
Though they were not Moravian, my mother and her two sisters grew up celebrating the Moravian traditions in Old Salem, the Moravian village in Winston-Salem that has been preserved and functions as a village for tourists (think Williamsburg, but with more heart and soul and actual active members of the community who preserve the traditions, not just put them on display) and at other churches around Winston-Salem. As my Aunt Ellen notes, “We loved all the Moravian traditions. Easter in Old Salem, Candle Tea, sugar cake, Moravian buns, the beeswax candles, and of course the star!!”
The only Moravian in my family is my Aunt Ellen from Charlotte, NC. Her membership in the church came later in her life though she too had grown up with these sweet and precious Christmas traditions. I think it is the memories that brought her to join this sect. She is a lover of tradition and colonial furniture and all things precious and sweet. And I think she really wanted to be a diener for Love Feast. The dieners are women of the Moravian church that while serving Love Feast buns and warm coffee, don a special outfit; a white dress, a white half apron, and a small white lace head covering. I think the outfit may have been the tipping point for my aunt. I mean, what modern day woman wouldn’t feel that tug?
The ladies, dieners, monitor and hand out the amazing love feast buns, coffee (or russian tea), and handmade beeswax candles. They are busy and on their feet for hours during services. The men carry the heavy loads of the filled coffee mugs and candles. The traditional roles still apply, but I forgive it because of the sweetness, the preciousness.
The bun is my favorite. It is distinct and unlike any roll or bun served anywhere else in the world. It is slightly sweet with earthy spices and a heavy note of nutmeg. In my baking adventures I’ve not attempted to make them and I’m not sure I ever will. There is something too sacred about them, that to harness their mystery and specialness would diminish the delight of that passed basket, brimming with sweet, precious goodness.
Love feast is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. It’s purpose is to celebrate Christ’s birth and share a meal with fellow Moravians. The service is nearly the same no matter the congregation. Always precious, always sweet.
You enter the church hearing Christmas carols, hymns, or instrumental music. The entire service is solemn and quiet, the food shared is meant to be easily passed and eaten while the choir and instruments serenade and fill the space with Christmas songs. It is a service of lessons and carols with a brief message about the Christmas story. There are carols sung by choir and congregation and carols that are only sung by the choir, but the best song, possibly ever sung anywhere is Morning Star.
The beewax candles represent the light that Christ gave the world. They are handmade, poured by the Moravian women’s groups into tine molds and hand wrapped with crepe paper. Every single one of them. Tens of thousands of them.
At the end of the service, a final hymn is sung,Christ the Lord, the Lord Most Glorious, and on the last verse the congregation raises their candles and in a word is it magical.