Monday, December 1, 2014

Thank God for the Moravians

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

Thank God for the Moravians, because if they had not settled in Pennsylvania, Christmas would not be nearly as rich in custom.  Yes, we have many customs that come to us from the Lutherans, as well as the Reformed, Episcopalians, and Catholics, but some of our most precious Christmas traditions came from this group of evangelists whose mission was to spread Christianity to the far reaches of the globe.

In a time when the Quakers and Mennonites surrounding their communities observed Christmas as a solemn holy day, the Moravians rejoiced, coming together as a large family and celebrating the birth of the Christ Child.  Below are some interesting facts about Moravain customs:

  • Lovefeast:  Because Christmas was a joyful occasion for them (unlike the Quakers, the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and the Pennsylvania German sect people), they held a "Lovefeast," where, amidst bright beeswax candles, members of the congregation mingled and feasted on cakes called streisslers and coffee, tea or chocolate.  The joyful mood was enhanced by music and facilitated the purpose of the feast:  forgiveness of the past year's sins and love for one another.  This feast of forgiveness is not just held on Christmas Eve, though.  Moravians and other denominations have Lovefeasts on other important dates, such as Good Friday and the dates that their congregations were established.  The Christmas Lovefeast is well-known, though, as it draws many visitors from outside denominations.

  • The Moravian Star:  This symbol of the birth of Christ started out as a geometry lesson for young boys at the Neisky Moravian School for boys in Saxony, Germany.  It was quickly adopted by the Moravian Church and hangs from the first Sunday of Advent until Epiphany (January 6).  Points on these stars range from six to over 100, but the traditional star has 26.  Bethlehem's 20-feet diam. 91-feet tall star, was first lighted in 1939 by 280 50-watt lamps and was the tallest individual electrical display in the world at the time.  Now, it is lit with 254 LED lights.

  • The Christmas Pyramid:  Alfred Shoemaker describes this one best, in his book, Christmas in Pennsylvania: “Christmas pyramids were four-sided frame structures (pyramid shaped, as the name correctly implies), some two to three feet in height.  Placed on tables, they served as a Christmas decoration, being loaded down with cookies, candies, and all sorts of fruit.  Christmas pyramids, incidentally, have a long history in northern and eastern Germany.”  Vangie Roby Sweitzer quotes the Bethlehem Diary in her book, The Moravian Christmas Putz:  Bethlehem Moravians Tell the Story of the Birth of Christ:

    "Dec. 25, 1747: Early in the morning, right after they got up, we gave our little children in the children's home a surprise, and made them a lovefeast in memory of the Jesus child and his birth in the stable. For that purpose, a few small and large pyramids [the early Moravian version of a Christmas tree] were made with greenery, which were all beautifully laden with lights, and the biggest ones were also decorated with apples and nice verses."

  • The Putz: Pronounced like "foots," this is a Moravian take on smaller creche scenes that only feature the holy family. They trace their origins to St. Francis of Assisi, who used the creches, or presepio, to explain the Nativity to the illiterate. Because they were labeled as "graven images" in the Reformation, they were thrown out of the churches. They survived in homes, though, and thrived in the mountainous areas of Germany. Creche figurines were carved by skilled tradesmen and in these isolated places that straddled the Polish/Czech border, the Moravians adopted the custom of building their elaborate scenes. Within the verse quoted above, the writer also describes one of the first putzes, built in 1747 in Bethlehem:

    "There was also a stable of Bethlehem with the ox and the donkey as well as with the shepherds to whom the good news of his birth was first brought..."

    Moravian putz-building has grown since then and neighboring Lititz has an impressive one. According to the Lititz Moravian Church's website, "A diorama 16' long and 6' deep, it depicts the Judean countryside with Bethlehem and the nearby stable as a central scene. On the hillsides are other scenes relating to the coming of the Christ child. On one hill is the Prophet Isaiah whose Old Testament prophecy spoke of a new King form the House of David. Other scenes include the angel's visit to Mary, shepherds in field near Bethlehem, Wise Men coming over the hills from afar, and the scene of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt." Admission to this putz is free and is worth seeing.

    Landis Valley's rather unique putz can trace its origins to an idea floated by staff band board members Cindy Kirby-Reedy, Beth Leensvaart, and Rick Brouse. They wanted to expand the Pennsylvania German Christmas traditions, but didn't want to link it directly to one church (we are owned by the Commonwealth, after all). Rick came up with the idea to build scale models of some of our buildings that could be set within a winter scene. Cindy and Beth ran with the idea and, in 2006, the putz was born. Using Rick's architectural experience, the three build five scale models, each with intricate detail. Though the putz was discontinued for a few years, it has seen a revival thanks to a writing intern (this gal!) who happened to have some artistic talent, as well as some willing and very able friends and family.
Though they are not officially Pennsylvania Dutch, Landis Valley respects the Moravian contributions to Christmas by featuring the delicate paper stars on some of our Christmas trees, as well as crafting our elaborate putz, housed during December in our Education Building. We also welcome the Lititz Moravian Trombone Choir to our Holiday at Landis Valley Bonfire every year. Come see our display of Pennsylvania German (and some Moravian!) customs at Country Christmas Village, Saturdays, December 6 & 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays, December 7 & 14, from noon to 4 p.m.