Modern Christmas fun for families often includes a visit and photo with St. Nick and the reading of the classic “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Holidays past might have meant a wintry wagon ride, roasting chestnuts and making beeswax candles.
Past meets present in Old Salem, in the heart of Winston-Salem, NC, where Christmas is a simpler, slower-paced, solemn-yet-joyful celebration.
These special activities are part of the day-long Salem Christmas December 14 at Old Salem Museums and Gardens, one of America’s most comprehensive history attractions.
Other events occur throughout the season as the historic town dresses its 18th- and 19th-century brick buildings in simple, live evergreen garlands and wreaths adorned only with red bows.
Old Salem’s main attraction is this step across time. The handmade beeswax candles–still made from molds–bear simple red ribbons and stand ready for Home Moravian Church’s Christmas Eve lovefeasts when the smell of coffee and buns will fill the air. The highly recognizable 26-point Moravian stars are for sale in the gift shops. Horses’ hooves clatter on cobblestone streets as they pull visitors in carriages.
Home Moravian Church hosts Candle Teas in the Single Brothers’ House, one of the town’s original buildings and a very popular stop on tours. This structure was home and trade school to single men in the community. Here, visitors sing Christmas carols around a restored organ before partaking of stout Moravian coffee and homemade sugar cake amid candlelight.
One floor below in the basement is the Christmas Putz (pronounced “puts”). Putz, a German word meaning “decoration,” here refers to a miniature scene. Each Moravian family likely had a putz, usually a village that included a Nativity scene.
The Old Salem Putz, displayed only during the holidays, is a scale model of what the town looked like years ago after a freshly fallen snow. There are replicas of the earliest houses as well as details like trees, laundry on clotheslines and farm animals.
Across the street is Salem Square where the wooden, 16-foot, four-sided Holiday Pyramid is erected. Adorned with cut greenery, each of its four shelves holds different decorations, one level featuring the Nativity scene. At 5:15 p.m. December 14 its candles will be lit and locals and visitors will sing carols.
Popular holiday gifts featured in shops here are Moravian cookies and other edibles, household decorations, quilts, ornaments (including glass, metal and paper versions of the Moravian star) and books. An informative keepsake is Nancy Smith Thomas’ book “Moravian Christmas in the South” that explores Moravian Christmas traditions dating to the 1780s.
The Moravian star, by the way, was not among the decorations used when a colony emigrated from Herrnhut, Germany, in 1735 in search of religious freedom. Instead, the 26-pointed stars, polyhedrons, were first made around 1850 as a geometry lesson at a Moravian school in Germany, eventually making their way around the world.
Dine like George Washington – yes, he slept here – at the Tavern at Old Salem. Today’s structure built in 1816 was an annex to the historic 1784 tavern, and it features dishes inspired by the 19th-century families that lived here. Wait staff sport historic Moravian attire.
Restored, Not Reconstructed
Old Salem Historic District, dating to 1753, covers about 80 acres and can occupy a full day’s visit. At some other historic sites, you tour reconstructed building, rebuilt from foundations and plans. Not so with Old Salem, which is restored, meaning that each museum building has been standing, and often in use, right up to this moment.
The village has a gunsmith shop, shoe shop, bakery, doctor’s house and apothecary, market firehouse, residences and several award winning gardens.
Home Moravian Church sanctuary, built in 1800, still conducts worship services. The 152-year-old St. Philips, the first African-American Moravian church in America and NC’s oldest remaining African-American church, offers an inspirational, educational stop-and-ponder moment.
For art lovers, the much-touted Museum of Early Decorative Southern Arts (MEDSA) showcases a variety of decorative arts made in the early South before 1860.
Throughout Old Salem, life for the hard-working, devout Moravians is interpreted by costumed staff stationed in museum buildings. The Miksch Garden and House, built in 1771, is the first family-owned home in Old Salem and was one of America’s first tobacco shops. Its heritage garden is a popular stop.
At the Winkler Bakery, which dates to 1800, bread is still baked daily in 19th-century, wood-burning, brick ovens. Ultra-thin Moravian cookies – another popular Christmas gift – come in assorted of flavors like sugar, cranberry orange, lemon, and the traditional ginger.
Saved From the Wrecking Ball
Old Salem was saved from the wrecking ball in 1950 when local preservationists thwarted plans to build a large supermarket on part of the site. They organized the nonprofit Old Salem Inc., and restoration followed. Utility wires were buried, street signs and lampposts redesigned and through-traffic diverted around the area.
Today, arriving visitors might first notice the large stacked split-rail fence that angles around the community, along with the giant coffee pot 16 feet around and 12 feet high (capable of holding some 740 Moravian-sized cups of coffee). An old-fashioned covered bridge connects the Visitor’s Center with the historic district (declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966).
Adjacent to Salem Square is Salem Academy and College, the country’s second-oldest women’s college, founded in 1772 as a girls’ school. Moravians believed women deserved an education equal to their male counterparts – forward thinking for the times.
The Single Sisters’ House stands across the square from the Single Brothers’ House and contains classrooms and offices. At Old Salem’s cemetery, God’s Acre, which dates to 1770, the 4,000 graves have equally-sized tombstones (depicting equality in the eyes of God) that lie flat on the ground, not upright.
Judy Byerly, who grew up in the area and is Moravian. She works in the Visitors’ Center. “For the Moravians, I think it’s the unity of the people in the area” that makes Christmas special, says “You get to see a lot of people who come home for Christmas. Of course, Home (Moravian) Church is right across the way here. People who have moved away will come home, and it’s just a time for everyone to get together to rejoice and celebrate, really kind of understand the spirit of the season, and spend time together reflecting back on past Christmases.”
Simple, joyful advice for anyone.