WINSTON-SALEM — The Moravians know how to do holidays. Their traditions especially shine at Christmas: sugar cake, wafer-thin spiced cookies, music and candlelight services.
Theres no better place to experience the Moravian Christmas spirit than Old Salem, what remains of the North Carolina settlement started by these Protestant missionaries who came to the United States from what is now the Czech Republic in the 1700s. The historic site, museums and gardens draw people to Winston-Salem from all across the state and beyond to learn about what life was like more than 200 years ago.
A December trip to Old Salem is a new tradition for Megan Von Isenburg, her husband, Jay, and their daughters, ages 1 and 6. They traveled from Durham earlier this month to attend one of the Home Moravian Churchs candle teas at Old Salem.
Von Isenberg grew up in Winston-Salem and her parents joined the Moravian church seven years ago. Last year, her then 5-year-old daughter, Astrid, was captivated by the experience. This year, she wanted to volunteer with her grandmother, which involved dressing up in old-fashioned clothes and handing out music programs.
She loved it, Megan Von Isenburg said, adding that a visit to Old Salem will be a family tradition for many years to come.
Even though Old Salems candle teas and candlelight tours are sold out, theres still plenty to see there to experience a Moravian Christmas. The self-guided tours, available any day the site is open, guide visitors to the various buildings decorated for Christmas. Several buildings, including the Single Brothers House, Salem Tavern Museum and the Vierling House, have a putz on display. Putzen means to decorate in German and the Moravian tradition led to todays tradition of placing miniature Christmas villages under trees or on mantlepieces.
A Moravian putz doesnt look anything like the porcelain Department 56 villages so popular today. A traditional putz illustrates a story from the Bible. The one at the Vierling House shows a Nativity scene made from natural materials: pebbles, moss, greenery, sticks and wood-carved figures.
Then theres the Christmas pyramid, also on display at the Vierling House. It is a four-level wooden structure decorated with holly and evergreen branches, hand-carved wooden Nativity figures, apples and candles. Each decoration has its own symbolism: apples for original sin, holly for the crown of thorns, evergreen for eternal life and candles representing Christ as the light of the world.
However, Joanna Roberts, Old Salems interpretation supervisor for living history, makes clear about the pyramid: It was not instead of a Christmas tree. It was simultaneous.
A trip to Old Salem isnt worth the gas money without a visit to the Winkler Bakery, where Jeffrey Sherrill has spent the past 11 years working as a baker. Every day, Sherrill churns out dozens of loaves of fresh bread and square pans of brown sugar-crusted sugar cake.
His favorite part of the job: seeing peoples reaction after tasting sugar cake for the first time. He said, Youre actually creating joy.
That moment certainly embodies the Christmas spirit.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl