Cars were parked up and down Ridge Road on Saturday afternoon as folks streamed into Raleigh Moravian Church’s annual candle tea.
People came to sip Moravian coffee, taste Moravian sugar cake, shop the holiday bazaar and listen to high school choirs sing Christmas carols.
For many Raleigh residents who belong to the church – and even those who are not church members – the candle tea marks the start of the holiday season.
“This is the beginning of Christmas,” said Josie Bowerman of Raleigh, whose parents, Brenda and David Ball, are church members.
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The event, now in its 55th year, is the church’s open house. This little-known Protestant faith was founded in what is now the Czech Republic in the 1400s.
The congregation is more well-known in Winston-Salem, where many Moravians migrated in the 1700s and founded the city of Salem. In 1958, a few years after the Raleigh church was founded, the church members decided to host their first candle tea to introduce themselves and their holiday traditions to the community.
“It really is about hospitality,” said the Rev. Craig Troutman, the church’s pastor, while standing in the fellowship hall where people shopped for pumpkin bread, peach preserves and crocheted baby hats.
For more than four hours, church members served about 600 cups of Moravian coffee, heavy on the cream and sugar, and more than 1,500 slices of Moravian sugar cake, a yeast dough topped with a thick, brown sugar crust.
Church members wearing traditional 18th-century costumes demonstrated how to make Moravian stars, a 26-point star used as an Advent decoration; how to make beeswax candles and trim them with red tissue-paper ribbons; and even how to make the ethereally-thin Moravian spice cookies.
Once guests tasted and shopped, they could file into the church sanctuary and listen to Christmas carols sung by students from seven local high school choir groups. The church’s own band performed Christmas songs outside the church.
Talk to anyone in the crowd, and it became clear that the Moravian sugar cake is a big draw. The cake is difficult to make even for experienced home chefs, and many church members buy some at the candle tea to eat on Christmas morning. “You can’t have Christmas without the sugar cake,” Bowerman said.
Her 14-year-old daughter, Anna Clara, echoed that sentiment: “You really can’t.”
And Bowerman noted, you have to buy an extra cake to stash in the freezer for Easter – if it lasts that long.
This is the second year that Kathy Kidd and Jackie Mullin, both of Raleigh, attended. Both women were taking home sugar cake.
“I’ve heard about it for years,” Kidd said. “We had such fun last year that we came back.”
Mullin added: “You see everyone in town.”
In fact, it’s such a popular event that two nearby retirement communities sent busloads of senior citizens.
Although they are not church members, Jackie and Bill McClelland of Cary have been coming to the candle teas since the 1970s, as well as attending the church’s Christmas Eve service. This year, they brought two granddaughters, 10-year-old Olivia and 6-year-old Kate. Asked what she enjoyed most about the event, Olivia said, “I like the sugar cake.”
Kate was smitten with the confection, too, because at that moment she asked her grandmother, “Can I get another sugar cake?”