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By Anne Supsic
For Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites
Our incredible Christmas City is steeped in centuries-old traditions. The holiday is celebrated here with countless festivities and many religious customs that began centuries ago. The Moravian Church is also an important part of Bethlehem’s Christmas traditions. From the tradition of Lovefeast on the eve of Christmas to the singing of the Moravian hymn “Jesus Call Thou Me” on Christmas Eve, these cherished traditions bring us together as a community each year.
We hope you join us during this season of joy and celebration and experience all the beauty that Bethlehem has to offer during the holidays.
Here are a few of our favorite Christmas City traditions.
The most visible Bethlehem Christmas tradition is the 26-point Moravian star displayed all over town. Look for one hanging in the belfry of Central Moravian Church and many more on porches and storefronts everywhere in the Historic District.
The Moravian star originated in the 1830’s at a Moravian boys school in Germany. A math teacher asked the boys to create a figure with twenty-six points. Not an easy thing to do! No one knows why he chose the number twenty-six, but the resulting star has become a symbol of the Moravian Church and the city of Bethlehem.
Germany’s Herrnhut Star Factory has produced Moravian stars for over 160 years, even surviving nationalization by the Soviet Union in the 1950’s. Today, the star factory creates about 600,000 handmade stars every year, in more than sixty varieties.
Another unique Moravian Christmas tradition is the pyramid tree, which early Moravians fashioned from a wooden pyramid stand (like a teepee). Greens were wrapped around the wooden frame, and many credit the Moravians with inventing the first artificial Christmas tree. These unusual trees were decorated with candles, fresh fruit, and pieces of paper inscribed with a bit of scripture or a verse from a favorite poem. I love the idea of decorating a tree with words!
The Moravian Lovefeast originated with Count Zinzendorf, who is considered the Father of the Moravians. When the Count invited a group of Moravians to live on his estate in Germany, he became concerned when they worshipped for hours on end. He brought them food and drink, and this became known as the first lovefeast.
These services continue to be held at Christmas and Easter along with other important dates in the church year and focus on fellowship, music, and breaking bread together. In early Bethlehem, the Brothers would have poured cups of coffee for the congregation while the Single Sisters would have distributed sweet rolls.
Lovefeasts are filled with song, and in early Bethlehem, you might have heard something called polyglot singing. With Moravians arriving from all over Europe, nearly a dozen different languages were soon spoken in the town. During polyglot singing, everyone sang the same tune, but each person sang in their own language. It’s hard to imagine what polyglot singing sounded like, but what a lovely, inclusive idea—it must have been a truly joyful noise!
In December of 1741, Count Zinzendorf arrived to celebrate Christmas in the new settlement. On Christmas Eve, he led the congregation into an animal stable for a nativity-like ambiance. They sang a hymn about the biblical Bethlehem, and at that moment Zinzendorf announced, “We shall call this place Bethlehem.”
Beginning with that first Christmas, candles have remained a staple of a Moravian Christmas. Each year, over 15,000 distinctive candles are handmade from beeswax, which is believed to provide the purest flame and best represent Christ, the light of the world. The red ruffle catches the melting wax but also symbolizes the blood of Christ.
The Moravian putz (pronounced like “puts”) is one of my favorite Moravian traditions. The word comes from the German word putzen, which means to decorate, and basically, a putz is a Nativity scene. But that is a bit like saying Santa Claus is just a fat guy in a red suit. Putzes come in all shapes and sizes, and since 1937, the Central Moravian Church has created a Community Putz that takes up a whole stage and tells the story of Christ’s birth with lights, music, and narration.
Traditionally, a putz was made from natural materials including driftwood, stones, sand, pine cones, and moss. In early Bethlehem, every home had a putz, and creating a new one each year was very much a family affair. Children were permitted to add their own special touches, and one of the best ways to enjoy a putz is to look for unusual items added by the kids. For example, if you look closely, you’ll often find animals that were definitely not present at the original Nativity scene.
The Moravians were the first to bring the trombone to America, and they were particularly fond of their trombone choirs. Players performed from the rooftop belfry at dawn on Christmas and Easter mornings, and their music also served as a communications device. In The Bookmark, you can read about how the sound of the trombones notified Liesl of a death in the community.
A popular legend describes how the town received word that a hostile American Indian tribe was planning to attack on Christmas morning. Although they were encouraged to take refuge in a safer location, the Moravians stayed, and on Christmas morning, the trombone choir climbed the steps to the belfry and played at dawn as usual. Nothing happened, but the townspeople later learned that the hostile tribe had indeed gathered outside the town, ready to attack. However, when they heard the trombone choir, they believed it was the voice of God, telling them to leave his people alone.
Bethlehem writer Anne Supsic is an HBMS contributor and docent at the Moravian Museum in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. When she’s not at home, Anne is traveling the world with her husband (seventy countries and counting), exploring other cultures, and searching for bookmarks.
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