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AN OLD SALEM CHRISTMAS. There is still a place in America where people celebrate in a quiet, simple way. There is no hoopla, no commercialism, not even strands of colored Christmas lights. Just plain evergreens, and a few candle lights in the windows of homes.

By Anne CrosmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1986

Old Salem, N.C.

The holiday celebration here attracts many of the same visitors year after year, who come back to share in this community's slow and gentle breathing-in of Christmas. Old Salem is a restored, 18th-century Moravian village within the city of Winston-Salem. Small by Williamsburg, Va., standards - only 72 acres - it has a charm that draws smaller, more manageable crowds. The homes and craft shops are beautifully preserved. Old Salem marks Christmas the way the Moravians did 200 years ago. They stopped work briefly to make special candles and cr`eches, to listen to Moravian bands play carols, and to go to a church love feast (the agape meal of Biblical tradition) on Christmas Eve.

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The Moravians were a religious group that left Moravia (in present-day Czechoslovakia) and settled in Germany, then started sending missionaries to the New World in the mid-1700s. They came first to Georgia, but ended up in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Salem, founded in 1766, became a trade center where Moravian craftspeople sold their wares.

Today a tinsmith, shoemaker, weaver, dyer, potter, and cabinetmaker all work in restored shops, and bakers at the Winkler Bakery down the street turn out hundreds of loaves of bread a day, to the delight of townspeople and visitors. At Christmas time, there is increased demand for ginger cookies and love feast buns.

Walking down the streets of Old Salem puts you back in the 1700s. Everything here whispers old. The buildings are earth colors - red brick, green clapboard, and white stone with wooden beams supporting some exterior walls. One- and two-stories high, they front on Main Street and protect gardens in the back. The solid street surfaces are specially made to look like dirt. There are no traffic lights or stop signs. Instead, there are slightly raised steel ridges on the pavement, marked ``Stop.'' Old barrels with their tops cut out serve as trash cans. And the men and women who work in the shops and homes wear 18th-century costumes.

Old Salem has kept its quiet tone, and visitors pick up on it. You don't hear drivers honk or people shout here. As you walk, the only sounds are heels on the brick sidewalk, everyday greetings in soft, Southern accents, and the gentle striking of the Home Moravian Church clock every quarter hour. Though you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Winston-Salem, you firmly feel that you're back 200 years in time.

``It fascinates me what commercialism has done to Christmas,'' says Gene Capps, director of education and interpretation and organizer of Old Salem Christmas. ``For the Moravians, Christmas was very church- and family-oriented. It was a private thing, and that's what we're trying to convey. Life and work continued as usual - that's why our crafts shops stay open. There was no time for celebration.

``It's one of the difficult things we face,'' says Mr. Capps. ``Some visitors expect popcorn on Christmas trees and exchange of gifts. That just didn't exist. Christmas was not a grand celebration. It was [part of] an overall picture of Moravian daily life throughout the year. Greenery was used for many holidays, not just Christmas. Moravian bands often played on the street for holidays, birthdays, and the Fourth of July. And windows were often lit with candles.

``The Moravians had a fascination with light and candlelight. They never had electric lights. They worked from sunup to sundown. Imagine these people taking resources to light a church with 20 dozen candles! We try to recreate this all.''

Today's Old Salem holiday observance begins with a ``Candle Tea'' in early December. For two weekends, volunteers from the Women's Fellowship of Home Moravian Church dress in costume and guide visitors through the Single Brothers' House, built in 1769 as a home and workshop for single men. In the old dining room, the women demonstrate how beeswax candles were made for the Christmas Eve love feast. Five women work each shift. Early one morning, Laura Mosley pours wax into an eight-candle mold, lets it cool on the windowsill, then deftly pulls out all the candles on a string, without a break. All the while she is talking to groups of visitors.