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.

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.

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.

``I've been either watching candlemaking or doing it for 70-some years,'' she says. ``My mother used to bring me here, and I'd see one woman make all the candles for the church. Today we have many adults and children help out. They make sure the wick is in the mold, and later they measure the candle when it comes out of the mold. It has to be cut to 6 inches.''

Every 10 minutes, a new group enters to watch the candlemaking. The group has already sung carols upstairs in the Brothers' worship room to the accompaniment of an original, 1797 Tannenberg organ. Next the visitors go to the old kitchen for refreshments - Moravian sugar cake and coffee. Then it's down to the basement to look at the Christmas Putz (German for ``decoration''), in this case a cr`eche.

Thousands of people return each year to the Candle Tea. ``It's traditional,'' says Gerald Sudress, who comes with his family and friends from Greensboro, N.C. ``It's a good way to start off the Christmas season. My son Scott began talking about it a month ago, so there was no way we could not come.''

In mid-December, the village hosts Old Salem Christmas, two days of outdoor activities including street players, Moravian brass bands, and horse-drawn wagons pulling children around the village square. Work continues inside the crafts shops, and guides talk about the labor necessary to keep the economy going through the holidays. ``Matthew Miksch kept his tobacco shop open right in his home,'' says guide Ruby Elder. ``The shop also served as living room and bedroom. The only other room was the kitchen. Mrs. Miksch contributed to the income by making sweetmeats, gingerbread, pickles, beeswax candles, and soap.''

June Drake is a guide and a shoemaker, so she loves to talk about the Shultz Shoemaker Shop. ``We have Shultz's diary, and we know that he could make two or three pairs of shoes a day, with the help of an apprentice. Shoes in those days didn't have a right and a left. You just put them on any way, and they gradually molded to your feet.''

The highlight of the season for many people is the love feast service at Home Moravian Church on Christmas Eve. This is a regular Moravian church service with two additions: the passing and eating of love feast buns and coffee by the congregation, and the passing of lighted candles as the choir sings. It is a singular, moving experience to which non-Moravians are invited. At the end of the love feast, everyone has met and broken bread to symbolize the brotherhood and unity of man. The candles symbolize the light of God shining in the darkness.

``When you look at all those faces illuminated, each individual illuminated, it just gets to you. The chills go up and down the spine,'' says Dr. Kenneth Robinson, associate pastor at Home Moravian Church. ``You feel really inspired, and you do your best to challenge people to take that light brightly shining in their faces out into the world and continue to shine.''

Sharon Willis says Christmas wouldn't be the same without the love feast. ``A love feast is warmth, love, soft lights, and good smells coming up from the kitchen. Everyone is happy to participate and wouldn't be anywhere else on that day. That's our Christmas. The next day is nice, opening presents. But the love feast on Christmas Eve is the most special day of the year. It's a sharing of a simple meal together in love, the agape-type meal.''

On the day after Christmas, trees are taken down, ornaments put away, the Putz dismantled and stored for the next year. Fulltime work resumes at Old Salem.

But the spirit of Christmas continues throughout the year, for the Moravians feel that religion was something you practice in daily life. Giving was the key to happiness - giving and love.

Old Salem gives something special to people who visit - a feeling of peace, stability, graciousness, old-world values in a new land - all things that stay with you beyond Christmas.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.