Moravian Christmas c.1790

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, November 1981
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The Heritage Paper for this Christmas newsletter is taken from “Wilderness Christians: The Moravian Mission to the Delaware Indians”, by Elma E. Gray. The extract was submitted by Mrs. Dorothy Farquharson who discovered the book during her research on early Canadian singing schools.

The Moravian mission to the Delaware Indians began their work in Pennsylvania in the mid-eighteenth century, and they led the Delawares, dispossessed by the white man’s advancing civilization, to Ohio, to Michigan, and finally to the Thames River in Canada, where they built the once-flourishing community of Fairfield.

As the December snow swirled around the village, the last preparations for winter were completed. Hay was stacked, corn was heaped in sheds, flour-filled bags were piled in attics and storehouses, root vegetables were packed in bins in clay cellar pits, meat was hung in the smoke house, fruits were dried and stored in bags, nuts had been gathered. The winter’s supply of tallow candles, made from every available source of grease, was packed in boxes. Firewood was stacked beside each dwelling.

The Christmas season, with its joyous traditional festive customs, was ushered in. Almost every movement of these weeks followed a time-honoured pattern set by ancestors in Europe. The Christian Indians of every age eagerly took part in the Moravian Christmas and the district tribes, too, showed great interest; from the time the first branches of aromatic hemlock and spruce were cut in the bush almost five miles away and winter berries were gathered for chapel and homes, until the last service on Christmas Day, which “was attended by many strangers”.

Traditional beeswax tapers were made for the Christmas Eve vigil. The wax was tediously moulded in slender iron candle moulds five and a half inches high in the same pattern that Bethlehem Moravians had used for nearly fifty years. Christmas candles, the Indians were taught, represented the very essence of Christianity. The pure, golden body of the candle symbolised the sinless body of Christ. The wick was the spirit of Christ. When both were kindled, the glory of Jesus, as Man’s Saviour and God’s Son, was manifested in the flame, as the Light of the World.

In a room filled with the hot, honey smell of melted beeswax, the work of laying up piles of smooth Moravian candles was superintended. Into carefully saved moulds the women fitted tight strips of string before pouring in the hot wax. The cold of the unheated storeroom hardened the candles so that slender yellow tapers slid easily out of the moulds. Rubbing and polishing by warm hands smoothed the golden cylinders and pointed the wick ends. Polished wooden trays, with holes cut to fit the candles, were placed ready for use.

The missionaries’ fireplace ovens yielded, at this season, treats of baked perfection. With recipes that Moravian housewives had treasured for generations, and distinctly reserved for Christmas time, the mission wives toiled to recapture in this northern wilderness the heart-warming friendliness of the Christmases they had known in Pennsylvania. Here, as there, they would extend hospitality to all comers. Distant relatives and friends would have received no warmer welcome than the feather-festooned Indians, bearded French trappers and traders, or the lonely, homesick settlers who entered their doors.

This special time was to the women an outlet for culinary talent that had, of necessity, lain dormant. From thriftily hoarding supplies, the women turned out dozens of fragrant dark cookies cut in the same shapes by the same tin cutters (6-8 inches wide and about as long) that had been used by their grandmothers. Intriguing animals, plump human figures and fancy designs of fragile thinness were rolled, cut, and baked from “ripened” dough.

Springerle cookies, aniseed flavoured and hartshorn leavened, were made with the special pearwood mould that brought out in sharp relief individual pictures when it was pressed lightly over the dough. Long before this final embellishment, the eggs and sugar had been beaten for an hour! Marzipan, the old-world confection among German people considered the principal Christmas “sweet”, took hours of skilful labour before the almond-flavoured forms of apples, peaches, pears and flowers, moulded by nimble fingers, were placed in a tight container. For the flat mint-wafer candies they made from a simple recipe of sugar boiled in water, the tangy oil flavouring was extracted months in advance from meadow balsam and peppermint, which had been gathered in the hollows by springs at the season when their fragrant leaves would shed the strongest effusion.

The Moravians made and treasured small carved figures of the Nativity scene. These were brought out at Christmas to illustrate to children the Christmas story. This was another old European custom eventually discarded by churches, only to be reproduced in private homes to portray for children the symbolism of Christianity. These miniatures of the Holy Family, shepherds and animals were set up in realistic scenes with moss and evergreens. In Pennsylvania it became known as the Putz (from putzen — to decorate). Putz builders added year by year to their assortment of carvings handed down from one generation to another. When a youth left home, he might take with his a cherished figure as a start for his own collection.

When Christmas Eve darkness wrapped the snowy woods, the meeting house hummed with voices of villagers and visitors. The adults, as eager as the children, expectantly waited to take part in the service and to listen to the story of the earthly birth of Christ. Tall candles flickered in iron brackets, and every eye looked up to see ropes of evergreen swinging across the ceiling and framing on the wall the picture of the Christ Child in His crib. When the missionaries were seated, cloth-lined baskets of large sweet buns were carried into the chapel. The men brought in trays of pint-sized tin cups filled with tea, to be sweetened by maple sugar, and replenished from wide tin tea kettles.

But nothing was more eagerly awaited or longer remembered by the Moravians, assembled on the rough benches in the church above the Thames, than the blazing beeswax tapers now carried into the darkened hall by their leaders. With reverent attention they heard explained again the symbol of the lighted candles as they were handed out to the children. Each child must carefully keep the tiny candle burning as he walked the dark path to his home and place the light in the window, on this, the eve of His birthday, that the Christ Child might come into his heart and remain.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1981, 2020


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