Old Salem, N.C., preserves its 18th century buildings and holiday customs

December 23, 1990|By Chicago Tribune

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Tobacco and textiles leap to mind when this Southern city is mentioned, but during the holiday season it offers a more unexpected local specialty: a vision of Christmas past.

Several 18th century holiday customs dating, from Winston-Salem's early days as a Colonial frontier outpost in pre-Revolutionary America but not widely known in the modern United States, are re-created there. Love feasts, candle teas, illuminations and lighted pyramids, all described below, help to create the aura of another century.

The setting is Old Salem, a Colonial restoration of 90 buildings near the heart of Winston-Salem's contemporary business district that offers visual and cultural links between the past and the present.

Smaller and more compact than Colonial Williamsburg, Old Salem has worn streets where wandering visitors can see the occasional family pet and overlooked child's toy in one of the 200 garden and yard plots behind the well-tended, white-shuttered, red-brick buildings.

Most of the restored residences in Old Salem are private. Far from detracting from the sense of history, the tasteful incorporation of private families in the 200-year-old buildings (showing few or no apparent modern conveniences) infuses the area with an unseen energy.

Within Old Salem, students of Salem Academy and College, founded in 1772 as one of the first schools for girls in the colonies, still hurry to classes. Neighborhood matrons still stop by Winkler's Bakery to buy sugar cakes baked in brick ovens, as women did centuries ago.

Winkler's is one of 12 exhibit buildings in the village, first settled in 1766. Now called Old Salem, the village was engulfed in the 19th century by the neighboring town of Winston.

Founded by German-speaking Moravians -- Protestants who fled religious persecution in an area of what is now Czechoslovakia -- the town was named Salem for the Hebrew word for peace, shalom.

Salem was a planned church community. The church owned all the land, supervised all economic decisions and ran the government. As in many other Colonial villages, daily life reflected religious activities as well as the immigrants' heritage and frontier realities. Life was perhaps its most charming and joyous during the holiday season.

Holiday visitors to Old Salem are likely to see choral and instrumental groups perform in the manner of early pioneers. The contemporary candle tea, now practiced in late November and early December, keeps alive the Moravian family custom of making a putz, a German word meaning "decoration." A putz was usually a family-made model of the nativity scene.

Today's candle teas are celebrated in the Single Brothers House, the largest exhibit building in Old Salem and the cornerstone of much community life in pioneer days. Against the backdrop of carols from the 1797 organ and the aroma of coffee and sugar cakes, a miniature of 19th century Salem is assembled in one room, a nativity scene in another.

The third week of December is traditionally the height of the Old Salem Christmas. Simple greenery decorates the buildings along with holiday specialties such as "illuminations," paintings or drawings done on paper that glow when candles are placed behind them.

Pyramids adorned with pine boughs and other greenery, apples, pieces of decorated paper with Bible verses and lighted candles make a kind of Christmas tree.

Even more exotic -- as least to modern ears -- is the "love feast," a Moravian Christmas Eve tradition that draws people of many faiths to the numerous Moravian churches around the city, including Home Moravian Church, dominating Old Salem's grassy village square.

The love feast is an 18th century ceremony of group singing and breaking bread to signify union and equality. Not a sacrament, as in Christian communion services, this is a sharing of a simple meal, usually coffee and a roll today, in the spirit of Christian fellowship.Admission to Old Salem is $10 for adults, $5 for children. Exhibit buildings and gift shops are open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 24 and Christmas Day. For more information call (919) 721-7300.

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