Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Christmas Road of Salem

       The only way to visit old Salem of the old South is with a child's heart for luggage. Otherwise this old town in the middle of North Carolina may lie before your eyes actual enough, with its old streets, its old houses, its old Square, its old Home Church as its inmost core, and Salem may welcome you with the gentle, unobtrusive courtesy pecularily its own, but unless you have learned the wisdom that knows how to put away grown-up things, you cannot really enter the Christmas city.
       In Salem of all places I have ever seen, it is easiest to drop from one's shoulders the crippling pack of maturity and become once again a little child stepping along a Christmas road. Of all places it is easiest in Salem to forget the jangle of faiths and of no-faiths that have deadened our ears, to slip away from the clamor of an age proud and fevered as ancient Rome, and to listen to the confidence of old carols ringing along moonlit dreamy streets, mysterious with the black of magnolia and of boxwood, or to hear floating down from the church belfry high up under the stars the silver melody of the ancient horns which, better than any other instruments, express the soul of the Moravian church. A most musical religion it must seem to every visitor who yields his spirit to the spirit of Moravian Salem. Not only the church liturgy but also the everyday life of the community is keyed to old tunes that date back, some of them, to the Bohemia of five centuries ago, and were familiar in Moravian households in the days when John Huss was martyred for the beauty of his faith. There is a spell on southern Salem, the spell not of a dead past but of a living one, constantly revitalized, so that as one walks these uneven red-brick pavements, one is haunted by memories of long-past Christmases, thoughts of those far times, when in secrecy and fear, the Hidden Seed kept its feast of candles and of anthems, thoughts of happier festivals in Saxony where young Count Zinzendorf offered the heretics the refuge city of Herrnhut, thoughts of brave long-ago love-feasts right here, when a tiny, intrepid band of colonists sang its Christmas chorales in the midst of endless miles of wilderness, while wolves nosed and howled at the cabin door. Along with these Moravian memories come thronging recollections of one's own childhood Christmases in all their unforgotten wizardry, so that here in Christmas Salem, I seem to be walking again the midnight aisle which leads through a great wood of fir trees looming black beneath high stars.
       Just as at five years old, I am aware again of mystery and danger and bewilderment lurking far off in the forest, but along the Christmas roadway, there is no fear, only joy and magic, for it lies straight as a shaft of silver through the black wood, and along it troops of youngsters go dancing onward. At the instant that the children pass, each dark, bordering fir tree becomes bright with tinsel and candles, and along the spicy twigs gay little bells stir and tinkle. From time to time there come snatches of happy chants echoed among the tall dim trunks. Since the wayfarers are children, they know that the soft, unearthly radiance upon the road before them is the long beam from a star not yet seen because it hangs so low above a stable cave, and they know, too, that their silver path is leading all child feet toward that star. Small difference for children between that spirit-light of Bethlehem and the merry twinkle of Christmas-tree candles. For them, readily enough, their own carol-singing mingles with the voices of herald angels, and even Santa Claus, himself, all ruddy and kind, may steal to the stable door and gaze in on a divine baby. Even so is Christmas faith and Christmas fancy interwoven in old Salem, where white-headed men and women still have their Christmas trees, and still with their own hands construct beneath the green boughs, the wonderful Christmas " putzes," for while we who are visitors must retread in stumbling unfamiliarity the Christmas path, the Moravians of old Salem have always kept straight and clear within their hearts the child-road toward the star.
       When, a few days before Christmas, I arrived in Salem, people told me I had missed what for Moravians is always the opening key to the Yuletide season. For unnumbered years there has always been sung on the Sunday before Christmas the anthem of " The Morning Star," written in the latter seventeenth century, and set to music in the nineteenth. Although I never heard choir and congregation unite in its mighty joy, I seemed, during my two weeks' visit, always to be catching its echoes, as if the strains of Christmas minstrels had come floating back to me where, unseen in the distance, they had passed on before along the silver-lit highway, so that the words and the music of "The Morning Star " voice for me the innermost spirit of a Moravian Christmas.
       The anthem has both the quaintness of old Germany and the vigorous confidence of the new world, so that the old words and the new are equally expressive of the unchanging faith of present-day Salem, while the music vibrates with the sheer child-gladness of its praise.

" Morgenstern auf finstre Nacht,
Der die Welt voll Freude macht.
Jesulein, O komm herein,
Leucht in meines Hertzens Shrein."

       When in stanza two, music and words swell out into grandeur it is as if, out of the black forest mystery of life, some hidden joyous congregation suddenly pealed forth a psalm to the mounting Christmas dawn:

" Morning star, thy glory bright
Far exceeds the sun's clear light ;
Jesus be, constantly.
More than thousand suns to me."

       For the holiday guest there slowly emerges upon that glamorous woodland roadway of his child memories a silver-lighted city, gradually shaping into the everyday reality of actual Salem. As I look out from the window of the little gray cottage that harbors me, there become sharply etched against the mistiness of dreams the tall water-oaks of the old red-brick Square, the domes of boxwood against old walls of buff stucco or of brick, the stretching flat white rows of gravestones holly-trimmed, the white belfry of the Home Church, where in Christmas week I heard little boys, high up there in the soft December sunshine, sound the trombone announcement of death. So unobtrusive and yet so sweet were those strains out of the sky, so blent with the Christmas air, that I listened to them for some time, supposing them merely carol-singing floating out from some home where the family had regathered for Christmas.
       On one side the little cottage looks forth on the sunny graveyard where Moravians keep their dead too close to life for any sadness, and on the other it nestles to the prouder, taller buildings of the Square, laid out in the seventeen-sixties by founders who established Salem as the central city of their Wachovian grant of seventy thousand acres, to be built and to be kept a city meet for their faith. The solid eighteenth century houses still remain, skilfully adapted to modern usage, or unobtrusively altered. Half of Salem traces its ancestry back to those earlier days, and all of Salem keeps alive, both in family life and in public, the traditions and the customs of its unforgotten builders.
       Perhaps it is only in our own South that so gentle and half-romantic a faith could have found so gracious a flowering as is typified in the Easter and the Christmas customs of this Salem of North Carolina. There is a blending of native warmth and glow and kindliness in the spirit of this Southern Province of the Moravian Church. The first colonists came seeking a mild climate and friendly neighbors, and found both. For a hundred and fifty years Salem has been true to its first purpose. Long ago it was a little refuge city of peace in the wilderness, and still, today, it offers its benediction for all who seek to penetrate beyond the mere externals of a locality into the inner sanctities of tradition.
       Long ago a brave little band kept to their secure daily round of work and worship amid perils of Indian attack and the backwash of Continental armies, and freely gave their hospitality to everyone that asked it, and today the mind of those first settlers still dominates and molds the life of the city. Yesterday and now the people of Salem have possessed both the art of shrewd adjustment to the contemporary and the power to withdraw from all its fever and conflict into the peace of a child-faith. With quaint literalness those early founders looked upon themselves as all members of one family, and today one of the strongest impressions of any visitor is that of a great household, close-bound in sympathy, and all turning toward the old Home Church as to a central hearthside, while up and down the worn old streets there moves the form of one still young at eighty, who in himself is host and shepherd and father of all the city.
       One wonders if the inhabitants of Salem fully realize their high privilege of living in a community which both expresses their religion and preserves the finest traditions of their ancestors. In these bewildering days it is the lot of most idealists to live in a solitude, unable, amid the surrounding mists, to distinguish the shapes of their fellow believers. But in Salem people have the sacred advantage of dwelling with those who constantly share and reinforce each other's faith as naturally as they have shared each other's childhood and each other's memories of the old Infant School. Probably Moravians do not dream with what strange nostalgia a visitor listens to persons who treat God conversationally, who talk of Him as spontaneously as a little boy speaks of that splendid comrade he calls Daddy. Normally enough, naturally enough, has the Moravian spirit been able to strike deep roots in our own South, for in our South religion is still a custom unquestioned, and leisure can still be found for an obsolete, old-world culture, and intellect still bows in reverence before the soul. In old Salem of the old South there can be no blur upon the radiant confidence of the Christmas story, no smirch upon the silver purity of that far-lit path toward Bethlehem's cave.
       In Salem I feel myself to be sometimes in Cranford, sometimes in Barchester, while all reminiscence of those two familiar home-towns of the fancy is touched by an atmosphere sacred to Salem. From one window of my room I can gaze up the long, silent avenue, forbidden to all vehicles, that skirts the high ivy-hung picket fence of the graveyard. Even in December the graveyard grass is vivid in the sunshine. I am so near that I can almost see the crimson berries of the holly wreaths laid on the little flat marble slabs. Cedar Avenue lies as a white path at the heart of Salem. On one side of it are gateways whose sunny arches, blazoned with texts of hope, stand bright against the shadowy spruce and cedar massed beyond the triumphant marching lines of the little gravestones. Along Cedar Avenue I have watched a funeral procession move with confident tread, while the trombone strains floated forth delicate and clear upon the New Year's morning.
       Another window of my room looks toward the old Square, toward the Bishop's home beside the Bishop's church, toward the aging buildings that still bear names witnessing to the deep Moravian reverence for the family as a holy entity, - the Sisters' House, the House of the Single Brethren, the Widows' House. In the cavernous cellar of the most venerable of all these buildings I was shown, one afternoon, the mysteries of the Christmas candle-making. In those great, white-washed catacombs one peers into dark, haunted corridors through wall arches three feet deep. The floor has the stone flagging that was laid a hundred and fifty years ago. In the long kitchen of the Single Brethren the great, hooded fireplace with its built-in Dutch oven stands intact.
       Here, in precisely the same molds and with precisely the same methods through unbroken generations, have been made the famous Christmas candles of Salem. The molds hold, some of them, six candles, some a dozen. Into the manufacture last year went two hundred pounds of beeswax and fifty pounds of tallow. From the first melting to the final polishing each candle requires an elaborate process of handwork. It took two women six weeks to make the candles, achieving, as they did, six thousand five hundred of the slender wisps of green wax familiar to everyone who has ever known a Salem Christmas. The decorating of the candles, as well as the dipping, is a matter of far tradition. According to methods of cutting and of pasting long in use, each candle is encircled by an outstanding fringe of scarlet paper before it is at last stuck in its hole in one of the long trays and borne off to be kept for the love-feast of Christmas Eve. To visitors and to Moravians take the preparation of the candles is symbolic; when Salem trusts to alien hands the making and the decorating of its Christmas candles, Salem will not be Salem any more.
       A simple, vital reverence for tradition is as characteristic of each individual home as it is of the larger home life of the church congregation. In the tiny cottage that offers me hospitality there is a little wooden rocking chair carefully treasured. One turns it up to find on the bottom, in a handwriting too alive ever to be forgotten, these words, "This rocker was used by mother to rock all her nine babies to sleep from 1828-1844. Keep it in the family." There lies on this little chair a touch of that personal, homey immortality that the home-going dead must value, - and yet it is only a little wooden rocker, tawny drab, and finely lined like an old parchment - or an old face. It has no arms, therefore had no bumps for little heads. It has spreading legs and rockers, and on each rocker is painted a bunch of fading wild roses.
       All the little home is gentle with old memories. Each morning at the close of breakfast I listen first to the daily reading from the Moravian Textbook for the year, the custom of the Text-book dating back to Count Zinzendorf, and after the Text-book comes the reading from birthday and memory books. As I listen, a kindly past made up of small family events becomes vital for me, the guest. Yet the little cottage is alive to the present as well as to the past. The neighbor children blow in and out all ruddy with ball-playing. The Moravian is a children's church, its services crowded with jolly youngsters, seated as happily beside their parents as seedlings grow around a tree. To Moravian children the story of a children's Friend is no dead tale. The rosy seven-year-old Harold who comes flying so often to our door has a hearty affection for Santa Claus, but with that Other he is even more familiar. A few weeks before this last Christmas a little playmate died. Harold was puzzled by the sorrow of the grown-ups and protested, "But Louise has gone to Jesus, and she will be there for His birthday." Winifred Kirkland, 1924
Bethabara Moravian Church Christmas Lovefeast in Winston Salem. 

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