We have a new Christmas ornament to hang this year, a Moravian star. You may not know it by name, but almost certainly you’ll recognize the shape – a big, bright, 3D star frozen in mid-glimmer.
Moravian stars aren’t as rare in these parts as they used to be, but neither are they as common as they are in and around Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is where we go to get ours.
Our first was softball-sized and made from a clear polycarbonate that imitates crystal passably well when the morning sun comes up behind it, so we leave it in a window by the breakfast table all year around.
The new one is 21 inches in diameter and molded from white polystyrene. It looks kind of crappy in daylight, to tell the truth, but it is built to be lighted from within, and when the room is dark and the LEDs are glowing it looks like something fallen from the heavens.
It might even remind you of the Star of Bethlehem as represented on countless Christmas cards, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s where the images originated.
The stars themselves are said to have been built initially as a teaching exercise in geometry for German schoolboys in the 1830s, and the technical term for the standard 26-pointed version is rhombicuboctahedron.
That describes a solid with eight triangular and 18 square faces, which become the bases of the points, each an elongated three- or four-sided pyramid. (Some stars have as many as 110 points, and probably a proportionally longer name as well.)
The star became the Moravians’ symbol for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and as Moravian immigrant communities took root in places like the other Bethlehem, in Pennsylvania, and Old Salem in North Carolina, it became an icon of Moravian presence in the wider world.
But they’re not particularly proprietary about it. Among the largest Moravian stars on display is a 31-footer atop the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem – which, as it happens, is the hospital that was caring for Sallie’s 95-year-old mother on the day we bought our new star, in Old Salem, just after Thanksgiving.
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There is discouragingly little that even a big, modern hospital can do for a lady in her middle 90s who, after a long run of above-average health, becomes suddenly and seriously ill.
There isn’t so much that family can do, either: You say cheerful things, show snapshots, adjust the bedding, call the nurse, hope for the best, prepare for the worst and, while she sleeps the afternoons away, go for long walks.
“The Baptist” sits between downtown Winston-Salem and the Ardmore historic district, a fine neighborhood for a long walk.
Bungalows from early in the last century are plentiful. So are monumental magnolias and willow oaks and other, more northern trees that made me homesick for Indiana: tulip poplars and hickories, sycamores and chokecherries, sweetgums with their woody fruit capsules that look so extraterrestrial, and more than a little like Moravian stars.
Also nearby is the historic district that preserves Old Salem. You park by a modern visitor center, cross a covered bridge made of massive wooden beams, and emerge in the townsite established in the middle 1700s by Moravian congregations branching out from Pennsylvania. They called it Wachovia back then.
As with many such districts, a few of Old Salem’s buildings have been converted to museum properties and gift shops with costumed interpretive staff. But to a degree I’ve never seen anywhere else, plenty of homes remain privately owned and occupied. Take away the cars, the contemporary clothes and the asphalt and it could still be, say, 1772.
That’s the year Salem College was founded. It’s still privately owned and operated, too, and still all women.
The Moravians were not a utopian sect, nor a particularly insular one, but they did feel that men and women were better off doing many things apart – like going to school, or to church, or to their graves in the community cemetery, God’s Acre.
We ate a late lunch at the tavern, a chicken pie made from a 250-year-old recipe that, frankly, could use some updating – like adding some vegetables. But the ale was good and we enjoyed hearing about modern life in Old Salem from young Cale Keiper, whose father is the establishment’s 26th tavern keeper. Cale plans to be the 27th.
When he learned where we were from he pointed out a map on the back wall that dated from 1718, when most of North America outside the British colonies was apportioned between France and Spain. It was no surprise to see the Mississippi River in place and named, but I didn’t expect to see the Chippewa River and Lake Pepin already prominent in the cartographer’s scheme of things.
Keiper was proud that the salad greens and other produce served at the tavern were grown just a few blocks away, in the village gardens, so we went to have a look. The plots were laid out in an old, ornamental style and most plantings were in mounded earth, the precursor of raised beds. The growing season was far from over for chard, turnips, beets, onions ….
A gardenkeeper came along and I asked about a planting that looked kind of like the clover farmers in Minnesota sometimes use as a cover crop in corn and bean fields. He seemed to think I was kidding:
“Well, it’s clover. Works the same way on the small scale.”
We noticed the light was fading, the temperature dropping, dinnertime at the hospital approaching, so we headed back to reality, recrossing the covered bridge now lighted with dozens of Moravian stars.
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And shortly after that, I am pleased to report, Sallie’s mother began to improve – enough to leave the hospital and then, against all expectations, to move from nursing care to an assisted-living arrangement in the same apartment building where she’d been living before.
Other daughters will be joining her for another Christmas, and there’s some reason to hope this one won’t be her last.
As the sun set on Tuesday I wired up the big new star and hung it where Sallie would see it when she got home from work; she arrived with a fresh, organic Christmas turkey. On Thursday we’ll tackle the holiday decorating that got postponed by our Carolina travels.
We don’t mess with a live tree anymore, or wreaths or spruce tops or any other fresh greenery except for the spruce roping out front that Sallie loves and I accommodate despite a general distaste for what I once heard described, memorably, as “the Christian tradition of decorating with yard waste.”
I’ll hang three artificial evergreen garlands, with lights, that I bought a dozen years ago in Colorado to decorate a cabin where I was spending a rare Christmastide away from home and family. Two will go above the glass on two long walls of windows, the third will run along the beam above the breakfast table.
Dozens of ornaments will hang below them, catching the light, because light and ornaments are the point.
There’s a memory of some Christmas past in each snowman and icicle, each wooden Santa and patchwork stocking, each blown-glass star and Matchbox car – just as there will be for years to come in the Moravian star now brightening our Christmas present.