Candle Tea lights up Old Salem Christmas season

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Thousands of the beeswax and tallow candles will be lit at the Christmas Eve Lovefeast. (Daniel Wirtheim)

by Daniel Wirtheim

One of the sisters poured a mix of hot beeswax and tallow, or animal lard, into a tin mold that held eight of the skinny candles and passed it along. The next sister in the assembly line used a metal rod with a hook affixed to the end to pull a cotton wick through each melted stick then placed the mold in the windowsill to congeal.

Thousands of these beeswax candles will be lit during the Christmas Eve Lovefeast candle services at Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. As the tradition goes, members of the church’s Women’s Fellowship hosted six days of Candle Tea in the first two weeks of December to beckon in the Old Salem Christmas season.

“Sisters” are what the Women’s Fellowship volunteers call one another during the candle tea. They dress in 18th Century garb and enact traditions of the Moravian church that date back 200 years, like baking cookies and singing hymns. It was the early Moravians who learned that cutting the beeswax with tallow allows the candles to burn smoother and longer.

As one cooled candle mold is taken from the windowsill, it’s passed down the line to a sister who uses a knife to chip away some residual wax until eight candles are dangling from their wicks, for a group of children to see.

Sarah Hunter, Chair of the Candle Tea Committee, said that of the more than 11,000 visitors to attend the Candle Tea this year, scout groups and school groups make up the majority.

Children follow a slightly different route than the adult visitors. The young ones watch a nativity scene while the adults sing in a congregation. The children snack on Moravian sugar cookies while the older attendants sample sugar cakes and a twice-brewed coffee with sugar and cream.

Despite it’s name, there is no tea at a Candle Tea. It was in 1949 when the women’s auxiliary to the church combined a showing of the miniature Christmas village with a candlemaking demonstration that the name was coined, said Hunter.

“Back in the day women always had afternoon tea together so they called it ‘Candle Tea.’”

A decorations committee placed luscious wreaths throughout the home. The wreaths display objects important to the Old Salem Moravians. Cotton and cayenne peppers were tied into a wreath behind the candlemakers. Cinnamon, pheasant feathers and gourds from one in the kitchen and on the stairwell okra and fungi were included. According to Hunter, these uncharacteristically Christmas items were extremely important to the Old Salem Morivians of the 18th Century.

Take part in the Christmas Eve Lovefeast at the Home Moravian Church in Old Salem or by streaming the service online at homemoravian.org.

A miniature village, called by its German name “putz,” sits in the Basement of the Single Brothers’ House, which provided the perfect cold storage space for hanging meats, said one Candle Tea guide, Marcia Philips.

Warm yellow lights shone through the windows of the balsa wood and cardboard houses covered in marble dust to look like snow as Philips expressed points of interest to a group of elementary school students.

There’s the shop where iron tools were made, the small, shed-like building where the musicians practiced, the firehouse, the Single Sisters and Single Brothers’ House, all laid across 30 feet of table.

According to Philips, residents of 18th Century Salem were categorized into choirs, meaning groups based on gender and marital status. The Single Brothers’ House, the site of the current Candle Tea and putz, is where the unmarried men lived, before meeting appropriate ladies from the Single Sisters’ House, after which the townspeople would build the new couples homes of their own.

The putz is the last item of the tour for school and scout groups. They see a nativity scene as a sister reads the story of Christmas from scripture.

Meanwhile in an upstairs chapel room, called by it’s German name “saal,” a congregation of about 50 sang to the sound of a 1798 Tannenberg pipe organ.

It’s the smaller of two organs created by David Tannenberg, a master organ maker sometimes cited as the most important organ maker of his time. The younger, larger organ is housed in the Old Salem Visitors center. The Tannenberg is the sound of Christmas.

About 10 feet of wall area is covered in a row of pipes, as a sister controls the pressure-powered pipes from her seat at the organ, facing the crowd who sang, Noel, noel, born is the king of Israel.”