Christmas at the Confluence

Today, a Moravian Christmas conjures up images of Herrnhuter stars, carols and candlelit midnight services. But what was Christmas like back in the days of the missions in Pennsylvania, 270 years ago? How did the missionaries celebrate this season of birth and light in the bleak midwinter on the Susquehanna River?

The first Christmas at the Shamokin mission for which we have records was celebrated in 1747 by Martin and Anna Mack and Anton and Catharine Schmidt. In the mission diary, Martin writes of the peace at the confluence on December 25, 1747 where their thoughts are directed towards the congregation in Bethlehem, Pa. At noon on Christmas Day, the four missionaries hold a little love feast for which they had baked bread rolls in the ashes of their fire. In the evening Anna Mack visits Shikellamy’s daughter-in-law, a Mohican woman who was one of the first people around the confluence who truly accepted and loved the Moravians (other than Shikellamy himself). She asks Anna if today were Sunday because the Moravians are so quiet; to this Anna replies, no, it is Christmas Day. The Mohican woman is quite surprised because “the white people usually have a lot of fun on that day. You are definitely a very different kind of people from the white people we know.” Anna agrees with her that the Moravians are very different, with their interiorized mediations on their community and their Savior, in contrast to the carousing of the white traders who live nearby down the river. However, the giving of gifts belongs very much to the Moravian tradition, and that evening Martin and Anna along with Anton and Catharine make a present of turnips to Shikellamy and his family who gratefully receive them.

The peace of the Confluence at Christmastime is however not repeated. A year later, the Macks and Schmidts have left, the Sachem, Shikellamy, has died a few weeks earlier, and Brothers Zeisberger and Rauch are now in charge. Zeisberger writes in the diary of the many visitors to the smithy on the day after Christmas, people from the Delaware and Iroquois nations, as well as Shikellamy’s son, Logan and his family. All are seeking refuge from the drunken people who have invaded their own homes. Also desirous of some peace, they are looking for a place to cook their food. And the Moravian mission house provides just that place!

Christmas at the Confluence 2013
Christmas at the Confluence 2013

The last Christmas the Moravians spend at Shamokin in 1754 is a time of joyful reunion as Heinrich Frey and Gottfried Rösler are on their return to the mission from their trip to Bethlehem via the Wyoming Valley. Christmas Eve is spent under the stars about 20 miles upriver from Shamokin not far from Lapachpeton’s village at the mouth of the Catawissa Creek. Unable to sleep because of the rain, Frey and Rösler meditate on the meaning of the day under the tent they have made out of their blanket. On Christmas Day, they arrive amid much rejoicing at Shamokin.

As the missions grew along the Susquehanna River, so too did the celebrations of Christmas. Just ten years later, in 1765, at the mission church in what was to become Friedenshütten, the  diary records 120 people attending the midnight service.  The story of Christ’s birth is read from the Harmony of the Gospels that has been translated into Delaware and the congregation listens intently.  The service ends with the congregation kneeling and praying at the Nativity scene that stands in the church.  The next year there are 170 at the midnight Christmas Lovefeast. The following year a new musical instrument that has been built at Friedenshütten accompanies the voices at the Christmas Eve service.  The next year, candles are distributed to the children at the service for the first time, and thus things begin to look a lot like today’s service at Central Moravian in Bethlehem (with the major caveat that the children are all Native Americans.)  By 1770, these same children are all excited at having Christmas vacation off school and being the center of the Christmas service.

In just over 15 years, the celebration of Christmas at the Moravian missions on the Susquehanna had changed from a quiet contemplative night of prayer and sharing of plain food with Native people to a complex midnight service with vocal and instrumental music, candles, and nativity scene, where the readings from a Delaware Gospel  might have been the only sign that this was a congregation not of European origin.

Instructions for Body and Soul

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In October 2011, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa to deliver the Moses Lectures.  The topic was the Moravian practice of the Speakings, monthly conversations that each member of the church had with the Choir Helper (spiritual leader) of the group or Choir to which he or she belonged.  Ones membership in a choir was determined  by marital status, gender, and age.  In my earlier post I talked about how one reaches the point of being able  to write an authentic memoir.  In the 18th century, the Moravian Church prepared each member of the Church for such self-writing through this system of the Speakings.  The lectures are divided into two parts.  Part One focuses on the history of the Speakings; Part Two focuses on the Instructions (1786) that describe how to conduct the Speakings.  I have transcribed and translated the Instructions and am preparing to publish them in the series “Pietist and Anabaptist Studies” from Pennsylvania State University Press. This work was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The text of these lectures was published in “The Hinge: International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church,” vol. 18, No. 2: Spring 2012.