Christmas in Old Salem Village

It's early on a frosty morning in Old Salem Village, and icicles hang from the eaves of the houses around the square. The streets are quiet except for a few people walking to their work--a young man in a warm jacket and muffler, knee breeches, and heavy knit socks ducks into the door of the Winkler Bakery, where fragrant yeast dough already rises for the day's baking. Farther on, a woman wrapped in a warm cloak and close-fitting bonnet slips into the Vogler House to await the day's visitors in this Christmas season.

Old Salem Village, in the heart of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, still starts the day much as it must have done when it was founded two centuries ago by Moravians, a European Protestant sect that sought sanctuary in America. It was a "planned" town, designed to be a commercial center and built to the specifications of Moravian elders.

A great success, the town was a thriving hub of activity until the Industrial Revolution outmoded and outpriced its handcrafted goods. Its commerce gradually declined while the city of Winston-Salem grew, encroaching on the now diminished village. Many families saw the hard times through, however. The Winkler Bakery, for example, has been producing its Moravian sugar cake and crisp spice cookies in the same building since it was founded in 1807, and a Winkler descendant still lives upstairs.

Now, after a long interruption, Old Salem Village is almost fifty years into its second life. It narrowly escaped destruction in the 1950's when a group of determined citizens (Moravians and non-Moravians alike) rescued the area from commercial development. They organized Old Salem, Inc. (the oldest preservation group in North Carolina) and have gradually restored the village to its appearance at the beginning of the 1800's. The Single Brothers House, completed in 1786, was home to the community's single men and boys and center for several of the village's craft shops.

Today, it is both information center and exhibit building, a showcase for some of those same early craft shops that were active in the nineteenth century. Here, expert joiners working by candlelight use antique tools; dyers simmer pots of indigo and other plant material to color linen and wool; weavers turn out lengths of fabric for the tailor shop to make clothing for the village. The pewterer's foot moves rhythmically on the treadle that turns his lathe, shaping a shiny bowl for one of the restored houses or for sale at T. Bagge- Merchant, Old Salem's gift shop.

Down Main Street is the shoemaker's shop, where lefts and rights are identical in every pair. The shoemaker says if you always wear the same shoe on the same foot, you'll soon have a left and a right.

In the red brick Federal-style Vogler House, built in 1819 and also on Main Street, preparations for Christmas have begun. Visiting children are encouraged to make decorations for a small tree set up in the parlor, where an early nineteenth-century illuminated crèche is on display. At the Vierling House, though, a traditional Moravian pyramid has been set up, sparingly decorated with candles, a bit of green, and Bible verses written on rich, cream-colored paper.

By November 9, when the Christmas season officially arrives in Old Salem Village, the entire area will be decorated in keeping with the early nineteenth century. Many special events are planned throughout November and December to honor the holiday.

Old Salem Christmas, always a gala occasion, takes place the Saturday before Christmas, December 21 this year. Special programs in each of the twelve houses open to the public give visitors a view of a splendid Moravian Christmas holiday. Musicians in every building add to the festivities. A Moravian brass band plays, and the village, which usually closes at dusk, is illuminated on this evening by candlelight.

Candle Teas, sponsored by Home Moravian Church, include a tour of the Single Brothers House and are scheduled for December 5, 6, and 7 and December 12, 13, and 14; Thursdays and Fridays from 2 until 8:30, Saturdays 11:30 to 8:30.

Signs on all major highways around Winston-Salem indicate the way to Old Salem Village, open all year except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day; Monday through Saturday, 9:30 to 4:30, Sunday 1:30 to 4:30. Admission to restored houses and craft demonstrations is by ticket. There is a charge. A combination ticket for Old Salem Village and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, just past the village on Main Street, is also available.


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