Sunday, December 13

advent 2009

I don’t think you’ve truly experienced Christmas until you’ve found yourself sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by twenty-six pieces of paper folded into large points of differing sizes – some with square bases, others triangular – trying to figure out how to connect them all together without bending or crushing them in order to assemble a Moravian star. Picture making two pointy geodesic domes and attaching them together and you pretty much get the idea. Then you have to snip the end of one point, feed in a cord to a lightbulb, and reconnect it all again without damaging anything. The trick is getting the bulb to hang without actually touching the paper, otherwise the whole thing could go up in flames. I think the experience is comparable to tired parents late on Christmas Eve trying to assemble a child’s bicycle with the instructions missing.

No one knows exactly who created the first Moravian star, but it probably happened at a school in Niesky, a Moravian town in Germany, as a festive Advent geometry lesson around 1830. What clearly started out as a way to punish math students became wildly popular. (By the way, you don’t have to stop with twenty-six points. I’ve seen a huge Moravian star with 110, but I think the guy who made it was doing penance for something really heinous.) A star factory developed in Herrnhut, Germany, which put these things out for world consumption until it shut down during World War I. After that, star factories started springing up in Moravian towns in the United States, including my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

As you can imagine, the Moravian star is the chief symbol of Christmas in Winston-Salem. You see stars hanging on the front porch of every other house and even in the center of wreaths in the downtown Christmas decorations on lampposts. People take them down carefully each year and store them in the attic, trying desperately not to crush them, though often you’ll see them appear the next year with some points at half-mast. Now they are mostly made out of plastic and come preassembled, but the new ones just can’t replace a venerable paper Moravian star which has turned golden with age. It’s the envy of the neighborhood.

It’s not just Moravians who display them, of course. When Richard Groves became the pastor of the Wake Forest Baptist Church, thoughtful members of the congregation gave him five his first Christmas. And there is a gigantic Moravian star that sits atop Baptist Hospital that you can see for miles. The interdenominational nature of Moravian stars can even be found here in Savannah. I was surprised the first time I saw the nativity scene in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Guiding the Italian ceramic wise men to the stable, suspended by an extension cord, was a Moravian star.

I’ve had two Moravian stars hanging on my porch since living here in Savannah but both of them were stolen, I choose to think by some homesick Moravians or really inquisitive geometry students. I have a miniature one as an ornament hanging on my tree every year, but somehow that never seems quite the thing. But if I ever find myself missing the symbol I most associate with Advent and Christmas, I don’t have to go too far to see one. That’s because they’ve even crept their way into our sanctuary. Perched atop both Chrismon trees, guiding us all through the Advent season to our celebration of the birth of Jesus sit two small Moravian stars.

– Christopher Hendricks

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