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I love the first signs of Christmas in Winston-Salem, NC, when Moravian stars light up porches and line the streets of downtown and the giant, 31-foot Moravian star atop the tower of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center shines like a beacon. Ever wonder about the origins of the star?
The Moravian star is an illuminated star-shaped lantern, most commonly having 26-points. It is an emblem for the Moravian Protestant faith. It is used for advent and Christmas decorations and is popular in Old Salem (Winston-Salem, NC) and throughout Moravian settlements and in Germany & Europe where there are Moravian congregations.
Birth of the Moravian Star
The star was widely believed to have originated at the Moravian Boy’s School in Niesky, Germany in the 1830’s as a geometry lesson. However, recent discoveries in the diary of George F. Bahnson, who attended the school and later served as minister in the North Carolina Moravian settlements of Bethania and (Old) Salem, where he died, cited that Christian Madsen, a former student of the Moravian Boy’s School, constructed the first Moravian star for the school’s 50th anniversary and Christmas celebration in 1820.
The star was adopted by the Moravian Church as an advent symbol and has grown in popularity to countries and communities without Moravian congregations. The Moravian star is commonly used in nativity scenes, or putz, to represent the star of Bethlehem.
Mass Production of the Moravian Star
Around 1880, Peter Verbeek, an alumnus of the Moravian Boy’s School, began making the paper stars and sold them in his bookstore. His son Harry founded the Herrnhut Star Factory in nearby Herrnhut, Germany, which produced the stars in tin and glass, as well as paper versions, and still produces the stars today, also now in plastic. In Germany, they are known as Herrnhut stars.
Moravian Stars in Old Salem
During World War I, however, the Herrnhut factory was damaged and had to close for a period of time. Demand in America for Moravian stars for Christmas decoration continued, so Moravians in Old Salem (a historical village in Winston-Salem, NC) began producing them for sale. Writer Winifried Kirkland wrote an account of a visit to Old Salem during Christmas, and included a picture of the “Star-Makers House”. They are still made and sold in Old Salem today, as paper ornaments, plastic porch lights and as metal and glass lanterns.
Moravian Stars around the world
A large Moravian star shines in the dome of the Frauenirche in Dresden, Germany and over the alter of Thomaskirche, in Leipzig, Germany, where Johann Sebastian Bach is buried.