I received the neatest surprise package in the mail today. A few days ago I entered a drawing on the Facebook page of my alma mater, Wake Forest University and- shockingly- I won!
You see, every year before classes let out for Christmas break Wake Forest has a Lovefeast service in the campus chapel. For a lot of Wake students, this is their first time attending the Lovefeast service and becomes cemented in their mind as a particularly “Wake Forest”-y experience and a memory that they take with them into their adult lives. For me, the Lovefeast service means a bit more. The Lovefeast service is a Moravian tradition. If you haven’t spent a Christmas in North Carolina or Pennsylvania you might not have ever heard of the Moravians. If you want to hear the history of the Moravian people and Moravian Church, my dad would be a great person to talk to. But in a nutshell, the Moravians were a group of Germanic people who, led by Jon Huss, formed one of the first Protestant religious communities in the 1400s (long before Luther came along). After decades of hardship and persecution the Moravians eventually found their way to the colony of Pennsylvania in 1741 and, shortly afterwards, founded a small settlement in the wilderness of North Carolina. My ancestors were among these first settlers in NC and my family has lived in (what eventually became) Winston – Salem ever since and remained part of the Moravian church. So- what does all of this have to do with a Christmas Lovefeast service, you ask? Well, the story goes that in the early 1700s things were looking pretty grim for the Moravians. They were living “underground” since it was illegal to be anything but Catholic in Moravia at the time. But then a wealthy but generous noble man – Count Zinzendorf- gave them refuge on his estate in eastern Germany. They were so happy to finally have a place to live and worship safely and openly that they came together for a service of worship and celebration. According to the story, they were so filled with love for each other and for God that they couldn’t tear themselves away from the service. It went on so long that they started to get hungry, so some members gathered up loaves of bread and coffee (okay, it was probably actually beer being Germany in the 18th century but as a kid I was told coffee). Then it started to get dark, so they passed around candles for light. This was the first Lovefeast.
The tradition has continued to this day. Lovefeast services are actually celebrated throughout the year at Moravian churches, but they are best known for the Christmas service. My family’s church always celebrates the Christmas Lovefeast on Christmas Eve, but other churches in the area – including the one on WFU’s campus- have Lovefeasts earlier in December. People from throughout the region attend the Christmas Lovefeast services, even if they don’t attend a Moravian church during the year. It has become a distinctly “Winston-Salem” experience for a lot of people and for many of us, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the taste of rich coffee (with plenty of real cream and sugar)and soft buns of bread and the smell of beeswax candles.
As a child growing up in the Moravian church, Christmas Eve was the Big Day in my family and Christmas Day was just an afterthought. We basically spent all day at the church, sometimes rushing home for a big family lunch in between services, because my parents were both “deniers”. These are the people who serve the coffee, buns and candles to the congregation. Once my little brother and I were tall enough to reach the door knobs, we found a job as “door openers” — the deniers with their hands full of trays of food and candles always needed a little helper to open the doors to the sanctuary. As we grew older we were trusted with greater responsibilities and eventually became deniers ourselves.
Now that I live in Kentucky I’m often not able to travel back to North Carolina for Christmas. Thankfully, our family is able to travel to visit us when we can’t make it back home and we are forming new holiday traditions, but Christmas isn’t quite the same without attending the Christmas Lovefeast. This year I’m looking forward to tuning into the Wake Forest live feed of the annual on-campus Lovefeast Sunday Dec 7 at 8pm. I’ll be ready with my cup of coffee, beeswax candle and even a printed program so I can sing along. Chris has promised to see what he can do with the Lovefeast Bun mix so maybe I’ll even have a bun to dip in my coffee!