Moravian Nativity Scene Exhibited at Glencairn

Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2011

 

Moravian Putz Assembly Team

 

One of the highlights of this year’s annual Christmas exhibition, “Follow the Star: World Nativities,” is a Moravian “putz” originally owned by the Morris family of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  The term putz comes from a German word meaning “to decorate,” and refers to a traditional Moravian landscaped Nativity scene. The Moravians first traveled to America as missionaries in the 18th century. They came to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in 1740, and founded their first settlement in nearby Bethlehem in 1741. The Moravian Church continues to be active in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Lititz, and other locations in Pennsylvania, with approximately 800,000 members worldwide.

For over 150 years the Morris family putz was set up annually in their home in Bethlehem. The oldest figures in the scene, including the Holy Family, the wise men, and the shepherds, were imported from Germany in the 1870s. In 1994 the figures were donated to the Moravian Historical Society located in Nazareth.

In Moravian tradition, the putz was assembled by the older members of the family and kept from the children until Christmas Eve day. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the children were allowed to take part in the collecting of moss, stones, tree stumps, greens, and other natural elements to be used in the landscape. The Morris family collected these in the woods along the Lehigh River.

 

This year, moss for both the Morris family’s “putz” and the Pitcairn family’s “representation” was gathered in the woods near Glencairn. 

 

On December 4, 2010, the Morris putz was set up in Glencairn’s Great Hall by Wendy Koller, executive director of the Moravian Historical Society, and a group of volunteers. At the front of the Nativity is a small “sandbox” filled with toys, a feature that had been part of the putz when it was owned by the Morris family. The idea behind the sandbox was to keep the children from playing with the more delicate crèche figures, and to give them something to do while the Christmas story was being read out loud. Another unique feature of the Morris family putz is the inclusion of wild animals, including brown bears, a polar bear, a lion, giraffe, and elephant. This is a reference to Isaiah 11:6: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

 

At the front of the Nativity is a small “sandbox” filled with toys, a feature that had been part of the putz when it was owned by the Morris family.

 

The inspiration for some of the oldest surviving Nativities in Bryn Athyn—a New Church (Swedenborgian) community—may lie in this Moravian custom. The New Church minister Rev. William H. Benade was born into a Moravian family, and spent his early career as a professor at the Moravian College and Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Growing up in Moravian communities, Benade would have been very familiar with the tradition of putz building. Half a century later, as a New Church minister in Philadelphia, Benade replaced his church’s Christmas tree with a landscaped Nativity scene. In an 1889 issue of New Church Life this scene was called a “representation,” a term that continues with many New Church families today.

Raymond Pitcairn was a member of Benade’s Philadelphia congregation as a child. He moved with his family to Bryn Athyn in the 1890s when the church and school relocated there. In the 1920s Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn commissioned a three-part landscaped Nativity for their home at Cairnwood, and collected moss for it each year from the local woods near Mildred’s retreat. The Pitcairns’ “representation” has been displayed at Glencairn each Christmas season since the late 1930s.

This year, moss for both the Morris family’s “putz” and the Pitcairn family’s “representation” was gathered in the woods near Glencairn. The putz will remain on exhibit at Glencairn Museum through January 28, 2011.