A Bright Shining Star

A Bright Shining Star

It’s one of the most recognizable – and beautiful – holiday images. Crafted from intricately designed metals, sparkling crystals, or the more traditional glass or white paper, thousands of Moravian Stars are displayed throughout the Lehigh Valley each year.

But while we all easily connect these celestial symbols to the Valley’s rich Moravian history, what most of us fail to realize is that the star is actually a relatively new creation – and was not widely adopted as a Moravian symbol until nearly 100 years after Bethlehem’s founding.

In fact, the history of the Moravian movement dates back to the turn of the 15th Century, when the group’s spiritual founder, Jan Hus, rejected the Roman Catholic Church in Bohemia and Moravia (modern day Czech Republic), and advocated for a return to simpler religious practices.

Although Hus was ultimately tried by the Catholic Church and burned at the stake for his dissentions in 1415, many of his followers continued to advocate for church reformation. Nearly 50 years after his execution, a small portion of them organized into what was known as the “Unity of the Brethren” – the group that would ultimately evolve into the Moravian Church.

Faced with severe persecution, members of the Unity of Brethren were forced to live in secrecy for more than 250 years. Finally, in the early 1720s, a nobleman named Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf allowed them to settle on his lands in Saxony, Germany. There, they established a small village called Herrnhut, which quickly grew into the center of the Moravian community. Branching out to establish missionary settlements throughout the world, Count Zinzendorf and a group of Moravians traveled to the New World, where they founded Bethlehem in 1741.

…the star is actually a relatively new creation.

While the Moravians in Bethlehem and nearby Nazareth flourished over the next century, their communities in Saxony, Germany also continued to thrive. And it was there that the first Moravian Stars began to appear in the early 1800s.

Although it is unclear exactly when the first “official” Moravian Star was created (a recently unearthed diary states that Christian Madsen, a student attending a Moravian boys boarding school in Niesky, Germany made the first star as a Christmas decoration in 1820, while other sources trace their origin to math teachers in the Niesky school and another Moravian school in the nearby town of Kleinwelka), it is known that they were used to help teach geometry lessons to Moravian students in the early 1830s. This use in the classroom helped popularize the design, and by the mid-1860s students and their family members were making Moravian Stars as decorations for the holiday season.

In the early 1880s, a former graduate of the Niesky school named Pieter Verbeek began producing the first Moravian Stars for sale. Constructed out of white paper, Verbeek sold the stars and the directions for assembling them in his small bookstore in Herrnhut. A few years later, his son, Harry Verbeek, improved upon his father’s business by establishing a factory for mass-producing Moravian Stars in tin, glass and paper varieties. By partnering with the Moravian Church, the company exported the stars to Moravian settlements throughout the world – including here in the Lehigh Valley. Demand for the stars proved so great that the company printed the assembly directions in four different languages.

As the star’s popularity grew, so too did its prominence within the church. The 26-pointed star was adopted as a Christmas and Advent symbol, and became the celestial image used to represent the Star of Bethlehem in nativity scenes.

The Herrnhut factory, meanwhile, continued to grow and expand throughout the early 20th Century – producing and exporting thousands of Moravian Stars each year. In January 1926 alone, records indicate that American Moravians purchased more than 3,600 stars from Herrnhut. This immense growth forced the company to move into a larger production space in 1933, where it continued operations into the early 1940s. Damaged by the Soviet army during World War II, the factory was reopened after the war concluded. Although it was briefly taken over by the East German government during the 1950s, ownership was eventually transferred back to the Moravian Church, where it remains to this day.

Today, the Herrnhut Star Factory operates year round – producing hundreds of thousands of Moravian Stars for shipment around the world. The Moravian Star’s popularity has also spread well beyond the Moravian community. Constructed in a variety of colors and points – ranging from the traditional twenty-six to upwards of a hundred points – they have become synonymous with the holiday season. And in places such as here in the Lehigh Valley, the many beautiful varieties can be seen prominently displayed in hundreds of homes, churches, businesses and organizations every holiday season.

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