Book Excerpt: Moravian Christmas in the South, by Nancy Smith Thomas

Moravian Christmas in the South by Nancy Smith Thomas introduces the history of many Christmas traditions that Americans still practice today. The author discusses how Christmas traditions in the United States changed over time in large part thanks to Moravians in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, by Tiya MilesThe following is an excerpt from Moravian Christmas in the South that details the early history of the Christmas tree. It includes details from the diary of Moravian missionary Anna Rosina Gambold, in which Gambold describes giving a gift to “Mrs. Vann,” the wife of Cherokee chief James Vann, who owned a plantation called Diamond Hill. The story of Diamond Hill, including rich portraits of Peggy Scott Vann, Anna Rosina Gambold, and Pleasant, an enslaved black woman owned by the Moravian Church, can be found in Tiya Miles award-winning history The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story.

Excerpt (pp. 19-20) from Moravian Christmas in the South, by Nancy Smith Thomas. Copyright © 2007 by Nancy Smith Thomas. Published by Old Salem Museum & Gardens, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Distributed by the University of North Carolina Press. Used with permission.


Moravian Christmas in the South, by Nancy Smith ThomasMoravian sister Anna Rosina Gambold recorded the first written documentation of the Christmas tree in the South on 21 December 1805, at the Moravian Indian Mission in Springplace, Georgia. She wrote: “Soon after breakfast we drove with our pupils in our cart to the Connasaga River, about 3 miles from here, to fetch a small green tree for Christmas. . . .” [grune Baumchen fur Weynachten][1]. That same year, at the beginning of Advent on December 1, Missionary Gambold remarked that the children had been asking for a long time how many Sundays there would be until Christmas and smilingly rejoiced that the number was dwindling. On Sunday the 8th there was a Singstunde, a song service, at the conclusion of the regular service. Then, on the 24th, “a happy lovefeast” was held at which “burning wax candles were distributed” and selected verses were sung. Spruce branches had been strewn on the floor[2] and a wreath hung in the window. Soon after breakfast on Christmas Day the children received small presents and “verses with colorful borders.” On the 26th they presented to the Cherokee chief’s wife, Mrs. Vann,[3] “a little painted wreath” with a text inside that read, “Unto You is born a Saviour!” During the week after Christmas “many Indians” came to look at the “Christmas Decorations.”[4]

The next year, again on 21 December, Sister Gambold wrote, “In the afternoon Brother Byhan went with our children on horse to fetch shrubs and little trees for Christmas decorations. This was a delight to the children. . . .”[5]  These shrubs would have been a part of the frequently erected Moravian Putz[6] decoration, which included assorted greenery and the Nativity at Christmas; “the little trees” were probably intended as Christmas trees.

One wonders about the appearance of those early Christmas trees. To enhance our imagination we may consider one of the earliest pictorial depictions of an American Christmas tree created by Lewis Miller (1796-1882). Miller, a German carpenter and chronicler of people and events by his folk drawings in York, Pennsylvania, sketched a picture of Seifert, a blue dyer, with his family, and in the background was a Christmas tree, which appears to be decorated with springerle cookies and fruit, perhaps apples.[7] The date on the drawing is 1809, which would make Miller sixteen years old when he made the picture. However, he was a neighbor of Seifert at that time, and the curator of the collection of the Historical Society in York believes it to be an accurate date, although the possibility exists that Miller may have drawn the picture later, as part of his reminiscing collection of “a looking glass for the mind.”[8] Another source sets the date for Miller drawing between 1819 and 1821.[9]  Regardless of the exact date, it does afford a visual rendering of an early American Christmas tree, such as the Gambolds might have put up at Springplace.


From Moravian Christmas in the South, by Nancy Smith Thomas. Copyright © 2007 by Nancy Smith Thomas. Published by Old Salem Museum & Gardens, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Distributed by the University of North Carolina Press. Used with permission.

Nancy Smith Thomas is an independent scholar living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has worked at Old Salem Museums and Gardens for eighteen years, focusing on Christmas interpretation and programming, and frequently presents lectures and workshops on Christmas decorations and traditions.

  1. [1]Schwarze, 113.
  2. [2]Clement Miles in Christmas Customs and Traditions (New York: Dover, 1976) 276, noted that in Sweden parlor floors were strewn with juniper or spruce or straw before Christmas. The custom obviously originated in Europe.
  3. [3]Mrs. Vann was Chief James Vann’s wife. The chief, in spite of his bouts of uncontrollable, murderous rage and random mean-spiritedness fueled by alcohol, was instrumental in encouraging the Moravians to come to Springplace, primarily because he wanted education for the children of the Cherokee Nation. He sent his own son Joseph to the school and provided some slave labor for the mission; the missionaries in turn helped him in constructing his fine new home, which today is a museum with the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, where they decorate for Christmas in the Moravian style.
  4. [4]Springplace Diary, 21 December 1805.
  5. [5]Springplace Diary, 21 December 1806.
  6. [6]See Chapter Three for an extensive explanation of the Putz
  7. [7]Lewis Miller: Sketches and Chronicles (York, PA: The Historical Society of York County, 1966) 45.
  8. [8]E-mail correspondence with Justine Landis, Curator, York County Heritage Trust, 17 February 2005.
  9. [9]Winterthur Yuletide Interpretive Manual (Henry Francis Dupont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware) Trees, 1.