By Professor Carol on Dec 04, 2014 03:00 am
Moravian Star – Urban Sea Star (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Czech Republic is considered to be one of Europe’s most secular countries today. Yet, its religious history is intense, filled with the betrayal and burning of religious reformer Jan Hus (1515) and violent alternation between Protestant and Catholic rule. That intensity continued with the unpopular rule by Austrian Catholics, followed later by Hitler’s National Socialism, and decades of imposed Communism. It’s a wonder to me that anyone goes to church!
Yet, that land of tumult brought us one of Advent’s most peaceful symbols: the Moravian Star. You could say that beauty and mathematics meet in its elegant form. Here’s how it all happened.
Due to religious persecution, Bohemian and Moravian Protestants were welcomed in 1722 as refugees to land owned by a beneficent German count named Ludwig von Zinzendorf. A little town called Herrnhut became home not only to Moravians but other displaced European Protestants. In 1741, a group of Moravians left their safe-haven of Herrnhut and voyaged to the New World to start settlements first in Georgia, and then, more permanently, in areas we know today as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Moravians brought a strong ethic for hard work, liberal education, and a sophisticated appreciation of the Arts.
The star itself was not part of the Renaissance Czech history, but originated in a 1830s classroom at a Moravian boys’ school in Niesky, 30 miles from Herrnhut, in a region that lies at the eastern edge of today’s Germany. The stars resulted from geometry experiments as the teacher created variations on a polyhedron. While most Moravian stars that we see today have 26 points, the earliest versions had as many as 110 points. Now that’s geometry in action!
But it’s a long way from a geometric exercise to a religious symbol recognized around the world. The stars fascinated the local residents of Niesky. They were interesting to make and beautiful to behold. A practice arose for families to construct a star and hang it out on the first Sunday in Advent. Then, in the 1880s, a graduate of the school at Niesky named Peter Verbeek started making stars to sell in his bookstore. He even printed up instructions. His son Harry set up a firm in nearby Herrnhut to produce the stars commercially.
The name “Herrnhut” has spiritual significance. It means the “Lord’s” (Herrn) “Protection” (Hut). And yes (for those of you studying German), Hut is the word for hat; but, in a broader sense, Hut means covering or protection. So while we call them Moravian Stars in America, they are known in much of Europe as the “Lord’s Protection Stars” (Herrnhuter-Sterne).
Despite the devastation of both World Wars, the Herrnhut factory has endured to this day. You can visit their site – Moravian Star-Central! – and, if you’re in Germany, you can go to their factory, take advantage of a new Visitors’ Center, and enjoy their café!
While you’ll see Moravian stars hung above the elaborate nativity scenes in European churches, their primary role is to proclaim the Advent season. It takes patience to construct a homemade one, but you’ll find a variety of websites that show you how, including this nice site.
Nowadays, commercially produced Moravian Stars come in plastic or paper, and are designed for indoor or outdoor use. You can get replacement parts and even storage boxes. But no matter how newfangled they’ve become, they still shine with a radiant purity that foretells the majesty of Christ’s birth.
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