A Putz for Croton Falls

A community church in upstate New York puts Moravian traditions at center of  year-long celebration.

On Dec. 29, 2022, Central Moravian Church received the following e-mail message:

“I am Pastor Timothy Wagner of the Croton Falls Community Church in Croton Falls, New York. I am entering into my 30th year as pastor of the church and would like to plan a year-long project to create a Moravian Putz for our Church Sanctuary. This would be my Anniversary Project for my 30th year as Pastor. I have come to Bethlehem every year for more than 20 years to see Central’s Putz presentation. My goal is to include our church family in the creation of approximately fifty Putz figures and for them to learn about Moravian Christmas traditions. We would dedicate the Putz during Advent of 2023. Please pass this information to anyone who might want to help us with this project…”

Central’s pastor Hopeton Clennon passed this query along to Diane Shaw, chair of Central’s History Committee, which had put out a book about Central’s Putz in 2012 (The Moravian Christmas Putz: Bethlehem Moravians Tell the Story of the Birth of Christ by Vangie Roby Sweitzer). Diane dispatched three copies of the book to Pastor Wagner.

“The books arrived and I have been furiously reading,” wrote Pastor Wagner, “More reading and more work ahead.”

In early February, Pastor Wagner and Deacon Billy Bowen met Central members Diane Shaw and Robert Wascura for lunch at Hotel Bethlehem. After lunch, they visited the replica of the first house in Bethlehem in the Rose Garden and the Moravian Archives, where Pastor Wagner purchased many Moravian stars, declaring: “We want every business in Croton Falls to display a Moravian star this Christmas.”

Over the next several months, Pastor Wagner reported on the progress of the Croton Falls Putz by e-mail:

Feb. 11: I am happy to report that several folks here have found woods where we can get moss, however, I am not sure we want to go the live moss route.

Feb. 17: Here is the model of Central Moravian Church Cupola for CFCC community putz. I know the weathervane has “1803” however I was thinking of putting “1741” for the founding of Bethlehem. I am a bit conflicted on not being historically accurate. The model will be part of the prelude to the Christmas story. We will trace the putz tradition in the first part of our narration.

Mar. 9: The model of the belfry is complete, and I added a Herrnhuter star. The project is going well.

Mar. 10: Since there are two sides to a weathervane, one side reads “1803” and the other side is “1741.” When I have young people in the church, I will use both sides to tell the story of the naming of Bethlehem. I am researching the first house and hope to create a model for our putz this year. I am enjoying the project. The candle team has begun the process of purchasing molds. I completed a model of the Croton Falls Community Church bell and our steeple. Each week during our services we have a Moravian Minute where I explain and teach the various traditions and tenets. We learn a bit each week.

Apr. 5: Our project is moving forward. The Discovery Center has just been set up. One batch of candles made. Lots of excitement around the project.

July 26: We have been busy here taking orders for stars, making candles, and making figures for our Putz. We have also ordered some hand-carved figures from Oberammergau, Germany.

Aug. 9: The Nativity figures have arrived. Here is our Mary…

Aug. 17: We have a beeswax candle committee; a mug committee (to make custom mugs for Lovefeasts); a Herrnhut star committee to distribute stars; and a putz committee. In the process of this project to date, the Croton Falls Church has discovered a strong affinity to the basic core Moravian principles of: “In essentials Unity, in Non-Essentials Liberty, and in All Things Love.” The congregation sees these core values as a way of meeting the diversity and discord in church life and society in general. As a Community Church we seek to embrace all. These core values create a means to live out the Gospel.

Sept. 12: I have just gotten back from Bethlehem. I have brought two teams of helper/learners to candle-making today and last Tuesday. We were warmly received, and everyone has enjoyed the sessions and learned a lot about the process.

Sept. 13: I shared with the candle-making team that our Sunday School kids have each been given a plaster lamb. They are coloring and decorating them to be included as part of the “Shepherds and Angels” scene in the Putz. Since our Putz is in the Sanctuary the figures are larger than traditional Moravian Putz figures. Joseph is 18 inches tall. The lambs are 4 inches tall and 6 inches long seated. We want folks sitting in the church to be able to see the figures. The buildings for the Putz include the stable, the inn, Central Moravian belfry, Croton Falls façade, First House Bethlehem. Other scenes include Caesar Augustus, the shepherds’ field with angels, and the kings. Mary’s house for the Annunciation has not yet been built.

I was asked by one of the members of the candle team at Central why I was interested in the Moravian traditions. My answer is simple: In a world so divided and polarized, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is essential for us today. We are at liberty to interpret this narrative but must show love and compassion to all we come in contact with. These central elements of Moravian Christmas traditions lead us to that truth.

Central Moravian and Croton Falls Community Church have formed a new friendship around this old Moravian tradition. We will be visiting each other’s putzes in December. Central is  deeply grateful to Pastor Timothy Wagner for choosing this project to mark his thirty years in ministry. 

Diane Shaw is chair of Central Moravian Church’s History Committee. Photos courtesy of Pastor Timothy Wagner.