A Herrnhut New Year

Towering windows flamed in red, orange and yellow. Explosions rang out from all corners. Candles – the only light inside – shook and flickered, hanging low on ancient brass chandeliers.

I tried to focus on what happening inside, but where was that inside? It was the time of the year’s turning, deep in the midwinter of Eastern Europe. And we were actually in a simple white building, a church of the Moravian Brethren in the middle of the village of Herrnhut, in the Oberlausitz region close by the Czech border. All of which made it the most surreal new year’s celebration I had ever experienced.

We had come yet again to Herrnhut, a place that keeps drawing us back for many reasons, not all of them clear. Perhaps it is the peace of a village after the crush of Berlin; perhaps the air of quiet acceptance in a place founded by members of the Unitas Fratrum fleeing persecution in Bohemia; perhaps it is the praxis of communal cooperation rather than dogmatic adherence to creeds; perhaps also the forests, farms, heaths and rolling hills; perhaps the wolves to be found nearby; perhaps the cycling and walking that one cannot resist when there.

The new year was almost upon us and the bells took hold of our feet. They brought us to a service at a half hour to midnight. Inside, candles burned on chandeliers and two massive yule-trees, the musicians and choir gathered upstairs, people from all over the countryside entered on quiet soles, and the minister dressed in unpretentious white and black seemed as though he had come from the century before the last one. With the service all in German, I did not understand much, at least at the level of comprehending the spoken content. The written was a little easier, but in this situation other levels of understanding come to the forefront – the lilt of reverence, the intonation of known songs and prayers, the rhythm of the liturgy.

Inside it may have been peaceful; outside was a different matter. As the minister launched into his sermon, concerning difficulties and joys of time past as sources of fortitude (or so I was told later), the fireworks began. To be sure, occasional fire crackers had gone off in the couple of weeks leading up to new year, for the Germans have few restrictions on the use of them. But now they began in earnest.

From all corners of the church building came thunderous claps of what could only be dynamite. At times, they drowned out the minister’s voice. Flashes from exploding shells filled the windows, while airborne incendiaries spoke of flames licking the sides of the building. Fuses arced, hand-held flame-throwers sprayed, banked explosives fired away in a staccato, all while beer bottles were emptied into throats. And why not? After all, it was new year, so why not use the village square that surrounded the church to let off a few fireworks? A few? It seemed as though the whole arsenal of Europe was now concentrated on this (not long before) quiet corner in the eastern part of Germany. Since fireworks have been banned at home since the 1970s – too many injuries – it was more than I had seen for almost a lifetime.

Inside, with a couple of minutes to go the minister began to wrap up. Suddenly, at the stroke of midnight the organ fired up, the other instruments followed suit and the choir burst forth! He had been caught in the midst of his last sentence, his timing out by a few seconds. Smiling at the interruption, for he was too experienced to be embarrassed, he launched into song. As the service drew to a close and while the fireworks raged unabated outside, the congregation fell to passionate smooching and kissing and hugging and … bringing on the new year.

2010 December 065a


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