Copyright by Hans Rollmann

Nain 1771

The temperature has fallen to 36 below and the wind howls along the palisades, yet inside the sturdy wooden building fourteen Moravians thank their Lord for the warmth of Christmas. The little band--six Germans, four Danes, and four Britons, including three women--is celebrating its first Christmas Eve at Nain, having arrived in August of 1771. In haste they have built their mission house. One Inuit, Manuina, has with his two wives and three children settled near the Europeans, but he is presently in Aupaluktuk with his brother-in-law in search of whales.

Alternating between German and English, the Moravians sing familiar Christmas hymns, but also remember Christ's crucifixion, the two focal points of their piety. Jens Haven, the Danish carpenter, sings with fervour. Once a missionary in Greenland, he has kept alive the idea of a Labrador mission after a first effort by Johann Christian Erhardt failed in 1752, and has become the driving force behind the settlement in Nain after three previous explorations. Next to him stands his wife, Mary Butterworth, a good-natured Yorkshire woman who joined the Moravians at Fulneck. She married "little Jens," as he is affectionately known among the Inuit, only a month before their departure for Labrador in May. Tonight, the Christmas story with the child in the manger resonates with a special meaning for this Mary in Labrador. While she sings, she feels the movement of her first child within her. John Benjamin will be born in February 1772 and will later follow in his parents' footsteps as a missionary.

The early settlement of Nain with the first mission house, established 1771
(Courtesy Moravian Archives, Herrnhut, Germany)

Superintendent Christoph Brasen, a Danish surgeon married to an Alsatian wife, records this first Christmas Eve service in the Nain diary. "We offered Him our poor and sinful hearts including life and soul," Brasen writes, "to serve him willingly and stand at his command, whatever he wants to use us for in this rough and cold land." He only regrets that Manuina and his family cannot be with them. He knows that song and celebration are much more effective in communicating the Moravian religious message than their theology or doctrine. He also knows that Manuina loves to sing about the Christ child.

While they now sing in unison with their brothers and sisters, Brasen and Gottfried Lehmann, a weaver from Saxony, will in three years' time no longer be with them. The two will perish when their sloop founders north of Nain on an exploration journey to establish a northern missionary outpost, the future Okak. Okak in turn will be devastated by a Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918 and disappear as a community.

On Christmas Day, Larsen Drachard preaches a sermon about the little child in the manger who was also God. In the sermon, the 60-year-old theologian revisits his childhood days in Denmark and reflects perhaps about his later life as a journey in grace, especially the Lutheran missionary service in Greenland that has changed his life forever. Drachard has learned the language of the Inuit and eventually become a Moravian. After a mystical experience of Christ's presence during his twelve years in Greenland, he later joins Jens Haven on two of his exploratory journeys to Labrador.

               Mrs. Hettasch and an Inuit knitting class at Nain
(Courtesy Moravian Archives, Herrnhut, Germany)

The third day of Christmas is celebrated with joy and solemnity. The temperature has now fallen to 40 degrees below. At dusk when the Europeans sit together, reminiscing and reading, they are suddenly startled by a loud scream from outside. The dogs start barking furiously. When they run to see what has disrupted the quiet of this holiday evening, to their joy, they discover Manuina, their Inuit neighbour. Fearing the dogs that run in front of the palisades, he wields a large knife. He is alone, but his wives are not far behind. He has merely run ahead of them to arrive before it is too dark to be recognized outside. An hour later, the two women follow. Since it is so cold and the family has not lived in their dwelling near the station for some time, the Moravians prepare them sleeping quarters in the little hall of the mission building. The Inuit also take part in the evening service as well as in the morning blessing of 28 December. A deep bond unites European and Inuit that first Christmas season. "We all feel a special love for the man and his family," writes Brasen in the community's diary, "and they, too, definitely trust us."

Okak 1776

The Okak Moravians celebrate their first Christmas Eve in 1776 with a lovefeast, a simple shared meal amidst singing and prayers, restoring an early Christian practice adopted also by the Methodists, who celebrate lovefeasts in the 1770s in Conception Bay. Jens Haven, who is part of the first Christmas at Okak, writes that they keep a night watch and "pray to the child in the manger in front of his creche." Similar religious celebrations continue the next day, Christmas.

Early Okak with the first mission house, established 1776
(Courtesy Moravian Archives, Herrnhut, Germany)

The Okak diary records the mixed feelings of solidarity and isolation of those labouring in such a remote location. The nearby Inuit visitors are also told the good news of Christmas, a message to be repeated in the following days at nearby Uvibak and Kivertlok by Haven and Johann Ludwig Beck, a missionary with Greenland experience who has joined the Moravians in Labrador in 1773.

Hopedale 1782

Hopedale celebrates its first Christmas in 1782. At this station south of Nain, the children are the centre of the Christmas Eve festivities. Thirty-three of them meet and are read the story of Jesus' birth. Each child is given some bread as a gift. Afterwards they are also shown a nativity scene and a representation of the crucifixion. The children and mothers are particularly drawn to these artistic images. Later, the Europeans celebrate a lovefeast and pray in front of the nativity scene and--according to Haven, their chronicler--welcome the dear child and ask him to come into their midst and remain with them. Christmas Day is spent in praise for the incarnation and with thanks that Jesus has come as their brother.

Early Hopedale with the first mission house, established 1782
(Courtesy Moravian Archives, Herrnhut, Germany)

On 26 December, the good news story of Christmas is recounted to the Inuit, but here the diary reveals the difficulties of the entire missionary enterprise. The drama in the encounter of the two cultures--European and Native--can still be sensed in the casual remark of Jens Haven, that communicating the message of the saviour's birth "is not as easy to make clear as one would wish."

The Lundberg missionary family at Hopedale around the turn of the 20th century
(Courtesy Moravian Archives, Herrnhut, Germany)

Today Moravians retain their distinctive Christmas celebrations and remain a mission-oriented church, although Labrador Moravians are now administratively on their own. Today Moravians also think of missions somewhat differently, emphasizing the need to change society not from without but from within. In the words of a Moravian from Africa during a recent conference on missions: "The example of the Apostle Paul who became 'to the Jews a Jew and to the Greeks a Greek,' deserves repeating more now than ever before."

Hans Rollmann is Professor of Religious Studies at Memorial Uiversity of Newfoundland and a religion columnist for The Telegram. The preceding reconstruction is based on the German diaries written by the Moravians.