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In 1415, a century before Martin Luther, Western Europe was already beginning to be torn apart by sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. That year, Jan Hus, a Czech priest, was burned at the stake for heresy. His followers, initially protected by King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (that's right, it's the guy in the Christmas carol), carried on the early Protestant tradition; many went underground. Fast forward to 1700, when a German count named Zinzendorf gave refuge to stealth Protestant refugees from Moravia, the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic. In 1741, on Christmas Eve, Zinzendorf and a group of Moravians founded a community in Pennsylvania, which they named Bethlehem ("House of Bread") after the village in the Judean hills where Jesus was born.
Fast forward to 1950, when I was seven years old, and lived with my family in another Pennsylvania town near Bethlehem, which had become the "Christmas City," and was famous for its light display and the Star on top of a hill. We would drive into Bethlehem to gawk at the lights, which was OK for Jews like us to do as long as we didn't put up our own lights outside our house. What I didn't learn until later is how much Bethlehem and many surrounding towns had been influenced by the descendants of the Moravians, who were very fond of classical music, which was very big in the local schools including mine.
There were two other Moravian traditions that I learned about as a young adult. One was a spectacular 26-pointed three-dimensional Christmas star which is seen on houses around Bethlehem. The other was the Putz. That's right, the Putz. It's not what you're thinking, unless you happen to be Moravian. Appearing throughout Christendom at Christmastime there are Nativity scenes, the scourge of separation-of-church-and-state watchdogs in the USA because they are so popular. If you live in a country with a Christian tradition, you've seen one. Surrounding Baby Jesus in his cradle, there are Mary, Joseph, the three Wise Men (were they Zoroastrians in search of the Saoshyant? Some think so.) and the all kinds of sheep, cows, camels, the village of Bethlehem, and of course the Star. My Jewish eyes become misty when I think about it, because, frankly, it's so beautiful, and so, well, cute. Without diminishing the reputation of other Nativity-Scene builders, I hereby assert that the Moravians of Bethlehem build a Nativity Scene second to none on Earth. And what do they call it? They call it the Putz.
At this point it becomes necessary to delve into German philology. Consulting the trusty dict.cc website, one learns that Putz, in German (rhymes with "foot's") , means "finery" or "trappings", and hence is a totally accurate description of a well designed Nativity Scene. The problem arises due to the fact that the word putz also became part of the Yiddish language, where it (pronounced to rhyme with "nuts") gained the connotation of the kind of finery and trappings of the male anatomy which eventually led Sigmund Freud to postulate that women tended to become envious of such finery and trappings. Eventually, the Yiddish word took on the meaning, positive and negative, of the second word in the phrase "Tricky Dick," and from there, the verb "putzing" arose (no pun intended) as a more graphic term for dolce far niente, although in its crudest sense, it is not niente. Philip Roth, the great Jewish American novelist, incorporated a droll character in one of his books, described as a Moravian Jew, called a putz throughout the book until the final chapter, when he finds himself face to face with the renowned Moravian Putz of Bethlehem. Which leads me to this sincere recommendation: if you ever get to Bethlehem (Pennsylvania, that is) at Christmastime, visit the Putz. You will be impressed. If you're Jewish or a New Yorker, try to keep a straight face when you seen the sign. It's worth it. When Moravians build a Putz, they don't putz around.Permanent Link to This Entry | | Technorati Tag: Nativity blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
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