THE MORAVIANS are a group who really know how to celebrate Easter. So much so, in fact, that they're sometimes referred to as "the Easter people."

Originally a European religious sect called the Unity of Brethren, they were followers of the 15th-century Bohemian martyr John Hus and lived primarily in Moravia and Bohemia (now parts of Czechoslovakia).

Religious persecutions in the early 1700s drove them from Moravia (hence the name "Moravians") to refuge on the estate of a Count Zinzendorf in Saxony. From there, many of the Moravians emigrated to America, where they settled in a variety of communities, the best-known being Bethlehem, Pa., and Salem, N.C.

Founded in 1766, Salem was a unique center of industry and order in the then-wilderness of Carolina. Hard-working and devout, the Moravians brought with them Old World artisans' skills, a strong belief in education and a love of choral and instrumental music. They were a serious group, but they were no Puritans; for example, they operated their own brewery to make sure the town's tavern was well supplied. In 1913, Salem merged with the bordering town of Winston to form Winston-Salem, and the original settlement has been authentically restored and opened to the public as Old Salem.

Just as Easter is the high point of the Christian calendar, Easter was--and is--the high point of Old Salem's religious celebrations. Today thousands of "strangers" (non-Moravians) join the dozen or so Moravian congregations in the Winston-Salem area in celebrating and making a joyful noise during the traditional Easter sunrise service held each year in Old Salem.

Beginning at 2 a.m. in the pre-dawn darkness, Moravian brass bands from the various congregations begin playing on street corners throughout the city. Over the course of the next several hours, the bands march through the streets, finally converging to form a brass band some 500 strong at Salem Square. After taking a break for a hearty breakfast of country ham, scrambled eggs and sugar cake, the combined band leads a procession of 10,000 to 20,000 worshipers to God's Acre, the settlement's graveyard. As dawn breaks (this year it will be at 5:30 a.m.) the presiding minister proclaims "The Lord is risen," and the congregation responds "He is risen indeed." The bands continue playing thoroughout the service, often antiphonally, and all in all it's a triumphant celebration of life over death.

It's not feasible for most "strangers" to go to Old Salem for Easter, but it is possible to have a taste of Moravian culture on Easter morning by serving Winkler's Moravian Sugar Cake for breakfast. Named for Winkler's Bakery in Old Salem, the sugar cakes (coffee cakes) are still baked daily and eagerly sought by visitors. The bakery, which was taken over by Christian Winkler in 1807, was operated continuously by family members for over 120 years. It has now been restored, and its sugar cakes are baked over wood-burning fires.

The recipe that Winkler's distributes has been updated so that although it's still a several-stage, yeast-based coffee cake with several risings, it is not quite as time-consuming as the traditional recipe. Mashed potatoes are an integral part of any sugar cake, and although it's initially unsettling to see instant mashed potatoes and dry milk listed among the ingredients, don't worry. The sugar cake's appeal isn't at all diminished by the "instant" ingredients. Honest.

If you plan to serve a Moravian sugar cake on Easter morning, it's best to plan ahead, make it the day before, and reheat it in the oven Sunday morning. Certainly it's appropriate to have a "risen" sugar cake on Easter. As for locating a Moravian brass-band service at dawn, well, that's up to you.

WINKLER'S MORAVIAN SUGAR CAKE (8 to 12 servings) 1 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees) 1/2 cup, plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 packages active dry yeast 2 tablespoons dry milk 1/4 cup instant mashed potatoes (dry) 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup melted and cooled butter (do in 2 batches, 1/2 cup at a time) 2 eggs 2 3/4 cups flour 3/4 cup light brown sugar 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon Butter for greasing pan, bowl and dough

Combine 1/2 cup warm water and 1/2 teaspoon sugar; sprinkle the mixture with yeast. Set aside until the yeast bubbles.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining warm water and sugar, dry milk, instant mashed potatoes, salt, 1/2 cup melted and cooled butter, eggs, 1 cup flour and the yeast mixture. Beat 2 minutes with an electric mixer on medium speed, or with a wooden spoon. Mix in the additional 1 3/4 cups flour. Place in a greased bowl, grease the top of the dough, cover and let rise until double in size, about 1 hour.

Punch the dough down and put into a greased shallow pan about 17-by-12 inches and 1-inch deep. Let rise 30 minutes. Spread the dough out evenly in the pan and sprinkle with a mixture of the brown sugar and cinnamon.

Make shallow indentations in the top of the dough, about 1 inch apart, using your index finger. Dribble the remaining 1/2 cup of melted and cooled butter over the dough, making sure that it flows into the indentations. Let the dough rise for 30 minutes. Then bake in a 375-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown.