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Lehigh Valley Style: Bethlehem: The Christmas City

December 6th, 2019 |

Written by Daisy Willis for Lehigh Valley Style

Horse-drawn carriages clop down streets lively with music and merriment, studded with twinkling lights and bright shop windows. A veritable snow globe, Bethlehem revels in its identity as the Christmas City. As the observance of the season has evolved over centuries, so has Bethlehem, from a Colonial landmark, to a steel town, to an ecosystem for the arts. Its history as a holiday hot spot is also one of rebirth, steeped in Moravian traditions and a resilient spirit of innovation.

At Bethlehem’s inception as a Moravian settlement on Christmas Eve in 1741, a tiny community of immigrants gathered in a part-stable, part-meeting house on the site that would one day become the Historic Hotel Bethlehem. Their spiritual leader, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, supposedly took inspiration from his straw-strewn surroundings and a hymn (“Not Jerusalem—lowly Bethlehem ‘twas that gave us Christ to save us”) and dubbed the settlement with its Biblical name. Though the Moravians were bigger celebrants of Christmas than the stuffy old Puritans, in a time before fireside stockings and toy-making elves, this christening was yet to see its greatest impact.

In the meantime, the Moravians spent the next decade establishing around 40 crafts, trades and industries in Bethlehem: tanners, blacksmiths, millwrights, tailors, carpenters and many more supporting their communal society and fueling their all-important missionary work. Their devotional attention to quality created impressive results. Long before Bethlehem Steel took over as the paragon of American industry, the Colonial Industrial Quarter in Bethlehem made its mark as the earliest industrial park in America. The Moravians knew how to prosper, and when the city later needed that knack, its Moravian history would provide.

In large part thanks to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the 1800s saw a revival of secular festivity during the holiday and—with greater emphasis on material matters like décor, entertaining and gift-giving—a growing commercialism. The department store with large glass show windows, gleaming gift wrap and lavish feasts came to be part of the celebration of Christmas, and a welcome yearly boost to the economy. Though Dr. Seuss’s Grinch would come to a different conclusion, some of Christmas definitely does come from a store.

Throughout the years, features of Moravian Christmas like their lovefeast, trombone choir and Putz displays have carried on in Historic Bethlehem. The art of the Putz, a church tradition creating a diorama of the Nativity scene, became a community event, showcasing elaborate and playful interpretations. Reflecting the purity of Christ, beeswax was used to make the Moravians’ traditional candles lit during Christmas Eve vigils. Now residents of Historic Bethlehem are encouraged to light candles in their windows to add a welcoming warmth to the winter streets.

This steadfast current of Moravian tradition was a welcome resource in hard times. In 1937, when the Great Depression had been pummeling the nation for almost a decade, Bethlehem’s Chamber of Commerce was desperate for a strategy to keep their community going. They drew inspiration from the city’s founding to try to drum up attention and interest by branding Bethlehem explicitly as Christmas City, USA.

The seed that Zinzendorf planted by connecting the humble origins of the city to the humble origins of the holiday took on new life in the twentieth century as the Chamber exhorted thousands of other communities across the country to share the news. Any citizen was invited to have their Christmas cards sent to Bethlehem for a smart hand-cancellation stamp from the Christmas City. A little holiday cheer was just the thing to brighten a dark Depression winter, and almost 185,000 pieces of mail flooded Bethlehem’s post office.

That same year, Marion Grace, wife of the chairman of Bethlehem Steel, pulled a switch at a Hotel Bethlehem ceremony and brought 22 city blocks alive with lights. The first community Putz made its debut at the Chamber building and drew 14,000 visitors. The Bethlehem Star went up on South Mountain, first of wood, then two years later reinforced with Bethlehem Steel and rumored to be the largest display of its kind in the world. Now shining year-round, it originally spent half a century showing its light only for Christmas and at Easter in the shape of a cross. The effort to share the city’s longstanding Christmas spirit took off. “Bethlehem did not create Christmas,” said then-president of the Chamber Vernon Melhado, “but Christmas created Bethlehem.”

This campaign solidified traditions that the city protects as its beating heart: Moravian architecture and history, destination holiday events and venues, boutique shopping and sparkling lights to ward off the dark. Bethlehem’s attractions and economy are more diverse than ever, but it’s still all-in on the holiday, with more to do and see every year. From age-old traditions to newly-inspired events, there’s so much to celebrate in the Christmas City.

Celebrate the Season 2019

December 7

Christmas City Classic 5-Miler and Candy Cane 5K

An undeniable themed-race favorite in the Valley, the Christmas City Classic has been getting folks out in the cold for over 20 years. Don your Santa suit, your elf hat or your jingle bells to be considered in the annual costume contest, and justify your next slice of pie with some rigorous activity! Holiday music, Philly soft pretzels and Christmas cookies keep runners motivated on this jolly jaunt through town.

$35 | 9 a.m. | Bethlehem YMCA | 430 E. Broad St., Bethlehem |

Now—January 12

Holiday Putz Trail & Trees of Historic Bethlehem

See both the uniquely Moravian tradition of the Putz as well as Christmas Couture-themed trees dripping with Dior-, Chanel- and Burberry-inspired décor in a series of displays across Historic Bethlehem sites. You’ll see why the handcrafted Nativity Putz has inspired adherents to search for the best local moss sources, prize and pass down ideal pieces of driftwood through generations, and vie for most impressive display.

Adults: $20; Children: $12 | Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, Moravian Museum Gemeinhaus Single Sisters’ House and 1810 Goundie House | 505 Main St., Bethlehem | 610.882.0450 |

December 1–23

Live Advent Calendar

Gather outside Historic Bethlehem’s 1810 Goundie House each evening with up to 300 visitors and await the delights of a living Advent calendar. Sponsored by the Downtown Bethlehem Association’s merchants, it features a special representative of a local business each day to deliver treats or surprise entertainment. Whether you catch it every day or make a point to stop by during a night out on Main Street, the living Advent adds a little kick to this anticipatory tradition.

Free | 5:30 p.m. | 501 Main St., Bethlehem | 610.739.1775 |

Now—December 22


Through December 22, you can find this incarnation of Germany’s famous holiday tent market on Bethlehem’s South Side each weekend. Every year it grows more enormous, with over 150 artisan vendors, food, live music and appearances by St. Nick for your shopping pleasure. A new $27 combo ticket offered this year in partnership with Historic Bethlehem gives you access to Christkindlmarkt along with Trees of Bethlehem sites on the North Side, so consider this money-saving option to maximize merriment.

Thurs.: 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; Fri.: 11 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sat.: 10 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sun.: 10 a.m.–6 p.m. | PNC Plaza at SteelStacks | 645 E. 1st St., Bethlehem | 610.297.7100 |

December 4, 11, 12, 18 & 19

Holiday Quote-Along Film Series

Christmas is a time for nostalgia, when many of us like to return to the cozy and well-worn movies we started watching on VHS. The cinemas at SteelStacks screen four favorites this month with the understanding that reveling audiences may yell out famous lines. Come and rewatch Elf, Die Hard, Trading Places and/or a 30th anniversary showing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and level-up this holiday habit.

$10; Students & seniors: $8; ArtsQuest members: $7.50 | 7:30 p.m. | Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas | 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem | 610.297.7100 |

December 8

Bach Choir’s Christmas Concert

One of Bethlehem’s oldest traditions is the Bach Choir, performing the choral work of this great composer for over 100 years. They were the first to perform Bach in America, and mark another first this year, presenting Handel’s Messiah in its entirety; Part One this month and Part Two at their spring concert. Bach’s theatrical Magnificat pairs beautifully with Messiah for a joyful celebration of Christmas.

$38 | 4 p.m. | First Presbyterian Church | 2344 Center St., Bethlehem | 610.866.4382 |

Now–December 30

Bethlehem By Night Tour

Stay snug on a bus for this tour guided by a docent in period costume. You’ll spend one to two hours cruising to area highlights, from the historic north side’s festooned historic places to the summit of South Mountain to visit the Bethlehem Star. Bethlehem by night is dripping with holiday lights and sparkle.

Adults: $18.50; Children: $12 | 5, 6 & 7 p.m. | Historic Bethlehem Visitor Center | 505 Main St., Bethlehem | 1.800.360.8687 |

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