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Los Angeles Times: ‘Christmas City’ is a real place. And yes, it’s kind of like living in a Hallmark movie

December 22nd, 2020 |

Written by Rachel Schnalzer for The Los Angeles Times

Outdoor ice skating in Santa Monica. Shopping at the Grove. Running alongside Santa Claus during a 5K through Venice.

These L.A. holiday traditions won my heart after moving to the West Coast nearly six years ago. True story: a former employer of mine once carted in heaps of artificial snow — which the staff promptly used to start a snowball fight outside our Hollywood office. So yeah, Christmas in L.A. can be pretty great.

This December, thanks to the Los Angeles Times’ work-from-home arrangement during the pandemic, I’m in a decidedly chillier locale — back to the place I was born: Bethlehem, Pa. Also known as “Christmas City.”

So, naturally, Christmas has always been a part of my life, in ways that go beyond the holiday season. A 91-foot light-up star sits on South Mountain year-round, overlooking the city — causing my dad to quip that, like Jesus Christ, he was born under the star of Bethlehem. Our school yearbook photos were taken by Christmas City Studio and people take their pets to Christmas City Veterinary Hospital.

This year, I’m spending several months near our little town of Bethlehem for the first time in a while. That’s why my Christmas-movie-loving editor challenged me to do as many holiday-themed activities as I could — while doing my best to avoid indoor gatherings and following other COVID-19 rules, of course.

I can’t help but think this sounds a lot like a Hallmark special: A Los Angeles journalist comes home for the holidays to rediscover the Christmases of her childhood. I’ve been joking to my city-loving fiance that he had better watch his back — if this were a movie, I’d be required to fall in love with a ruggedly handsome Christmas tree farmer by the end of this story.

I tried my best to cram in every Christmasy thing possible in and around Christmas City. This is how it went:

Nov. 25, 5 p.m.: A surprisingly moving tree lighting

Each year, the holiday season in Christmas City kicks off with a tree lighting at the Bethlehem Area Public Library. The tree lighting was virtual this year — and honestly, I wasn’t sure the Facebook Live event could come close to the in-person celebrations of years past.

But the livestreamed tree lighting was unexpectedly emotional — before the tree was shown illuminated, videos were broadcast of healthcare workers around the country calling in to wish their hometown of Bethlehem a “Merry Christmas.” Much like the Grinch himself, I felt my heart grow three sizes at the show of Christmas City pride.

Nov. 27, 8 p.m.: Christmas meets kangaroos

Never did I ever think I would type “Elvis Presley” and “red kangaroo” in the same sentence, but it’s 2020, and here we are. Though most of the Lehigh Valley Zoo’s animals are kept off site during its “Winter Light Spectacular” event, I caught a glimpse of a red kangaroo hopping along as Presley’s “Blue Christmas” pulsed through the zoo’s PA system.

Then, *it* happened — and surprisingly quickly — I locked eyes with a dashing zookeeper (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Timothée Chalamet). After our love-at-first-sight meeting, we decided to leave our troubled pasts behind and raise reindeer out in the country. It was the stuff of Hallmark legend.

Just kidding, I had a cup of hot apple cider and went home.

Nov. 28, 2 p.m.: Christmas just got greener

Having already found Christmas love, I could now concentrate on nostalgia. Some of my earliest holiday memories in Bethlehem come from Christkindlmarkt, a renowned artisan market where my family would buy one-of-a-kind ornaments and gifts. I hadn’t visited the Christmas City institution since I was a kid — and this year, it was clear a few things had changed, for the better.

No. 1: The market was outside, instead of its usual tent, to make things safer during the pandemic. Though chilly, this allowed shoppers to see the towering blast furnace of the Bethlehem Steel, a prized reminder of the city’s industrial history. And No. 2: In addition to the market’s usual wares, there was a lot more CBD on sale than there was in the ’90s. Though I was seriously tempted to splurge on another fisherman sweater (what can I say, I’m a glutton for wool!), I enjoyed a hot toddy and walked away with gourmet salsas.

Nov. 28, 4:30 p.m.: Cookies and a mask, to go

I spent the rest of Small Business Saturday on Bethlehem’s South Side, watching a performance of local actors (who emerged out of the dusk, decked out in full Dickensian Yuletide costumes and singing carols) and counting down the lighting of a “Christmas tree trail” — a trail of “13 vibrantly decorated Christmas trees,” obviously — in support of local shops.

Masks and individually wrapped cookies were given out to passersby during the event — poignant but sweet reminders of a most unusual holiday season.

Dec. 4, 7 p.m.: Finding hygge on Main Street

It’s finally December, time to get serious. The most quintessentially Christmasy thing to do in Bethlehem? Walking its quaint, historic Main Street. It’s got cobblestones, iron lamposts and horse-drawn carriages — plus a large cardboard cutout of Will Ferrell from “Elf” in a candy store window to shatter any illusion you’ve stepped back in time.

To revel in the sheer hygge of it all, I first treated myself to hot cocoa from Chocolate Lab before window shopping. One highlight: our beloved Moravian Book Shop, est. 1745, the oldest bookstore in America. In the windows, books were stacked in the shape of Christmas trees — a decor idea I wish I were talented enough to pull off at home.

Dec. 5, 3 p.m.: Going back in time

I took a socially-distanced walking tour. Of my own hometown. Led by a guide in old-timey dress with an encyclopedic knowledge of Bethlehem’s history. A thing I learned: Bethlehem’s roots as Christmas City go back to 1741, when the town was founded by Moravian settlers on Christmas Eve.

A more fun thing I learned: Several key members of the “Hamilton: An American Musical” crew spent time in and around Christmas City — Alexander Hamilton himself as well as George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette. And turns out, John Adams gave rave reviews for the Sun Inn, a restaurant and museum you can see on Main Street today. As he told his wife Abigail in a letter, he was pleased with the inn’s complimentary treatment of his horse during his stay in Bethlehem.

We do love our horses here in Christmas City.

Dec. 5, 4:45 p.m.: Pictures with Santa Claus

This year, a local interior design company’s display window is home to Santa Claus, happy to pose with passersby. My mom and I stopped for a photo with the big man himself.

When we turned away, it occurred to me that an interior design company could be a delightful twist on classic Hallmark Christmas movie settings. You know, where a winsome interior designer convinces a smoldering yet unavailable bachelor that maybe his heart — as well as his apartment — could use a remodel in time for Christmas? (Working titles: “Under The Midcentury Mistletoe”? Or “Deck the Halls With Accent Walls”? OK, I’ll stop.)

Dec. 6, 2 p.m.: Pip the Mouse stans unite

In 1962, a diminutive yet big-spirited puppet named Pip the Mouse made his first appearance at the now-shuttered Hess’s department store, capturing the imaginations of young Lehigh Valley residents. When I read in our local paper that the beloved puppet show would carry on even during the pandemic, I asked my dad if he remembered “The Mouse Before Christmas.” “Of course I remember Pip,” he responded, evidently offended I would ask such a question.

Turns out, my dad’s misty-eyed admiration for Pip is not misplaced. Even from behind a glass window, the mouse’s retro antics were an utter delight for the small, masked cluster of Pip devotees gathered to enjoy the show.

Dec. 7: Rest and relaxation

After three full days of Christmas activities, it was time for a break. Although — do you ever really get a break from Christmas in Christmas City? No. You do not. You do not get a break.

Dec. 8, 3 p.m.: Live Advent Calendar

Back to it. Bethlehem is home to the only Live Advent Calendar in America — both the tourism office and I are proud of this fact.

In past years, crowds would gather at the historic Goundie House each night of December until Christmas Eve, and at 5:30 p.m. a special guest from the community would open the door, offering a performance and sweets to all.

For obvious reasons, this can’t happen during the pandemic. So I went down a YouTube rabbit hole of past Advent Calendar nights to get my fix. I can’t decide which video I love more: when the Celtic Cultural Alliance brought out step-dancers vibing out to the “Little Drummer Boy or when Aardvark Sports Shop’s massive aardvark mascot came out with treats for the crowd.

Dec. 10, 8:30 p.m.: Off to see the wizard

Lots of fairgrounds and theme parks are offering holiday light drive-through experiences for the first time this December, but Allentown’s Lights in the Parkway is an institution going back more than 20 years. I remember staring wide-eyed at the glowing gingerbread men and toy soldiers as a kid — and again as a teenager with high school friends, blaring Blink-182’s “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas” and other ~edgy~ holiday tunes.

But now that I’m in my late-20s , as I drove through with my mom, I felt my throat catch at “The Wizard of Oz” lights — the sparkling Glinda, the friendly Scarecrow. This year especially, there’s no place like home.

Dec. 10, 8 p.m.: Rude Elf, a local legend

Holidays are usually a time for catching up with old hometown friends (‘Tis the damn season, am I right, Taylor Swift?) But with annual trips to Bethlehem’s bars off the table, I picked up local brewery Fegley’s Rude Elf holiday ale to go, as a consolation prize.

Let’s just say the award-winning 10.5% ABV brew made a holiday video call happy hour, well, a whole lot more fun.

Dec. 11, 8:15 p.m.: Hoping for peace

Each holiday season, a 106-foot-tall candle stands in the center of Easton, Bethlehem’s neighbor to the east, known locally as a “call to peace”. An Easton native, my mom remembers a time in the 1970s when a petition was circulated to keep the candle up until the Vietnam War ended. The petition failed — but a later effort to keep the candle up until the First Gulf War was over later proved successful.

Despite the bustling market and ice skating rink near the candle, laying eyes on the flickering pillar hit differently this year in the wake of the devastation wreaked by the pandemic. Here’s hoping that some semblance of peace finds its way to the Lehigh Valley and beyond in 2021.

Dec. 12, 9 p.m.: Luminaria Night

On a foggy night in mid-December — a few days before my deadline — residential streets around historic Bethlehem were set aglow with luminaria, lining the steps of houses and sidewalks. The tradition goes back 23 years, when luminaria kits were sold to raise $300 for a family in need. These days, the luminaria can be found across several neighborhoods — in 2018, 4,200 homes and businesses participated.

Walking past the flickering luminaria, I was surprised with the same stab of pride I felt watching the virtual tree lighting at the beginning of the Christmas season here in Bethlehem. Christmas City — along with the rest of the country — is in the midst of its gloomiest December in recent memory. But neighbors are still helping neighbors. Families and friends are still connected, even if by Zoom calls. The Rude Elf brewers over at Fegley’s and little Pip the Mouse are carrying on, as best they can — and Christmas City is too.

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