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The Morning Call: ‘Bethlehem’s Christmas, 1741’: Exhibit tells story of city’s first Christmas

December 22nd, 2016 |

Written by Margie Peterson for The Morning Call

There are competing theories on how the City of Bethlehem got its name, and one of those involves cows.

It was on Christmas Eve in 1741 that a group of Moravians led by Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf gathered in a two-room log house where the Hotel Bethlehem now sits and christened their new missionary settlement “Bethlehem” after the birthplace of Jesus.

That house was the first in the community and the people lived in one room while the other room served as a stable for farm animals (cows included), which likely made the settlers feel an affinity with their savior born in a manger.

“In the account of that first Christmas spent there, after the city was deemed ‘Bethlehem’ by Count Zinzendorf, they talk about how that building was housing both man and beast,” says Lindsey Jancay, director of collections and programming for Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites. “It was a moment of inspiration where they felt very akin to a period for the birth of Jesus.”

One of the original settlers named Martin Mack gave this description of that historic night: “While celebrating the vigils of Christmas-eve in the first house, as we were closing the services (it was already past nine o’clock), the Count led the way into the stable that adjoined our dwelling and commenced singing the hymn that open with the words, ‘Nicht Jerusalem — sondern Bethlehem, aus dir kommet was mir frommet, werthes Bethlehelm …” (Not Jerusalem — rather Bethlehem, from thee springeth, what gain bringeth, Honored Bethlehem. .)”

In celebration of Bethlehem’s 275th anniversary this year, Historic Bethlehem has created an exhibit about the city’s beginnings called “Bethlehem’s Christmas, 1741.” Located in the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, the exhibit includes a wooden model built in 1912 that is a replica of the first house. There is also a pastel picture of the house and a traditional Moravian putz. On display are a picture of Count Zinzendorf and buttons he once owned.

Information panels delve into the history of Moravian culture, including lovefeasts, daily texts, putzes, Moravian stars and beeswax candles.

Lovefeasts began in the 1720s in Berthelsdorf, Germany, as a song service that included food shared by the congregation. Moravian daily texts started as an oral tradition in the 1720s in Herrnhut, Germany, in which the local congregation was instructed to remember a short Bible verse as a “message from God throughout the day,” according to the exhibit.

Soon an entire year’s worth were printed and Moravian missionaries began taking the guided readings on their missions abroad. Currently, daily texts are printed in more than 51 languages. The exhibit contains daily texts from 1891 and 1900.

Some Moravian customs are newer, including Moravian stars, which began in the 19th century in Germany as a handicraft or geometry exercise for schoolboys. Commercial production of the stars started in the 1880s in Germany.

The putz on display in the exhibit is typical of the tradition in that Moravians frequently included things like driftwood or moss or other items from the natural world that were collected and passed down in families.

Visitors can learn how to make Moravian stars and a “Take Away Putz” through Dec. 30 at the Moravian Museum, included in the regular admission price.

The exhibit is included in the cost of a Historic Bethlehem pass, which starts at $12 for adults and $9 for children ages 4-12; kids 3 and under are free. That pass enables visitors to tour two museums.

While the exhibit is relatively small — contained in one room — the history and stories of the early Moravians paint a vivid picture of a fascinating community. Touring the rest of the museum gives visitors a sense of the lives of the early settlers, with a simple worship space called a saal where men and women sat separately, a bedroom with an almost coffin-size bed and a music room, full of instruments.

“They were here to settle and work as missionaries and reach out to the surrounding cultures,” Jancay says. “They were a lively bunch. They enjoyed celebrations, they had passions, they were very well educated. Men and women were educated at an equal level.”

The early Moravians practiced a “choir” system, in which members were divided by gender, age and marital status for living quarters. So single women lived together in one place, widows in another, married couples in another and so on, Jancay says.

The first group of single women moved into the nearby Single Sisters House in 1748 and each contributed to the community and was supported by it. Single Sisters was continuously occupied by Moravian women from 1748 until 2007.

“Because women were leaders in those choirs, they were able to have a certain security that wasn’t afforded to most single women in America at the time,” Jancay says. “They became teachers, opened painting schools … they were really able to pursue these careers. If they wished to marry, they could and then leave the Single Sisters house but they didn’t have to.”

For $15, visitors can take The Moravian Story Walking Tour at 2 p.m. most days, which includes visits to the sections of the Single Sisters House, plus two other historic sites: the 1752 Apothecary and the 1758/1765 Nain-Schober House. The Nain-Schober is a rebuilt home from the Native American mission village of Nain, a community once located in what is now West Bethlehem.

The last Moravian woman at Single Sisters lived there from 1940 to 2007 and the tour shows her room, complete with an old Zenith television set, her mailbox and other furnishings of days gone by.

The beautiful old stone buildings in the historic district and the stories that accompany them attract visitors from all over. On a recent afternoon, Bob and Anne Russak of Hastings, N.Y., made the trip specifically to see the historic sites.

“I love the architecture,” Bob Russak says. “When you look down the street, you feel like you were back in Colonial times.”

Margie Peterson is a freelance writer.

Jodi Duckett, editor



*What: An exhibit highlighting the founding of the city of Bethlehem which includes a replica and pictures of the first house and artifacts from the early Moravians. Activities include how to make Moravian stars and a Take Away Putz through Dec. 30 (closed Dec. 24-25).

*Where: Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, also known as the Gemeinhaus, 66 W. Church St., Bethlehem.

*When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. through Dec. 31; hours change Jan. 1. Exhibit ends Jan. 15.

*How much: $12; $9, ages 4-12; admission covers exhibit and tours of two of the Historic Bethlehem museums and sites.

*Info:, 610-691-6055

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