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The Morning Call: Insider’s Guide: Christmas and history come alive on Bethlehem bus tour

December 9th, 2016 |

Written by Ryan Kneller for The Morning Call

It’s no secret that Bethlehem dazzles during the holidays.

From beautifully decorated storefronts, whimsical horse-drawn carriage rides and illuminated Christmas trees on lampposts to German-style craft markets, elaborate Christmas putzes and countless candles in windows, the city is a festive favorite for people of all ages. It more than lives up to its nickname, “Christmas City, USA.”

I grew up just a few miles away in Hellertown, Bethlehem was a frequent stop for holiday shopping and entertainment.

I fondly recall watching “Home Alone” at the now-closed Boyd Theater, hiding in clothes racks at the former Orr’s department store and searching for the latest “Goosebumps” novel at the Moravian Book Shop.

Today, the nostalgia mixes with admiration as I view the city through a more sophisticated lens, appreciating its rich history, attractive architecture and picturesque outdoor settings.

I’ve learned a lot about the city through my reporting, but remain intrigued by the unheard stories behind many of the historic churches, homes and other sites that I walk, bike or drive by on a regular basis.

So, I recently decided to explore Bethlehem in a way I never had before — via a cozy, relaxing and informative Bethlehem by Night Bus Tour.

The hour-long excursions, offered by Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites through Dec. 30, are led by guides in period dress. They offer tidbits about early and current holiday traditions, a visit to the famous star atop South Mountain and access to historic highlights in north and south Bethlehem.

“Many of our guests return year after year with their family and friends to take the tour — a Christmas tradition in Bethlehem,” says LoriAnn Wukitsch, vice president and managing director of Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites.

Here is an account of my experience:

It’s around 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday and temperatures are hovering in the mid-40s as I wait to board the bus in front of the Historic Bethlehem Schropp Dry Goods Shoppe on Main Street.

The chilly weather is an afterthought, though, as I’m warmed by the friendly banter of the roughly 20-person crowd, some of whom have traveled from out of state to see the sights.

Also distracting me is a Rockwellesque scene of brightly lit trees, bundled-up shoppers and charming storefronts lining the street.

There’s even a performance by The Bach Choir, as part of Historic Bethlehem’s Live Advent Calendar, outside the 1810 Goundie House.

Once on the bus, docent Kathy Hudak welcomes the group and details the tour’s route, which includes a loop through the original Moravian settlement.

Hudak, who has been conducting the tours for about 20 years, takes on the role of “Sister Kathy” by wearing clothing typical of a Moravian woman’s wardrobe in the 1700s.

She wears a skirt, bodice, neckerchief and close-fitting cap called a “haube” — complete with a blue-colored ribbon that would have signified that she lived in the married couples’ choir house.

“The Moravians had a unique social system,” she explains. “They separated everyone by their age, gender and marital status. If you were single and of age to be married, you would have a pink ribbon. If you were a widow, you would have a white ribbon.”

After Hudak takes a seat, the driver takes an immediate left onto Market Street toward some of Bethlehem’s oldest buildings, which showcase Colonial-era Germanic-style architecture.

Hudak explains that the Moravians’ origins date to the 1400s, when John Hus, a Roman Catholic priest, made the mistake of suggesting that people should be able to read a Bible and sing in their own language.

“For that, he was considered a heretic and burned at the stake,” Hudak says.

Hus’ followers went into hiding and emerged in the late 1600s as the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of Brethren, from a geographic area known as Moravia and Bohemia, Hudak says. Others gave them the nickname “Moravians.”

Under their new spiritual adviser, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, many ventured to America with intent to do mission work.

“The rest is history,” Hudak says.

On Church Street, we stop in front of Bethlehem’s first structures, including the 1744/1752 Single Sisters House, a limestone building where single women resided; and 1741 Gemeinhaus, a log structure where the first settlers lived, learned, worked and worshipped.

Farther down the road, we pass the Single Brethren’s House, which was strategically placed near the blacksmith shop, potter shop and many of the era’s other job sites, now collectively known as the Colonial Industrial Quarter, Hudak says.

A breathtaking view of Hotel Bethlehem, with radiant light beaming from its tall arched windows, is unmistakable from this juncture.

An interesting fact that was lost on me until now: Hotel Bethlehem stands where Bethlehem’s first house once stood.

Traveling north toward Union Boulevard, we soon find ourselves on Conestoga Street in the Colonial Industrial Quarter. The quaint and serene scene of 18th and 19th century candlelit buildings, including the 1761 Tannery and 1869 Luckenbach Mill, is a far cry from the commotion Musikfest brings to this area each August.

The parcel of land appealed to the early settlers for a variety of reasons, one of the main ones being the spring-fed Monocacy Creek, which supplied them with a bountiful supply of fish and power for mills, Hudak says.

“The Moravians were very industrious, educated and musical,” she adds. “As a matter of fact, a trombone choir played specific songs to represent births, deaths or if someone of importance was coming to visit the community.”

Moving north to Market Street, we catch glimpses of brilliant Christmas trees near the Wooden Match restaurant, Fahy Bridge and City Hall.

We pass by the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, Moravian Academy’s Lower and Middle schools and the Moravians’ first cemetery.

“As was the case with their living quarters, social status dictated where [Moravians] were buried,” Hudak says. “There were rows of single women, rows of single men and so on.”

At this point, Hudak takes a moment for a “commercial break,” where she explains the Moravian traditions packets, which are available for purchase at the tour’s completion and include a beeswax candle, hand-folded Moravian star and a box of sugar cookies.

The traditions’ beginnings vary:

During the Christmas Advent season, the Moravians would put a lighted beeswax candle in every window as a way to welcome Christ into their homes and hearts, Hudak says.

The 26-pointed paper Moravian stars originated in Herrnhut, Germany, as a math lesson for young boys; and the cookies stem from the Moravians’ Lovefeast, a service of singing and sharing of refreshments.

Crossing the Minsi Trail Bridge, we head into south Bethlehem where a once-booming steel business has been replaced with vibrant entertainment and educational venues.

The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem and ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks are finely decorated for the holidays with lights, garland and wreaths.

My favorite spot is the area near the Levitt Pavilion, where another Christmas tree is brightly lit and the towering blast furnaces are illuminated in a festive red and green motif.

Hudak gives a brief history of the former Bethlehem Steel, explaining that the company’s land bordering the Lehigh River was prime real estate during the Industrial Revolution.

The business, which began as Saucona Iron Company in 1857, employed 30,000 people — 10,000 per shift — in its heyday during and around World War II.

“It was really sad when it closed because everybody who lived here either worked there or knew someone who worked there,” Hudak says.

As we scale the winding Mountain Drive North toward the iconic Bethlehem Star, we enjoy magnificent views of the city below — complete with mesmerizing specks of light and Martin Tower in the distance.

I’ve driven by the luminous star countless times over the years, but the shimmering sight never gets old.

The symbol is a year-round beacon, but it seems to shine with even more meaning during the holidays, welcoming visitors to “Christmas City, USA,” a designation the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce adopted in 1937.

I found it interesting that the original star was made of wood and replaced a few years later with one made of Bethlehem steel.

Today’s star, 91 feet high, gleams more efficiently thanks to the replacement of incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs, Hudak says.

As we travel back to our starting point via Route 378, we are treated to enduring views of Fountain Hill and local landmarks such as the Sayre Mansion, Hill-to-Hill Bridge and Cathedral Church of the Nativity.

At the tour’s end, I’m reminded of the reason for the season with views of an illuminated Central Moravian Church, which has presented a remarkably detailed Christmas putz for the past 79 years.

One rider inquires if the Moravian Church is still an active religion.

“It is still a worldwide religion with six different Moravian congregations in Bethlehem alone,” Hudak says. “The biggest congregation is actually in Africa.”



Bethlehem by Night Bus Tour

*What: Guided holiday bus tours, featuring visits to historical sights, the star atop South Mountain and more.

*When: 5, 6 and 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday through Dec. 14; 5, 6 and 7 p.m. daily Dec. 15-30 (no tours Christmas Eve and Christmas.)

*Where: Boarding in front of Historic Bethlehem Schropp Dry Goods Shoppe, 505 Main St.

*How much: $17; $11, children

*Info: 800-360-8687,

Historic Bethlehem Walking Tours

*Christmas City Stroll: Costumed guides discuss Bethlehem’s beginning in 1741, the renowned Bethlehem Star and more. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through Dec. 14 and Jan. 2-8; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily Dec. 14-31 (no tours on Christmas). $15; $9, children. 610-691-6055,

*Ghosts of Christmas Candlelight Walking Tour: Costumed guides with candles discuss early Moravian Christmases, local legends and more. 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in December (no tours Christmas Eve). $13; $10, children. 610-866-5481,

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