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Bucks County Herald: By the Way: The star of Bethlehem

December 28th, 2021 |

Written by Kathryn Finegan Clark for the Bucks County Herald

The light of Bethlehem’s Christmas star high on South Mountain doesn’t quite reach Upper Bucks but it can be seen for more than 20 miles north of the city.

It’s become an icon for the three-centuries-old city nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

It’s a focal point of the Christmas City USA bus tours that have been carrying thousands of tourists through the city for years.

Like many Upper Bucks Countians, I go to Bethlehem frequently and when I’m there in the evening I always look up to see the star.

Although it once was lit only during the Christmas season, now it shines all year long, a happy reminder of the holidays. It always makes me wonder at the bravery of the Moravian pioneers who founded the city in the wilderness on Christmas Eve in 1741.

The Moravians are big on stars and versions of their lovely and distinctive 25-point star hang all over the Christmas City and beyond. It’s not unusual to see them lighting porches on old homes in Upper Bucks—and tourists from all over the world buy them in the city to light their own homes. They come in all sizes and materials, but usually in that special shape with its 25 points, sometimes even more.

It’s not possible to visit Bethlehem and not see a Moravian star somewhere. The star’s origin dates to the 1830s at a Moravian boys school in Germany, perhaps as a geometry lesson.

The giant star on South Mountain is simpler. It has five points with eight rays extending its glow. It stands 890 feet above sea level and could be seen in Bucks if one of the mountain’s higher ridges didn’t block it. It’s been there, in several versions, for 84 years.

Charlene Donchez Mowers, president of Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, said she “grew up with the star.” A Bethlehem native, she missed seeing it when she lived abroad for a while, and said, “I was eager to see it again when I came home.” She outlined some of the star’s history.

Mowers said the wife of Paul Hildebrand, an illuminating engineer, suggested the idea for the star. He worked with a structural engineer from Bethlehem Steel while donations were solicited from merchants and residents to pay for it.

The first star, constructed in 1937, measured 60 by 51 feet and it was basically six strips of 50-watt sign lamps mounted on wooden boards.

It was replaced in 1939 with a larger star, 81 by 53 feet, on a frame of Bethlehem steel. The sprawling Bethlehem steel plant was considered a target for enemy planes during World War II so the star went dark during those years.

In 1967 it was enlarged to 91 by 52 feet and was protected with a plexiglass shield. Since the mid-1990s the star has been lit every day of the year. In 2010, the bulbs were replaced with LED lights, spreading its cheer even further.


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