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Christmas in Bethlehem.

Christmas in bethlehem

As night falls, there are lights everywhere you look, lights and trees and stars. Single while candles burn in each small windowpane of the old stone buildings on Church Street; a procession of hundreds of white-lighted Christmas trees marches down Main Street and across the Hill-to-Hill Bridge. Multipointed parchment stars, illuminated from within, hang over porches, and a white gaint-- more than 80 feet high at the longest of its eight points--glimmers across the valley from South Mountain. Christmas has come to Christmas City U.S.A., Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Bethlehem has been in the Christmas business for half a century. The first giant star was set in place in 1933, and bridges and streets were lighted for Christmas of 1937--yet the town remains blessedly free of any hint of Santa's-Village-Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer kitsch. Christmas may be money in the bank for the local merchants, but it's also gracious, dignified, and seriously festive. The season is not rushed: the lights go on only on the first Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season that encompasses the four Sundays preceding Christmas.

The town's Main Street, its sung cafes and bright shops set in restored Victorian storefronts, is warm and cozy, suggesting the joys of a Dickensian yuletide. But an even older tradition, that of Bethlehem's Moravian settlers, is what gives Bethlehem's Christmas its refreshingly noncommercial flavor. Indeed, the Moravians, Protestants who came from Bohemia, Germany, and Moravia as missionaries to the American Indians and settled in the Lehigh Valley in 1741, started the whole thing. That year, their settlement was visited by their German patron, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. When the community met for vigil services on Christmas Eve, the count led them in a hymn that begins "Not Jerusalem --lowly Bethlehem/'Twas that gave us Christ to save us.' The event is recalled by a plaque on an exterior wall of the Hotel Bethlehem (which stands on the site of the log stable in which the service was conducted) as well as by a mural in its Pioneer Room.

The lobby of the Hotel Bethlehem, swagged with greens and colored lights, contains several gaily decorated trees. On a Sunday morning, the desk clerk can be heard humming carols to himself, and there is a happy bustle as tour groups, designated by name tags, prepare to move into action. "Come on, Jaybirds, let's fly!' a Southern voice says.

And fly they do, to the nearby Central Moravian Church, which, built from 1803 to 1806, is the heart of both the historic district and the contemporary Moravian community. Outside, the church is topped by a colonnaded belfry crowned with a dome, from which a 20-member trombone choir, another Moravian tradition, heralds the coming of Christmas and other important festivals; the interior, which can seat up to 1,050 people, is austere, with a curved sounding board--this is a preacher's church and the acoustics are superb. An enormous 26-pointed star, the Moravian star that originated in Germany a century or more ago, glows yellow above the two-tiered pulpit; poinsettias and bouquets of red and yellow roses punctuate the row of decorative columns at the front of the church, and the winter sun streams through the plain glass windows.

The church welcomes visitors, and some groups return year after year to participate in the Advent services. (The Christmas Eve vigil service, at which the hymn that gave the town its name is still sung, is, however, open only to members of the congregation and their families.) After church, visitors may reward themselves with the Hotel Bethlehem's Sundays-only hunt brunch, a staggering buffet of scrapple and sticky buns and homemade sausage and apple fritters and pies and--well, you get the idea. All you can eat-- and they mean it--is $11.01, including tax and gratuity.

Another Moravian tradition in which visitors can take part is the Christmas putz--the word derives from the German word meaning "to decorate'--a Nativity scene set in a tiny landscape made of natural greens and stones and mosses. Although most putzes decorate private households, both the East Hills Moravian Church, on Butztown Road, and the Central Moravian Church have community putzes open to the public.

The Central Moravian putz, in the church's Christian Education Building, is a small-scale son et lumiere; you shuffle in and find a seat in semidarkness, and then, as the Christmas story is heard on tape, spotlights pick out little groups of carved figures representing such scenes as the annunciation to the shepherds, the heavenly host in full song, the Nativity itself, the flight into Egypt. Then the auditorium lights go up so that visitors can crowd up to the small stage on which the putz is built and inspect the more than 120 carved and colored figures, both old and newly made. Seen as a whole, the composition is that of an early Renaissance painting with the simultaneous narratives. Here, for example, are the Magi following their star, adoring the Child in the manger, appearing before Herod, and on the way out of Jerusalem, all at the same time. After these charming miniatures, the lifesize municipal Nativity scene, set up in the wide windswept City Center Plaza, looks out of scale.

Along Main Street, shop windows are filled with high-quality children's clothing and toys and jewelry and imported woolens and--especially--Christmas-tree ornaments of the most nostalgic sort. This is the place to stock up on ornaments in the shape of Father Christmas (a skinnier version of Santa Claus), or cats or dogs or elephants, or bunches of grapes or bananas, or bright parrots or frogs or mushrooms, or angels that look beguilingly like the heroines of 19th-century melodramas, golden ringlets and all. The Moravian Bookshop carries several sizes of spiky stars, made of gold or silver paper, guaranteed to fill in the gaps of the skimpiest tree. Adjacent to the bookshop is the Moravian Cookshop, which sells cookware and crafts and jams and honey and candy.

The gift shop of the Goundie House Museum, an 1810 brick townhouse farther along Main Street, offers even more nostalgia, especially painted glass lightbulb covers in the form of peacocks and teddy bears and Santas and the like. They slip over miniature tree lights, held in place by a rubber gasket.

When one's appetite for shopping and eating flags, there are other museums--among them the Kemerer Museum on North New Street and its collections of domestic furniture and decorative arts, and the Apothecary Museum, tucked behind the Moravian Bookshop--as well as more old Moravian sites. The most important of these is the Gemein Haus, a large clapboard-covered log structure on West Church Street, the oldest structure in Bethlehem, built in 1741.

The Gemein Haus now contains the Moravian Museum on the first two of its five floors; it has exhibits of Moravian furniture, needlework, toys, and musical instruments (especially trombones), as well as memorabilia of Count Zinzendorf, including his sword cane. On the upper floor is the saal, the first place of community worship, and its original, uncomfortably backless benches. Nearby are the distinctively simple 18th-century stone buildings, several with double stoops whose names--the Single Sisters' House, the Single Brothers' House, the Widows' House-- indicate their function in the early community.

The 18th-Century Industrial Area, set along the banks of Monocacy Creek, down a steep slope behind the Hotel Bethlehem, is another slice of early Moravian life. The area includes a tannery, built in 1761; a waterworks, from a year later; and a gristmill, opened in 1869, that stands on the site of two earlier mills.

Any Christmas visit to Bethlehem should end with one of the Night Light Tours. The bus tours, which take about an hour and are conducted by a guide in early Moravian dress, leave from the Lehigh Valley Bank Building at Guetter and Broad streets. The route passes by the Nativity scene and giant Advent wreath in City Center Plaza and through the colonial Moravian district before crossing the Hill-to-Hill Bridge and its parade of lighted trees. It then proceeds up Wyandotte Street, past Victorian houses decorated for the season, and up South Mountain. Weather permitting, tour members are allowed a brief stop at Lehigh University's Mountaintop Campus. There, as they look out, winter stars sparkle in the frosty night sky, and a soft white glow blankets the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Christmas City U.S.A. is not a little town any more, but it is the center of a world of lights and stars, an emblem for the most radiant of seasons.

Photo: Bethlehem's traditional Moravian music fills the air each December, and even the humblest decorations silently follow in accompaniment.

Photo: No longer beacons to unconverted Indians, 26-pointed stars still beckon travelers in search of an old-fashioned Christmas.

Photo: Christmas City U.S.A. is the center of a world of lights and stars, an emblem for the most radiant of seasons.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Pennsylvania
Author:Ferrell, Sarah
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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