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Bethlehem, Pa. - the Christmas City

  • SARA HODON, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS The Moravian Book Store in Bethlehem.
    SARA HODON, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS The Moravian Book Store in Bethlehem.
Published December 19. 2009 09:00AM

Plenty of communities are pulling out all the stops when it comes to the holiday season, but maybe none more than the Christmas City in Bethlehem.

On December 24, 1741, a wealthy nobleman named Nicholas Ludwig, Count Zinzendorf, and a group devout German Protestants settled the community they would later name Bethlehem. Zinzendorf had led the Moravians out of their home in Herrhut, Moravia and to America in 1735 with the intention of forming a permanent colony. The Moravians, a smaller sect within Germany's Lutheran Church, believed in forming a more personal connection with the divine.

Zinzendorf, who had become familiar with the Moravians on his travels throughout Germany, had been preaching a similar theology for years. He preached a more meaningful "heart religion" than the cold, almost intellectual theology the Lutheran bishops were preaching at the time.

The Moravians first tried to start a community in Georgia, but threats from hostile natives and the expectation to participate in military activities to thwart possible invasions by their Spanish enemies sent them north. The Moravians established a permanent settlement in Pennsylvania, and left a lasting influence on the city's architecture, arts and culture, and educational philosophy.

Christmas has always been a special time in Bethlehem. The city pays proud tribute to its heritage throughout the year, but never more than during the holiday season. Bethlehem has a full calendar of events for all interests, ages, and budgets.

ArtsQuest, the organization that stages Musikfest each year, has been into the holiday event business for almost 20 years. Their Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem, an enclosed holiday marketplace inspired by the open-air markets in Germany, offers shoppers a wide range of unique gifts for everyone.

ArtsQuest also stages the city's First Night Bethlehem celebration, an alcohol-free, family-friendly New Year's Eve event that features musical performers, children's entertainment, and plenty of surprises held at various locations throughout the downtown.

In a unique twist to the Times Square tradition of the ball drop at midnight, a giant 25-pound fiberglass Peep is dropped from a crane at midnight. The popular chick-and-bunny shaped marshmallow Peeps are made by Bethlehem-based manufacturer Just Born.

Another "must" event, according to Sophia Chishty, Director of Public Relations for the Historic Bethlehem Partnership, is the Old Bethlehem Walking Tours. Guides in period dress lead the tours through the city's Historic District, where visitors can admire some of the most beautiful Victorian homes in the Lehigh Valley, as well as the preserved 18th-century Germanic style buildings unique to Bethlehem and not found anywhere else in the nation. Tour prices are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 5-12, and free for children under 5.

The Historic Bethlehem Partnership preserves and maintains a number of the city's historic landmarks. Visit the Main Street home of Bethlehem's first brewer, Johan Sebastian Goundie, built in 1810, or walk through the former Colonial Industrial Quarter and admire the former silk mill. The Partnership manages the city's Visitors Center where a complete list of events and activities happening throughout the city can be found, Chishty said.

Visitors who would like to do their own tour can simply take a walk down the city's Main Street and admire the quaint buildings and old-fashioned cobbled street. Stop in and browse through the Moravian Book Shop, the country's oldest bookstore dating to 1745. Be sure to check out their collection of Moravian Stars, also called the Stars of Bethlehem.

It is said that this unique symbol of Christmas was first mass-produced in the Moravians' home village of Herrhut, Germany in 1850. This multi-pointed star was hung in the church starting on the first Sunday of Advent, but is now displayed in homes, churches, schools, and businesses throughout the world.

Moravian College's annual Vespers service provides a quiet time of reflection during the hectic holiday season while also paying homage to Bethlehem's founding settlers. Held each year at the historic Central Moravian Church, the house of worship for Bethlehem's first congregation, the Vespers highlight Moravian College's Choir and Women's Chorus, with the College's Brass, Guitar, and Flute ensembles providing selections for the service's prelude. According to Moravian College's website, the Vespers Service combines two traditional forms of worship within the Moravian church, the Singstunde (Singing Hour) and the Candlelight Service.

The Moravians were known for their worshipful singing, and the Vespers is essentially a holiday worship service done entirely through music, with no sermon. The candlelight service was first held in 1747 in Marienborn, Germany. Beeswax candles with red trimming were handed out at the children's Christmas service and the tradition was passed down through the generations. Bethlehem has held a candlelight service since 1756.

More information and a complete list of holiday events can be found at or

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