Holiday Headquarters in Christmas City USA: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
By Renée S. Gordon
Each year throngs of people travel thousands of miles to spend the holidays in Bethlehem, Israel but you may be surprised to learn that there is another, exciting Bethlehem right here in the United States. The American city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is an alluring destination year-round but is especially sensational during the holiday season. Its panoramic views, attractions, activities, dining, shopping and spirit offer an immersion into the holiday spirit.
A community of Moravians, the world’s oldest organized Protestant religion, settled in the Lehigh Valley near the juncture of the Lehigh River and Monocacy Creek; on Christmas Eve of that year they met in a two-room log cabin that functioned as a stable and gathering place in celebration. The colony’s patron, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf who was visiting from Germany, named the settlement “Bethlehem.”
Historic Moravian Bethlehem was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012.
From 1741-1845 it was a closed religious community that included blacks and Native Americans. Individuals worked at more than 35 trades, the community was self-sufficient and provided funding for missionaries. The self-guided walking tour of the landmark district includes more than 22 locations.
The 1741 Gemeinhaus is home to the Moravian Museum. Constructed as a communal gathering place, it also housed the Saal, a place for worship. The enormous structure, 94-ft. by 32-ft., remains the nation’s largest log building in continuous use and the oldest building in Bethlehem. Highlights of the Christmas tour include examples of the earliest Christmas trees, wooden pyramids with tree boughs attached to them, decorated with candles, apples and Bible verses and holiday Putz scenes. (Putz scenes depict the story of the birth of Christ in miniature.) The count stayed in the Gemeinhaus and a room has been furnished as it would have been during his stay.
The Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania and one of only five in the country, is housed in three adjoining mid-19th Century houses. The galleries are thematic and often take the form of decorative room settings. Special holiday exhibits include “100 Years of Gift Giving” and a series of individually decorated trees. The permanent objects include the largest collection of 1830-1930 dollhouses featuring 40 houses and more than 5,400 furnishings.
Johann Goundie’s Federal-style home was built in 1810 and is the oldest brick home in the city. Goundie was a Moravian brewer and the tour here recounts the vibrant history of beer brewing in the area and is filled with fascinating information and artifacts including the fact that ale was sold to wedding guests and the money was given as a gift to the bride, hence “bride ale,” or bridal.
Travel & Leisure Magazine named Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem one of the top holiday markets in the U.S. The 23rd annual market will be open Thursdays through Sundays until December 20th at SteelStacks, Bethlehem’s repurposed former steel plant. More than 130 artisans and vendors are interspersed indoors and outdoors and your shopping experience is enhanced by performances and scheduled activities. You can both purchase and create your own holiday gifts. Plan to spend several hours.
You can explore Bethlehem on foot, by carriage or on the guided “Bethlehem by Night” tour. The bus tour shares the history and offers a comfortable way to see all of the decorations and lights for which Bethlehem is famous. In the 1930s an 81-ft. high illuminated Star of Bethlehem was placed atop South Mountain; on a clear night it can be seen for 20 miles. The star on the mountain is distinguishable from the stars for which the Moravians are noted. A Bethlehem Star has an elongated tail while the Moravian Star has a number of points, from six to 100, and their history is generally traced to a school in Germany where they were used to teach geometry.
Become a modern Magi and follow the star to Bethlehem for a unique holiday adventure.
– Photo Credits: Top image courtesy Bethlehem PA Chamber; remainder by Renée S. Gordon
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