O little town of Bethlehem, Pa.

LA Times | Travel

There is indeed something spiritually refreshing about the not-so-little town of Bethlehem, Pa., in the weeks before Christmas. And it's especially apparent come evening, when white 26-point Moravian stars twinkle into life on every porch, and each window in the dozen or so massive 18th century s...

By Marshall S. Berdan // 12.02.08

There is indeed something spiritually refreshing about the not-so-little town of Bethlehem, Pa., in the weeks before Christmas. And it's especially apparent come evening, when white 26-point Moravian stars twinkle into life on every porch, and each window in the dozen or so massive 18th century stone edifices and the graceful 1806 Central Moravian Church is illuminated by a single white electric candle. An almost reverential silence hangs in the air, broken softly by the jingle of horse-drawn carriages plying cobblestone streets, and the halting footsteps of innocent-hearted pilgrims drinking it all in.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it wasn't always this way in the town that since 1937 has billed itself as "Christmas City, USA." Back in the Great Depression, the local chamber of commerce decided to capitalize on Bethlehem's Christmas connection by sponsoring a home lighting contest, the real intention of which was to lure holiday shoppers downtown. But by the 1960s, the "candle in every window" campaign had deteriorated into a garish, over-the-top Snoopyfest that had to be simplified to restore a sense of seasonal decorum.

These days, an estimated 200,000 latter-day pilgrims come to Bethlehem during the five-week holiday season, not so much to buy (although a little shopping is unavoidable) as to experience something that -- thanks to the Moravian emphasis on simplicity and community -- is much more akin to the true spirit of Christmas.

Even good old Charlie Brown would approve.


There are actually two Bethlehems in eastern Pennsylvania: the gritty, industrial city that came of age with the founding of Bethlehem Steel in 1904 (only to wither with it in the 1990s) and the 267-year-old Moravian hilltop community on the other side of the Lehigh River.

Take a tour

The best introduction to the Moravian community is via one of the 90-minute day or evening walking tours led by period-costumed interpreters from the Historic Bethlehem Partnership (505 Main St., $10, $5 ages 6-12). For the broader -- and less physical -- perspective, there's the 90-minute Bethlehem by Night bus tour that, after circling the Moravian sites, takes you across the river into industrial South Bethlehem and up 1,300-foot South Mountain to the base of the Christmas City's trademark 81-foot-high, multicolored, electric star ($10, $5 ages 3-12). Information and tickets for both available at 800-360-8687 or christmascity.org.

Bethlehem Christmas

Today, there are some 3,000 Moravians in greater Bethlehem, and Advent is their season to shine.

At the Moravian Museum in the Gemeinhaus (literally "gathering house"), Bethlehem's oldest and largest building, 45-minute guided tours introduce you to both the Moravians and their Christmas traditions (66 W. Church St., $8, $5 ages 6-12). Among their lasting contributions are the first candlelit "trees" (freshly cut boughs wrapped around a pyramidal wooden frame), the trombone choir, Moravian stars and the Advent Lovefeast, an afternoon singing service with coffee, buns and beeswax candles that originated in 1727 when Count Zinzendorf had food brought in so that the congregation could continue worshiping on into the evening.

If you want to read more about the Moravians -- or purchase some of their elegantly simple handicrafts -- drop in at the Moravian Book Shop (428 Main St., 888-661-2888, moravianbookshop.com). Founded in 1745, it's said to be the country's oldest continuously operating bookstore and a repository of all things Moravian.

The Nativity scenes

Perhaps the most endearing of Moravian Christmas traditions is the putz (pronounced "pootz," derived from the German verb meaning "to decorate"), an elaborate, multi-scene Nativity set up in a private home. Putzing about town during the holidays was considered a social obligation, with a red light on the porch signifying that the family's display was available for public viewing.

Today, only three community putzes remain, the oldest and largest of which is in the basement of the Central Moravian Church's Christian Education Building (40 Church St., 610-866-5661).

During the 15-minute, tape-narrated story of the Nativity, from Isaiah's prophecy to the Flight into Egypt, a spotlight successively illuminates the dozen or so "scenes," each featuring antique, hand-carved olivewood figurines and natural vegetation gathered in the Pocono Mountains (free admission, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-8 p.m. Sunday, centralmoravianchurch.org).

Before you leave, visit the Star and Candle Shoppe across the hall where you can purchase traditional Moravian holiday items such as stars, sugar cookies and beeswax candles.

Shop Christkindlmarkt

The relative newcomer to the Christmas City's holiday lineup, Christkindlmarkt is a traditional Germanic outdoor holiday market -- except Bethlehem's is mercifully sheltered from the elements under spacious and heated tents. More than 100 retailers and artisans display their seasonal and nonseasonal wares, including nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks and enough ornaments to decorate the Poconos. Glassblowers, blacksmiths and ice carvers demonstrate their trades. Out back, costumed interpreters welcome you to the 1761 Tannery and 1762 Water Works ($8 ages 12 and olders, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 21, christmascity.org)

See (lots) of lights

Named by a trade magazine as "the best outdoor Christmas display in the world," Koziar's Christmas City (50 miles west on I-78 in Bernville) proudly features some 500,000 individual Christmas lights arranged in tasteful, colorful patterns over the Koziar family home, barn and landscape, including nine miniature holiday scenes constructed inside miniature glass houses ($7, $5 ages 6-12, 610-488- 1110, koziarschristmasvillage.com).


Both Bethlehem and adjacent Allentown are well served by chain hotels, but if you want to stay within walking distance of the historic center, the choices are limited.

Hotel Bethlehem

437 Main St., 800-607-2384, hotelbethlehem.com

Rates: $159-$199

The vintage 1922 hotel was recently refurbished.

Comfort Suites

120 W. Third St., 610-882-9700, comfortsuitesbethlehem.com

Rates: $119-$149

A full-amentity business chain hotel one block south of the Lehigh River.

Sayre Mansion Inn

250 Wyandotte St., 877-345-9019, sayremansion.com

Rates: $160-$260

This sprawling, 18-room, Gothic Revival urban manor from the 1850s is an elegant bed-and-breakfast.

Morning Star Inn

72 E. Market St., 610-867-2300, morningstarinn.com

Rates: $165-$210

The five-room B&B is in a converted 100-year-old Colonial Revival mansion.

IF YOU GO . . .

When to go: Historic Bethlehem's 2008 holiday season runs from Nov. 28 through Dec. 30.

Getting there: Bethlehem is 90 miles west of New York City. To get there, take Interstate 78 west to Pennsylvania State Route 412 (Exit 67). Take Route 412 north to State Route 378 and get off at Main Street.

Where to eat: For ample sustenance in a seasonally appropriate setting, try the $19.95 holiday lunch buffet at the Historic Hotel Bethlehem (437 Main St., 800-607-2384). For a later -- and more casual -- slice of historical ambience, head to the Bethlehem Brew Works (569 Main St., 610-882- 1300), which commemorates the city's defunct steel industry. For something quick while you shop, the deli inside the Moravian Book Shop (428 Main St., 610-866-5481) serves up nutritious soups, sandwiches and sweets.


Historic Bethlehem: 800-360-8687, historicbethlehem.org

Greater Bethlehem: 610-332-1300, christmascity.org

Berdan is a Newsday freelance writer.