Bethlehem PA: The Christmas City

It’s inevitable that a city called “Bethlehem” does up Christmas in a big way. And this city in the hills north of Philadelphia takes its name seriously. Special events fill the calendar in December, with many of them reflecting the spiritual origin of the holiday and the city itself.

Bethlehem was founded by Moravians. Founded in what’s now the Czech Republic in the 1400’s by a Catholic priest who advocated radical ideas like conducting liturgy in the language of the parishoners (and who was burned at the stake for heresy), the group was harassed, threatened, and practiced in private until they were befriended by a sympathetic German count in the 1730’s. He funded a missionary group to move to the British colonies in America with ambitious plans to convert the Indians. In 1741, the Count visited their settlement to see how things were going. On Christmas Eve, as they sang a hymn that stated salvation began with the events in Bethlehem, the Count decided that would be the name of the town.

Dec 2011 Bethlehem Putz Markt

Bethlehem candle

The spiritual roots of the town and centuries’ old Moravian traditions have not been lost to Santas and shopping. The unique, 26-pointed Moravian star hangs everywhere, and the beeswax candle with red ribbons at the base glow from every window. To the faithful, the pure beeswax reflects the purity of Jesus while the red represents His blood. “The Old Fashioned Moravian Christmas” at the Central Moravian Church is a concert and service that includes music performed on the magnificent pipe organ and a particularly wonderful custom. One of the most important Christmas hymns is sung by a young child, whose solos are echoed by the choir and congregation. (The soloist when I was there was the grandson of the couple in the pew in front of me. Lots of tearful pride.)

Putz angel

Nativity scene

The other uniquely Moravian custom is The Putz. These are large dioramas of the Christmas story. Originally displayed in homes, “going putzing” was a holiday tradition of visiting friends’ houses to see their displays. Now, they are found mostly in churches. The landscape of the putz (which comes from “putzen” which means “to decorate”) is created with moss, rocks, lichen, and live plants collected and installed by the children and adults of the congregation. The figurines used in the scenes of the putz are hand-carved antiques that are centuries old. The program is a narrated “radio-play” – type retelling of the Bible story with lights and music.

The Advent Calendar is not Moravian, although the custom is German in origin. The calendar is a scene with cut-out “windows.” Each day during Advent, a different window is opened; behind it is a picture, a rhyme, or a little story. Bethlehem has the only “live” Advent calendar in the country. Each evening, a town crier summons people to the door of a historic house. Children knock on the door, which opens to a surprise – a gift or goodie (supplied by a local merchant).

For more information about the Moravians and their history, visit www.moravianhistoricalsociety.org. Information about visiting Bethlehem, Christmas activities, and other events, visit www.bethlehempa.org.

Photos: Fran Severn

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