Christkindlmarkt in The Christmas City: Bethlehem PA

When Santa does his Christmas shopping, he heads for Bethlehem, PA. “The Christmas City” has one of the largest Christkindlmarkts in the country. The open-air markets are a tradition in Germany, where craftsmen sell their holiday wares from small booths set up in the town square.

For years, the Bethlehem Christkindlmarkt was held in a park in the heart of the old city, but its popularity and ever-growing number of quality artisans wanting to participate dictated a move. The new location showcases the newly-opened Steelstacks Arts Center. The market is protected from the nippy Pennsylvania winter weather by two massive tents – one dedicated to the artisans; the other to retail vendors – with some demonstrations outside in a common courtyard. Where steelworkers once forged I-beams, railroad tracks and auto parts at the Bethlehem Steel Plant, over 100 artisans from across the country display woven beadwork, intricate German papercut designs, finely turned wood and hand-woven shawls. Glassblowers create delicate, glittering ornaments, and a sculptor chisels a block of ice into a sparkling elf. The market is so vast that you’re handed a guidebook and map at the ticket booth. (And there’s an ATM just inside the door.)

Never forgetting its origins, the largest display is of traditional German holiday decorations from Käthe Wohlfhart. Suites of nutcrackers stand at attention; lacey placemats cover tables like freshly fallen snow; holiday surprises peek from behind doors of Advent calendars. And, of course, St. Nicholas has his special area to visit with children.

Much of the fun comes from meeting the artists as they share their enthusiasm for their work. The technique of intricate silk embroidery has been passed down through Ping Guo’s family for generations. Dan Mohr explains how he prints his photos on canvas to create the effect of an oil painting at his Light Painter Photography booth. And former high school physics teacher Ed Youtz attracts a crowd as he turns a chunk of pine into a pocket-sized wooden top and teaches how to spin them. You’ve got to smile at the “edible” birdhouses of Barry & Sue Dovaston. Covered with seeds, they’re guaranteed to charm birds all winter. (And the birdhouses come with instructions of how to cover them with peanut butter and more seeds when the first coating is gone.) The artists at Zendik move recycling into a creative realm by crafting jewelry of colorful beads made from painstakingly rolling torn pages of magazines.

When you need a break, you can enjoy the live music – singers, choirs, and musicians – on stage near the food court, which tempts the foot sore and shop-weary with German specialties: many kinds of wursts (of course), soft pretzels, and strudels, plus wraps, burgers, and the height of fried-dough culinary decadence – funnel cake.

Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt is held every Thursday-Sunday from the weekend before Thanksgiving until the weekend before Christmas. There’s a daily admission; no multiple-day passes. Plenty of free parking, and it is totally wheelchair accessible.