I have already opened my best Christmas gift, the treasure trove of history I inadvertently fell into last week while following the star of Bethlehem … to Pennsylvania. I went for some adventure in shopping and returned with a new understanding of the spread of Christianity through the New World. I have already booked an overnight for next December, as one day wasn’t enough to absorb it all. And, not to sound shallow, but the Christmas shopping is terrific.
The lush Lehigh Valley has attracted a variety of religious sects ever since William Penn established his new province of Pennsylvania in the 1680s. His “Holy Experiment,” in which religious freedom would be the cornerstone of a new social order and there would be separation of church and state, drew persecuted groups from all over Europe. Quakers, English Anglicans, French Huguenots, Scotch Presbyterians, and Irish Catholics flocked to the colony. For most of the 1700s, Pennsylvania was one of the few places under British rule where Catholics could worship legally.
The idea that individuals have a natural right to worship according to their own conscience was radical and subversive. No nation in Europe allowed it, and “separatists” were punished by the full force of the law. But nothing could deter these Christians: on Mennonite, on Amish, on Dunker, and Dutch Reformed. On Schwenkenfelder, on Scotch-Irish, on Jewish, and Moravian! To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall! Now, dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!
Pennsylvania quickly became a multi-national and multi-religious colony unlike any other, but none left a mark as indelibly as the Moravians who immigrated from Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) and dubbed one of their four new settlements “Bethlehem” on Christmas Eve 1741. The cornerstones of their celebration of the birth of Jesus shine brightly today: the Moravian Star, a Moravian beeswax candle in every window, the Moravian Putz (homemade nativity scenes), the annual Lovefeast at the church with its Moravian sugar cakes and buns. These traditions set the tone from the first Sunday of Advent through the Christmas season.
Bethlehem was dubbed “Christmas City USA” in 1937 by the president of the Chamber of Commerce with the words, “Why not make Bethlehem – named at Christmas – the Christmas City for the entire country? Bethlehem did not create Christmas, but Christmas created Bethlehem.” The entire town bustles with history and Christmas spirit.
The Chamber built a star on the top of South Mountain to commemorate the North Star. The star also recalls the industrial giant, Bethlehem Steel, whose mighty blast furnaces forged the steel that framed it. For nearly a century, Bethlehem Steel served as the economic lifeblood of the community, employing tens of thousands of people while producing the steel that built our nation’s bridges, skyscrapers, and the U.S. Navy, helping win two World Wars in the process.
On November 18, 1995, the plant closed its doors forever, leaving the region with a void that seemed impossible to fill. But rather than demolish the mill, the community rallied to save the iconic plant, which sprawls over eight acres on the banks of the Lehigh River, imposing and dystopian. The process began in 1999 and the plant was re-named SteelStacks. The first building opened to the public in May of 2011. Located just a mile-and-a-half south of the historic City Center, it is also alive with holiday magic at Christmas, making the two a great combo to explore from different time periods and historical significance.
There are so many events scheduled that you should research and set your plan — early. There is the Live Christmas Pageant on the first weekend of December and Christkindlmarkt at SteelStacks, with shopping, ice skating, firepits, ice carving and food trucks. You can explore the Moravian history of downtown, with excellent shopping, dining, and tours by carriage or bus.
I’d recommend staying overnight at the Bethlehem Hotel on Main Street, leaving your car in the garage, and checking it all out on foot, as it can get crowded. Don’t miss the historic Sun Inn, established in 1758, and sample the wares of its distillery; Cherry Bounce was a favorite of George Washington, who often carried a canteen of it for his trips across the Alleghany Mountains. Martha (Washington, not Stewart) made it especially for him, and the Inn still uses her recipe.
If you need to bring yourself back down to earth, check out the Lost River Caverns in nearby Hellertown. Reservations are required for the 30- to 45-minute walking tour of this underground wonderland. They offer excellent shopping at Gilman’s at the Cave, if rocks and crystals are more your style. There’s the Crayola Experience in Easton for the kids, Lehigh University for the high schoolers, and a PBS studio at SteelStacks for your uncle.
There is something for everyone in Bethlehem.