By DAVE EMKE
Special to the OBSERVER
BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bethlehem is a town with a name tied intricately into Christmas.
Photo by Dave Emke
Tourists walk under a Christmas tree located in front of the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pa. The plant, which closed steel-making operations in 1995, has in recent years had its grounds transformed into an arts-and-entertainment district.
Half a world away from the Bethlehem that springs to most people's minds, however, lies a lesser-known town of the same name. But Bethlehem, Pa., has its own claims to fame when it comes to the holiday season.
In "Christmas City," as it has branded itself, you'll find authentic Christmas trees - each complete with its own set of lights - bound high up on each light post as you drive through the town. You'll join a throng of tourists wandering through a historic downtown filled with shop after shop selling crafts for any season, but especially appropriate during the gift-giving time of Christmas.
And throughout the city you'll see large multipointed stars - similar to the Star of Bethlehem, but upon closer inspection, slightly different. They are Moravian stars, representative of a society deeply intertwined with the city's history and culture.
Rising above it all on the city's southside are the towering, rusted stacks of the Bethlehem Steel Corp., a symbol of an institution that helped build the very infrastructure of America itself.
Bethlehem is a fascinating place, intermingling 18th century history with 21st century hustle and bustle. To visit it at Christmastime is a sight to behold, but its past and present are rich enough to be enjoyed year-round.
Founded in 1741 by Moravian settlers from what is now the Czech Republic, Bethlehem was given its distinctive name when the Moravians' patron, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, paid a visit to the settlement on Christmas Eve.
Today, when visiting Bethlehem in December, one must visit the Christmas-themed marketplaces the city features during the season. The largest is Christkindlmarkt, which was held for the 19th time this year. For the first time, however, it took place this year at a locale called SteelStacks - so named as it is in the shadows of the former Bethlehem Steel. The juxtaposition of the hulking and aging stacks, hundreds of feet tall, with the Christmas-filled plaza below was difficult to miss.
Inside, more than 140 booths from area merchants stand among food vendors and a stage where local musicians perform throughout the five-weekend run of the market. During our visit, we were serenaded by Christmas carols courtesy of the clarinet choir from the Moravian, Lehigh and Community Music School. The live music added a certain quality to the experience that pre-recorded and mass-produced Christmas tunes piped through a sound system could not have possibly matched.
The cornerstone of the market is the Kathe Wohlfahrt store, which features a vast array of Christmas goodies for gifts, for the tree, and for all other seasonal needs. The most impressive part of the setup was a wall of Nutcracker ornaments featuring as many different Nutcrackers as one could possibly imagine. It was a collector's dream.
Other booths throughout the market sold wares including garden gnomes, blown glass, jewelry and, of course, Moravian stars. A few also sold goodies including gourmet foods and wine. There truly was something for everyone's Christmas list.
After visiting the Christkindlmarkt, we went downtown to a second marketplace that has sprung up in Bethlehem just this year, called Weihnachtsmarkt or "Christmas City Village." Set up outdoors in downtown's Sun Inn Courtyard, Christmas City Village is a smaller and more intimate take on the same idea.
In about 30 wooden huts, vendors offered a variety of crafts and gifts. Traditional German fare and hot mulled wine were available and - as at Christkindlmarkt - live music helped liven the atmosphere. Here, we heard rock 'n' roll Christmas tunes from a teen rock band called Revelations.
The location of the Christmas City Village lent itself well to tourists passing through, as it is a quick step off the busy Main Street from the number of businesses open for holiday hours there. Many hundreds of out-of-towners packed the sidewalks on the Saturday night we visited, walking from store to store to see all the items Bethlehem has to offer.
More than just commercial, though, Bethlehem is in touch with its history. Amid the shoppers, guides dressed in 18th-century apparel lead visitors on lantern-lit tours of streets, showing them where famous men from history such as Ben Franklin, George Washington and John Adams visited and made their mark.
Seeing a colonial man bumping elbows with a family carrying several bags full of Christmas gifts on a busy sidewalk is just one of many pieces of visual evidence that Bethlehem is forever mixing its past with its present.
That mixing of past and present is also distinctly evident at Bethlehem Steel, which closed steel-making operations in 1995 but remains a point of interest both on the Bethlehem skyline and the skylines of many cities across the United States.
While a portion of the plant remains standing on the south shore of the Lehigh River, a modern arts-and-entertainment district - SteelStacks - has been built around the carcass of the facility. The ArtsQuest Performing Arts Center stands at the west end, while the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem has made its home on the east end.
The ArtsQuest Center serves as the home for shows, movies, musical performances and other events for the community. It is also the starting point for historical tours of the Bethlehem Steel facility. The tour we took was led by Bruce Ward, a 27-year employee of Bethlehem Steel whose father, mother, uncle, grandfather and grandmother all also worked at the plant in various positions. Ward, a volunteer for Historic Bethlehem who has been chronicling the history of Bethlehem Steel in film since the early 1990s, gave an in-depth two-hour tour of the campus.
Ward took us chronologically through the history of Bethlehem Steel, informing us of the major advances for which the plant was responsible, the sheer mass and volume of the steel that was produced on the grounds, and of the more than 700 men who lost their lives over the years at the facility.
The massive plant, which features the world's longest free-standing structure in the form of a quarter-mile-long machine shop, had more than 300 miles of railroad tracks and more than 1,000 overhead cranes. At its peak, during World War II, the seven-mile-long plant employed more than 30,000 people. The buildings we looked into made the steel beams that went into the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building and many more iconic structures across the United States. The plant was also the major supplier of weaponry and armor to the U.S. military during World War I and II.
Our knowledgeable guide told us about everything from how the blast furnaces worked to what the curtains looked like in the corporate office. While we unfortunately were unable to enter any of the buildings, Ward's colorful illustrations provided the backdrop.
During our tour of Bethlehem Steel, Ward made mention of the Moravian settlers whose land was purchased to make room for the plant - and how the city was altered because of it.
In order to get a full understanding of how the Moravians had lived in Bethlehem in the 1700s, we received a talk about the settlement from Natalie Bock, historian from the city's historic Hotel Bethlehem. She met us early the next morning and gave us a walking tour of downtown as it was more than 250 years ago.
Moravian society was a socialistic society in which members gave all their money to the church and lived together through a system in which each person worked toward the betterment of the group, not the individual. Goods and services were provided to each other on a barter system, and by all accounts Moravians were a very happy people, Bock told us.
The Moravians in Bethlehem were, unofficially, the first people in the United States to have a hospital and to have a method for running water. They also were passivists, Bock told us, who refused to take part in the Revolutionary War.
Another interesting aspect about the Moravians was the complete separation that existed between unmarried men and women in the community. Boys and girls lived in separate houses - much like dormitories - were schooled separately and even took walking paths that did not intersect. Marriages were arranged but, as deduced from biographies that each Moravian was required to write, results seem to have positive.
Not only were boys and girls separated, but virtually all people in the community were separated into living arrangements based upon age, gender and marital status. The Moravians who remain today still live in the same homes with names such as "Widows' Home" and "Sisters' Home."
We visited all the historic buildings of the Moravian settlement, as well as the Moravian cemetery, in which all the gravestones lay flat - because Moravians believe that, in death as in life, all people are equal. One stone of particular interest, however, was that of a converted American Indian whose biography was used as James Fenimore Cooper's inspiration for Uncas in "The Last of the Mohicans."
Bock also gave us the scoop on the origins of the Moravian star, which originated in a Moravian Boys' School as the answer to a geometry lesson. Because of its beauty, it soon was adopted throughout the church as a symbol of the Christmas season.
The Moravians were a welcoming people, and Bock said that the Moravian star is a welcoming symbol when hung on a porch or doorway. It is only fitting, then, that it is so prevalent throughout a city as welcoming as Bethlehem.
IF YOU GO
HISTORIC BETHLEHEM: 459 Old York Road, Bethlehem. www.historicbethlehem.org or 610-882-0450. In association with the Smithsonian Institution. Information about historic sites and museums.
CHRISTKINDLMARKT BETHLEHEM: PNC Plaza at SteelStacks, 645 E. First St., Bethlehem. www.artsquest.org/christkindlmarkt or 610-332-1300. $8 admission for single day, $15 for season pass. 2011 season ends Dec. 18; 2012 dates and hours to be announced.
CHRISTMAS CITY VILLAGE: Sun Inn Courtyard, downtown Bethlehem. www.downtownbethlehemassociation.com/calendar/christmas-city-village. Dec. 22-23, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Dec. 24, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Free admission.
ARTSQUEST CENTER AT STEELSTACKS: 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem. www.artsquest.org or 610-332-1300. Seasonal hours: Monday and Tuesday, noon to 9 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 10 p.m.; Friday, noon to midnight; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. (Christmas Eve, noon to 5 p.m.; Christmas, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.) Free parking. See website for full schedule of upcoming shows, festivals, tours, movies and more.