In this week’s podcast Natalie mentioned traveling to Bethlehem, PA. Bethlehem is known as Christmas City, USA. I have had the chance to be in Bethlehem close to the holidays and it was great! If you can make it you should plan your trip now. The city website has many details about planning a trip. But why is this little town in Eastern Pennsylvania such a big Christmas location? It’s not just the name, there are 12 US cities named Bethlehem. It’s all in the history of course!
Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve in 1741. The area had been settled by a group from the Moravian Church. The founders met that night in a stable and selected the name Bethlehem. This began a long and successful history for the town. For years it was a closed community for only those of Moravian practice. The city grew and grew to include all types of ethnicities and religions. During the Revolutionary War the main city buildings served as hospitals. Over 500 soldiers died there and are buried in the city cemetery. General Washington stored his personal effects in town while he wintered with the troops in Valley Forge. Bethlehem is home to some of the best 18th century Germanic architecture in North America. It is also the home of the oldest musical group founded in America, circa 1754- the Moravian Trombone Choir. With the building of the canal and the railroad the industry of the town changed. In 1904 Bethlehem Steel was incorporated. The company dates back to the Saucona Iron works established in 1857. Steel expanded and modernized the city. The company at its high point employed over 300,000 people nationwide- 33,000 in the home factory. To give you an idea of the vastness of Bethlehem steel, the large works in town covered over 1,800 acres! The company declared bankruptcy in 2001. Today much of the property and buildings have been and are being converted to arts centers and other urban renewals.
The term Christmas City was attached to the city beginning in 1937. That year the Chamber of Commerce started a campaign to have Christmas letters and cards from hundreds of towns across the country sent to Bethlehem to be postmarked in “Christmas CIty”. That same year began the history of the Christmas Star in Bethlehem. The first star on the hilltop in town was a large 8-pointed wooden star. It was 60 feet by 51 feet and had 150 light bulbs. It was replaced in 1939 with a new steel star that was 81 feet tall and 53 feet high. The star was dark during the war but relit after. In 1967 a more permanent star was constructed with a concrete base. It is 91 feet tall and has 250 bulbs. This star continues in use today. The bulbs are changed every other year and since the mid 90s it has been lit every night from 4:30 PM – 12:00 AM. But the large star is only a small part of the Christmas on display in the town. The Citizens Christmas City Committee sets plans and standards for decorations. The group raises thousands of dollars every year to purchase the 800+ trees used to decorate the city. Those in the Moravian district are lit in all white lights. Elsewhere in town they are lit with colored lights. There is a live Advent Calendar coordinated by local business owners. One of the largest draws is the Christkindlmarkt. This open-air holiday market is full of hundreds of vendors and artisans selling crafts, food, and more. There is music and performances for all ages. In 2006 Travel & Leisure magazine named the market as a top holiday market in the world. There is even a Holiday Parrot Show!! Make sure to check out the Christmas City USA website to get details on every event, schedules, maps, and more. See you in Bethlehem!