Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in

The town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, promotes itself as America's "Christmas City." The city's most notable Christmas customs reflect the religious heritage of its founders, who were Moravian Christians from central Europe.

The Moravians

The Moravians are mainstream Protestant Christians whose denomination was established in 1457 in what is now the Czech Republic. Many died during religious persecutions that took place in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century a German nobleman, Count Zinzendorf, undertook the protection of the remaining Moravians and allowed them to settle on his land. Seeking religious freedom and the opportunity to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ to American natives, settlers, and slaves, bands of Moravians began to emigrate from Germany to the American colonies in the eighteenth century.

History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In the mid-eighteenth century Moravians founded two towns along the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania. The first they named Nazareth, after the town where Jesus grew up. The second they called Bethlehem, after the town in which Jesus was born.

In 1741 Count Zinzendorf visited the settlement of Bethlehem and spent Christmas there. His approval of the colonists' proposal to name the town Bethlehem finalized their decision. On Christmas Eve he led the community in singing a German hymn which, in his eyes, helped to explain why the colonists had made a wise choice in naming the new town. The first verse of the hymn reminds listeners that:

Not Jerusalem Lowly Bethlehem 'Twas that gave us Christ to save us, Not Jerusalem. Bethlehem's Moravian congregations still sing this hymn every Christmas Eve.

In the early days, Bethlehem was a closed community, meaning that only Moravians could live there. This policy changed in 1845. In the late nineteenth century iron mines and foundries emerged as important businesses in the Lehigh Valley. In 1899, Bethlehem Steel, a giant of America's steel industry, was founded in the town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem Steel flourished throughout most of the twentieth century, drawing many immigrants from various ethnic groups to the area. Competition from cheaply produced foreign steel began to affect the steel industry in the 1970s. This challenge finally resulted in Bethlehem Steel closing its doors in 1995.

Christmas Candles and Lights

In 1937 the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce began to promote the town's Christmas celebrations as a tourist attraction, billing Bethlehem as "Christmas City U.S.A." The city's residents quickly adopted the campaign, organizing a city-wide display of Christmas lights. Bethlehem's most distinctive lighting custom consists of placing a single lit candle in the windows of homes, stores, and other businesses. Though it can only be traced back to the late 1920s, some researchers claim that early Moravian immigrants brought this custom with them from a Moravian community in Germany. There the flame from a single candle left burning in the window during Advent was understood to signal a welcome for the Christ child. By 1940 this custom had spread far beyond Bethlehem's Moravian community to become a city-wide practice. For reasons of safety many today have replaced real candles with electric lights shaped like candles. Many people in Bethlehem light the candles in their windows on the first Sunday in Advent and keep them lit until Epiphany.

The city also hosts an impressive outdoor lighting display. Popular nighttime bus tours led by guides in traditional Moravian dress fill up quickly during the holiday season. On nearby South Mountain a giant, electrically lit star beckons visitors to the Christmas city. First erected in 1935, the "Star of Bethlehem" has been rebuilt several times. This traditional, five-pointed Christmas star with extending rays of light measures 81 feet in height and 53 feet in width. Two hundred forty-six light bulbs keep the display glowing through the night. In past times the city of Bethlehem only lit the star during the Christmas season. Since the mid-1990s, the city has kept it illuminated year-round. Indeed, the five-pointed star can be found on the city's official seal. There the five points stand for religion, education, music, industry, and recreation, five important components of the city's identity.

Moravian Stars

The Moravian star constitutes another Moravian-style Christmas decoration that can now be found throughout the town. These threedimensional stars, made of paper, leaded glass, or plastic, may be illuminated from within by an electric bulb. Although Moravian starmakers shape these ornaments with varying numbers of points, the most common kind of Moravian star has 26 points. Moravian stars are displayed in Bethlehem's homes, shops, and Moravian churches.

Community Putzes

Bethlehem's Moravians have also contributed the Christmas putz to the town's repertoire of Christmas customs. A putz is a miniature Nativity scene, depicting not only Jesus' birth in a manger, but also scenes of life in the surrounding countryside (see also Christmas Village). In past times members of the Moravian community vied with one another to see who could build the most imaginative and elaborate putz. Between Christmas and Epiphany they visited one another's homes to compare and enjoy the putzes. The custom of putz visiting also caught on with non-Moravians. Things started to get out of hand in the 1930s, when one particularly successful putzbuilding family, that of Edward Neisser, received just under 1,000 Christmas season visitors.

Neisser suggested that the town build a community putz for the public to enjoy. The Chamber of Commerce took him up on that suggestion in 1937. The first community putz, set up in the office of the Chamber of Commerce, drew 14,000 visitors and so interrupted the Chamber's duties that they found another location for it the following year. In 1939 the community putz was built in the lobby of Hotel Bethlehem. Two hundred volunteers helped manage the putz by reading the narration for the display and working the lights. The attraction drew 30,000 visitors, overwhelming the hotel. Several more changes of venue followed until three community putzes were established in local Moravian churches.

Since the beginning, members of Bethlehem's Moravian churches have built and managed the community putzes. These days the members of Bethlehem's Central Moravian Church appoint a committee to manage this task. The process begins with an expedition to the Pocono Mountains in November to gather moss. It takes volunteers about a week to construct the putz. Viewing begins at the start of Advent. Several times a day visitors can enter the darkened auditorium to view the putz, while a guide reads a narrative describing the scene. The lights in each section of the putz rise as the guide tells the story of those figures.

Religious Services

Bethlehem's Moravian churches hold a special kind of religious service, called a lovefeast, around Christmas time. In addition, Moravians, like many other Christians, also hold special services on Christmas Eve. The Moravian Christmas Eve vigil resounds with instrumental music and hymns. The hymn, "Jesus, Call Thou Me," led by Count Zinzendorf in 1741, is always sung, as is another favorite Moravian Christmas hymn called "Morning Star." Each year a specially selected child soloist wins the honor of leading this hymn. As the last verse of this hymn begins, praising the Lord whose splendor shines in the darkness, the servers enter the darkened church carrying trays of lit beeswax candles, trimmed at the bottom with red paper and ribbon (see also Christingle). They are distributed to the congregation, and, holding glowing candles, worshipers continue to sing songs about God's light shining in the darkness.


Visitors to Bethlehem also have the opportunity to hear many Christmas concerts, some featuring Moravian music. Moravians have long encouraged music making within their communities. The early Moravians composed thousands of musical pieces, safeguarded the biggest collection of music in the American colonies, and harbored amongst them many instrument makers. One unusual feature of the distinguished Moravian musical heritage is the trombone choir, an ensemble made up entirely of tenor, bass, alto, and soprano trombones. Moravians brought the first trombones to this country in the mideighteenth century, where they continued to be a novelty outside Moravian communities until well into the nineteenth century.

Historic District

Although today people of many different ethnic and religious groups live in Bethlehem, the town's historic ties with the Moravians give it its most distinctive Christmas customs. In addition to these customs, the town maintains a fine collection of colonial and early American buildings, including the Sun Inn, an establishment that dates back to colonial times and once hosted George and Martha Washington, as well as other famous patriots of the American Revolution. (For more onChristmas in Pennsylvania, see America, Christmas in NineteenthCentury; Amish Christmas; Barring Out the Schoolmaster; Knecht Ruprecht.)

Further Reading

Bethlehem's Early History. Bethlehem, Pa.: Historic Bethlehem Partnership Educational Services, 1999. Butterfield, Lee. "Christmas in the Community of the First Moravian Church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A." In Maria Hubert, comp. ChristmasAround the World. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998. Kainen, Ruth Cole. America's Christmas Heritage. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969. Sawyer, Edwin A. All About the Moravians. Bethlehem, Pa.: The Moravian Church in America, 2000. Sweitzer, Vangie Roby. Christmas in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, Pa.: Central Moravian Church, 2000.

Web Sites

"The Putz," a page from the Moravian Church in America's web site at:

An explanation of the Moravian Christmas putz offered by the East Hills Moravian Church, located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: putz.html

An official site of the Moravian Church in America that offers a variety of information about Moravian beliefs and practices:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003