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Saturday, December 09, 2006

O Little Town of Bethlehem

By Alison, writing from Pennsylvania, USA

Christmas in BethlehemEver since I was a child, Christmastime has always been very special to me. I remember laying in bed on Christmas Eve night, thinking that I heard hoof prints on the roof as I was attempting to fall asleep. Like every other child, I was up very early the next morning, peeking under the tree, only to patiently wait to see what Santa had brought as my family attended mass. Since moving out of my parents' home a little over 11 years ago, things have changed. I am no longer waiting for Santa, but am looking forward to the day that I can play the part for my little ones. Also, I have kept some traditions while developing my own. Some of the traditions that I have held on to originated from my family, while others came from my hometown.

I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania - a city in Eastern Pennsylvania of roughly 72,000 people. It was founded on Christmas Eve in 1741 by a small group of Moravians lead by Count Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf of Saxony, Germany. Being a religious community, they named the settlement after the town of Bethlehem in Judea, where Jesus was born. To Bethlehem, they brought many traditions from the old country, many that still exist today.

It has been argued that the Moravians were the first people to introduce the Christmas tree to America in the very early 1800s. The arrival of German immigrants helped spread the tradition of the Christmas tree across the country. The women would bake elaborate ornaments for their tree and then the family would eat the decorations once the tree was taken down after the holidays. Lighted candles, flowers, fruits, and nuts were also popular decorations for the first American Christmas trees, but only the strongest trees could support the weight without drooping. As a result, early American glassblowers began making lightweight glass ball to replace the heavier decorations. The lights and decorations were representations of the joy and light of the Christmas season, while the star on top of the tree is symbolic of the 'Star in the East'.

Another tradition that has started in this area with the Moravian community is the display of a single white candle in the windows. Originally, it was to "light the way for the Christ Child". Since then, it has turned into a sign of welcome and many homes in Historical Downtown Bethlehem display the candles all year long.

Moravian StarIn addition to the single white candle in the windows, another very popular tradition in Bethlehem is the display of the Moravian star. Traditionally, the star is hung during the first Sunday of Advent. The 26-point star originated at the Moravian School in Niesky, Germany during the mid 1850s as a lesson in geography, and was carried all over the world by missionaries and other church workers. Today, we mostly see a star made from white plastic or clear glass (sometimes electrified, sometimes not), but the first stars created were made of wood and had alternating white and red points, among a few other color combinations. There is also another star, 'The Star of Bethlehem', which has a longer point on the bottom. The Moravian Star is not only displayed in churches and homes, but also in community displays, hospitals, hotels, schools, stores, and other places Christmas decorations are displayed. Today, more non-Moravians are displaying the star at Christmas than are the Moravians themselves. Many of the city's inhabitants have the stars hanging in their doorways throughout the year and give them to visitors or while traveling as a symbol of our hometown.

In 1937, Vernon Melhado, head of the Chamber of Commerce had an idea. He thought, "Why not make Bethlehem - named at Christmas - the Christmas City for the entire country. Bethlehem did not create Christmas, but Christmas created Bethlehem." He launched a full-scale effort and contacted Chambers of Commerce all over the country to help promote Bethlehem, PA as 'Christmas City, USA', getting very positive feedback in return.

Since then, Bethlehem has pulled out all the stops for her locals and visitors to celebrate the holiday season. There is a little something for everyone. Children can enjoy the live Christmas pageant - complete with a donkey, camels, horses, and sheep - and various stage performances including The Nutcracker ballet and Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. For adults, there are numerous festivities around town - Christkindlmarkt (modeled after a German open-air market held during the Christmas season), holiday concerts given by the Bach Choir (formed in 1898), among many other events to give them a break from the holiday shopping. One fun family activity that is becoming popular are the old fashioned horse and carriage rides through Historic Bethlehem.

The Christmas season for me is very personal. It really is what you make of it. It can be as hectic or relaxing as you want it. I like to get out my Christmas tree and decorate it while listening to Christmas music, put the single white candles in my windows, and take in a holiday festivity or two if I have the time. One day I may even get to hang my glass Star of Bethlehem in my home. I think that traditions are very important during the holidays, since they are what give you that warm feeling of 'home' no matter where you live.

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