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America’s Christmas City


It hangs high above the lovely little town of Bethlehem. Illuminated by 254 LED lights, this Star of Bethlehem is perched atop an 81-foot tower at the summit of South Mountain and lit from dusk to dawn.

Visitors stroll down Main Street as trees twinkle with white lights. The broad boulevard is framed by vintage Moravian buildings constructed of stone and brick. Victorian-style gas lights are trimmed with evergreens and red ribbons. Strains of “Silver Bells” fill the air as horse drawn carriage clip-clops down a lane driven by a bundled up man in a top hat.

You can’t help but be swept up in Bethlehem’s holiday spirit. Get some of your Christmas shopping done at an array of shops on Main Street or the sprawling festival called Christkindlmarkt over at the SteelStacks campus. Visited by 50,000 people annually, the market includes scores of juried artisans, ice carving and glassblowing demonstrations, live music, and a food court.

It is all part of the magical tradition of America’s “Christmas City.” The Moravians’ patron, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Saxony, Germany, first visited the new settlement in northeastern Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve in 1741 and christened the community Bethlehem.

While the Moravians built a few water-powered mills on Monocacy Creek, it was the canal, railroads and resulting economic opportunities that lured large-scale industry to the south bank of the Lehigh River. The Bethlehem Iron Co., as it was first called, soon dominated the economy, the town and its way of life.

Steel– created from iron, coal, and limestone, by Bethlehem Steel helped launch the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century. It was milled and forged to construct ships and armaments that helped America win two world wars, beams for buildings that transformed the skyline of New York City, and gave San Francisco the grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge.

At its peak, Bethlehem Steel was a virtual city of 31,000 with its own police force and fire department, a self-contained community. But the giant industrial complex experienced hard times in the 1970s when the demand for steel declined due to rival products like aluminum and cheaper steel from overseas. By November of 1995 the steel mill and its heavy equipment sounds were silenced.

Bethlehem Steel might be gone, but the town has been in the midst of a vibrant urban renaissance over the past decade and today is a hub of fashionable dining, shopping, entertainment and nightlife, with abandoned steel mill property is at its heart.

Adjacent to the blast furnaces stands ArtsQuest, a shiny new $26-million, four-story contemporary performing arts center. Nine years in the making, it is all about creating art, music, film, and providing a venue where the local arts community can thrive. The venue hosts top-class live music 200 nights a year as well as independent films and stand-up comedians.

Floor-to ceiling glass walls in the three story building provide stunning views of the former plant’s blast furnaces from which SteelStacks draws its name. In December the campus is draped in holiday lights and 1930s era decorations reminiscent of the days when Bethlehem first became known as Christmas City. The town’s old-world charm can best be felt at the Bethlehem Hotel. Restored to its original 1922 splendor with an elegantly appointed lobby, its floor-to-ceiling palladian windows provide dramatic views of Main Street’s boutique shops, eateries, and saloons. Seven large murals painted by George Gray in 1937 depict the town’s history. One retells the story of Count Zinzendorf’s arrival, an event that took place in a crude cabin on the site now occupied by the hotel.

Its Tap Room pub offers more casual fare, while it is fine dining at 1741 on the Terrace– an airy venue graced by a vintage Mercer tile floor and three walls of soaring windows that offer a view of the famous hilltop star. Constantly busy and consistently good, 1741’s executive Chef Federica Muggenburg has earned national kudos for the cuisine and sommelier operation. The Terrace Mix is a favorite, a four ounce all jumbo lump crab cake and eight ounce filet mignon, buttermilk mashed potatoes and sautéed asparagus.

Across from the hotel is the Moravian Bookstore, established in 1745. The literary quality shines. It is one of those pockets in today’s world where books truly do matter. There are unexpected surprises everywhere. Still, it’s much more than a bookshop. The five storefront building spotlights a lovely sunroom anchored by their popular deli and gift shops where visitors find an ever-changing selection of gourmet treats and distinctive gifts.

Climbing a hill behind Main Street brings you to Moravian College, America’s sixth oldest. It is home to many of the town’s oldest stately red-bricked dwellings on its 85-acre campus. At the Moravian cemetery the flat-headed gravestones that date to 1742 offer intriguing snapshots of the lives of transplanted Europeans, American Indians and Caribbean islanders.

Across the street you will find the bistro style Apollo Grill. With a friendly staff and lively feel, its walled art changes as Apollo sponsors new artists. There is a nice list of specialty martinis or try a bottle from its 10 fine wines for $25. Apollo is a locus for tasty stuff, everything from Australian lamb shanks and grilled salmon to crab cakes, pizza and sandwiches. But it’s celebrated for its amazing two-dozen appetizers. Create a dazzling meal of Korean beef kabob and Thai sesame-encrusted shrimp or crackling Asian chicken and lobster tacos.

Later that evening in the lobby of the Hotel Bethlehem a gifted soprano graduate from the Julliard School in New York hit a dizzying spectrum of vocal notes singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “Fools Rush In” as her husband accompanied on the piano. Guests were mesmerized. Stephanie Parsons is a regular visitor during the Christmas season.

“I tell my friends that for me all of the hotel’s holiday cheer is akin to sleeping under the Christmas tree,” she says with a bright smile.