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The Steel Meaning Of Christmas

What does a mill town do when it loses its mill? In Bethlehem, Pa., they just turn up the tinsel.

By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 3, 2003; Page C02

A constellation of Moravian stars -- each with 26 points -- hangs in doorways and windows along these historic streets. Lantern-bearing guides in 18th-century Moravian attire lead tours along sidewalks after dark. Horses clop by pulling carriages. Carolers sing on the street. Tiny white lights gleam on Christmas trees at nearly every corner, while songs of the holiday can be heard from on high. And so begins the Christmas season in the Little Town of Bethlehem . . . Pennsylvania.

Because when you're named for the city known 'round the world as the cradle, literally, of Christmas, you have to do more than just hang a few poinsettia banners.

Ken Stauffer sets up a Moravian Christmas display called a putz, one of Bethlehem, Pa.'s, many holiday rituals. (Bradley C. Bower -- AP, Special To The Washington Post)

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Bethlehem, a city of about 72,000 an hour and a half north of Philadelphia (and just south of Nazareth, in fact), likes to call itself "Christmas City, USA." The Lehigh Valley community has long been better known as a steel center, but since Bethlehem Steel finally shuttered the mill in 1996, the city has worked to revive itself as a tourist destination: There is an Avenue of Artists on the south side, a Musikfest performance series in the summer, self-guided history walks in the Colonial Industrial Quarter -- which was a beehive of pre-Industrial Revolution crafts, trades and industries -- and, this time of year, Christmas events galore. That means leaning heavily on traditions from the 18th-century Moravian community, a Protestant immigrant group with roots in what is now the Czech Republic.

Tradition, in an eternal battle with commercialism, dictates that the Christmas transformation doesn't begin until the day after Thanksgiving. After that, participating downtown businesses and residents switch on the single electric candles in each window of their shops and homes. In the historic north side of Bethlehem, thousands of Christmas lights glow white -- the traditional Moravian symbol of purity. But exactly halfway across the Fahy Bridge, the city strings multicolored lights into the more industrial south side, reportedly as a subtle commemoration of the diversity of laborers attracted from all over the world to work for the steel mill.

For Moravians, Christmas in Bethlehem begins with the putz. (No, not that one. It's pronounced "puts.") The putz, from the German word putzen (to decorate), is a miniature indoor landscape, with real moss and potted trees, that tells the story of the Nativity from beginning to end and sometimes further. Construction can take days. It starts with the gathering of the moss. Then the laying of the twigs, stones and tree stumps. Then from boxes and bags come the carved or molded figures of the characters in the Christmas story, carefully placed along the multi-scene display.

The Central Moravian Church's version, with 18 scenes in all, not only depicts Jesus in a manger and Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men and shepherds surrounding it, but also the Israelites' flight to Egypt. When it is shown to audiences, the room starts in darkness and targeted lights illuminate one scene at a time as the 12-minute digital narration explains the dramatic events of the Christmas story. There's the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus as an infant and Jesus as a toddler, Quirinius, the governor of Syria, Archelaus and Emperor Augustus . . . and you thought you knew your Christmas story?

Ken Stauffer is the "putzmaster" at the East Hills Moravian Church, a few miles from downtown. The moss that covers the bottom of East Hills' putz is green and healthy. "By the end of the season, I'm out here cutting the grass," Stauffer says. For fun, East Hills secrets a few anachronistic treats in the moss hills: Children are invited to find the "Star Trek" Starship Enterprise, Snow White and other which-one-doesn't-belong intruders.

Otherwise, accuracy rules. The stars that light up the sky in the dark room at the beginning of the 25-minute show are astronomically accurate for the day that Jesus was said to be born. There's also a miniature of the church itself, and of the 1741 log farmhouse where the first 14 Moravians settled. It was at that farmhouse that one Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zindendorf chose the name of Bethlehem for the city, during the immigrants' first Christmas Eve service in their new home.

Not far from East Hills, the Moravian Museum is in the Gemeinhaus, built around the oldest building in Bethlehem and originally a five-story log cabin. Moravians claim to be the first Protestant denomination in the world, predating Lutheranism. The church began in 1457 in northern Bohemia and gained a sizable number of adherents in Bohemia and Moravia. After arriving in the Lehigh Valley, the small band of Moravians remained a closed community until the mid-1800s. Church members lived a communal lifestyle with nuclear families assigned living quarters by age and marital status. Girls lived in the Sisters' House and boys lived in the Brothers' House, both of which still stand in Bethlehem. The museum's guided tours explain more about the lifestyle and traditions, and the Moravian Book Shop, which dates to 1745, has several books on the religion, its history and practices.

The Moravian museum also displays "pyramid trees," replicas of the first artificial Christmas trees, if that's any claim to fame. Four planks of wood form the pyramid and are decorated with greens, Bible verses and candles -- an awkward but interesting thing to behold. Moravians are known for their wafer-thin sugar cookies and beeswax candles, the bottoms wrapped in a decorative red ruff to catch dripping wax.

As an event for outsiders, Christmas in Bethlehem started as a city promotion in 1937 to help Depression-stricken merchants. The town went for it and invested in a colossal lighting display that has since been toned down. But the 81-foot-high, 53-foot-wide electric star of Bethlehem atop South Mountain -- glowing year-round -- is visible from as far as 20 miles to the north.

Despite its calculated beginnings, Christmas in Bethlehem does not disappoint. Perhaps because the townspeople are so enthusiastic about it. Or maybe because the Moravian traditions are so different from the generic robot elves and plastic snowflakes of most malls and downtowns. So different, in fact, that people get mixed up. "They call us Mormons and ask if we have more than one wife," says Stauffer with a laugh. "Or they think we're a cult."

But if they've been to a putz, on any of the many tours offered, or simply strolled around, they will leave a little more informed. "Follow the Star," the Bethlehem travel brochures say. Wise men, and women, could do worse.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Bethlehem, Pa., is just west of Allentown, about 205 miles from Washington (or about a 31/2-hour drive on a good traffic day). Take I-95 north to just south of Philadelphia, then I-476 to Allentown and Route 22 east to Bethlehem.

THINGS TO DO: Putzes (traditional Moravian Christmas dioramas) can be seen at the Central Moravian Church (73 Church St., 610-866-5661), East Hills Moravian Church (1830 Butztown Rd., 610-868-6481) and Edgeboro Moravian Church (645 Hamilton Ave., 610-866-8793). The Moravian Museum (66 W. Church St., 610-867-0173; $3), in the oldest building in Bethlehem, is decorated to reflect Moravian traditions, including a pyramid tree, putz and beeswax candles, through Jan. 4.

The following three tours are offered by the Christmas Tour Center (52 Broad St., 610-691-6055; advance reservations recommended): Bethlehem by Night (on the hour daily from the tour center; adults $7, children $4), one-hour bus tours narrated by a guide in Moravian costume, through Dec. 30; Old Bethlehem Historic Walks (multiple tours daily from the Moravian Museum; adults $7, 12 and under $4), a one-hour outdoor tour of the historic district led by guides in costume (evening tours by lantern light); and horse-drawn carriage rides (every 20 minutes from the tour center; $7), a 15-minute trot through the historic district decorated for the holiday season, through Dec. 30. Christkindlmarkt (610-861-0678, www.christkindlmarkt.org) is an annual marketplace in the historic district featuring 125 artists and craftsmen (including ice sculptors, glass blowers and blacksmiths), performances by the von Trapp family and a Dec. 13 tour of homes. For information on the many historic sites: www.historicbethlehem.org.

PLACES TO STAY: Radisson Hotel Bethlehem (437 Main St., 610-625-5000. www.radissonhotelbethlehem.com; rooms from $99) overlooks the Lehigh River and Monocacy Creek (you can't get any more central than that). Sayre Mansion Inn (250 Wyandotte St., 610-882-2100, www.sayremansion.com; from $90) is a B&B that was the mid-19th-century home of Bethlehem industrialist Robert Sayre. Try the conservatory room with its glass ceiling for a view of the stars from bed.

PLACES TO EAT: Sun Inn (564 Main St.), dating from 1758, is an authentic restoration of the original 18th-century building that hosted the likes of George Washington, Samuel Adams and many Revolutionary War figures. Bethlehem Brew Works (569 Main St.) serves seasonal, locally brewed beers at a corner pub with an insistent steel-town theme. Restaurant Row runs along Broad Street and features several promising menus.

INFO: Explore Bethlehem, 610-868-1513, www.bethlehem.info.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company