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Finding Christmas Cheer in Bethlehem, Pa.

A top-of-the-tree view of Bethlehem's Christkindlmarkt.
A top-of-the-tree view of Bethlehem's Christkindlmarkt. (Ryan Hulvat - ArtsQuest)

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By James F. Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In the old days people went to "Christmas City," a.k.a. Bethlehem, Pa., just to see the holiday lights: piously white on the Moravian north side, gaudily multicolored on the south side. Today it's the month-long Christmas Festival and Christkindlmarkt that attract more than 400,000 people to this small city on the Lehigh River.

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The festival offers lots of Moravian Christmas tradition plus shopping, food and music (Bach and caroling) and even Chinese acrobats. It is a low-key, low-tech and surprisingly low-commercial approach, held mostly in the historic north part of town.

"There's a very low emphasis on Santa Claus and those kinds of things," said Jeff Parks, the president and chief executive of ArtsQuest, the nonprofit organization that works with the city of Bethlehem to put on much of the festival.

Christkindlmarkt, open through Sunday, is one of the main attractions, where more than 100 artisans from around the Northeast sell handmade items, including jewelry, tree ornaments, ceramics, glassware and wood carvings. Christmas markets trace their roots to medieval Germany and Austria. There, the Advent season, the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, was often marked by such markets, where food and crafts were sold in open stalls on town squares (and still are in many European cities).

Bethlehem's Christkindlmarkt is divided into two large tents. In one, retailers sell herbs, wreaths, woolens, linens, ornaments, clocks, nutcrackers and baked goods. A second tent houses the artisans, where handmade is the order of the day: pottery, hand-blown glass, paintings, wire sculptures, ceramic tiles and clay figures. I stopped at Jack Siegfried's Clay, Critters & Characters by Sig booth and watched him sculpt genre figures out of polymer clay. A computer tech-support person by day, he models clay to unwind. "I pound the clay and forget the computers," he says.

Artisan Conrad Kubiak crafts custom-made drums and didgeridoos, wind instruments usually associated with Australia. "You can't be sad when you drum," Kubiak said. Drumming makes you feel young, he added: "I've discovered the fountain of youth."

In the Tannenbaum Cafe in the artisans tent, there's strudel and dumplings for those getting into the Germanic thing, or calzones and baby back ribs for those who aren't.

Away from the tents on Main Street, the wonderfully preserved stone houses built by the Moravian settlers of Bethlehem provide a serene backdrop to festival activity. You can see the quality of these structures at the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, located in the 1741 Gemeinhaus, the oldest building in town and a National Historic Landmark. It was in the Gemeinhaus that German Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, the Moravians' advocate and protector, named the new town Bethlehem on Christmas Eve that year.

Visitors to the Bethlehem festival flock to the Central Moravian Church's Putz (pronounced "pootz"), an elaborate Nativity scene. The church says the word is derived from the German "to decorate," and decorating for Christmas has traditionally begun with gathering moss for the backdrop of the Nativity scene. Since 1937 the church has presented a putz during December; it features 20 minutes of music, narration and lights on the wooden figures.

Outside, after I had viewed my first putz, Gunnel Sterner, who was a Bethlehem tour guide for 45 years, said to me, "What you and I shared in there is the core of what this is all about." I asked her if she was a Moravian, a people whose roots are in today's Czech Republic, and she laughed. "No. I am a Lutheran deaconess. But my friends tell me I have one foot in each camp." The putz runs daily except Dec. 24 and 25.

Walking along Main Street later that afternoon, I couldn't help feeling the holiday mood: The galleries, cafes and shop fronts were decorated with holly sprigs and wreaths, the tree-lined street was dotted with Christmas lights, and brass bands and string ensembles were playing holiday music. I looked at the woolen sweaters in the window of Donegal Square, a Celtic-themed shop, and counted the various editions of "The Night Before Christmas" at the Moravian Book Shop. On the suddenly sunny afternoon I saw people sitting at sidewalk tables sipping hot chocolate.

At dusk, I stood for a second in the middle of Main Street, where I could see a multi-pointed Moravian star, the official symbol of the city, shining on nearby South Mountain. Made more than 60 years ago out of Bethlehem Steel, it perfectly captures the spirit of the festival -- and of the town itself.


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