I have never lived in a small town, and of all the urban "Victorian Christmas" and ersatz "small-town Christmas" festivals I have attended, none has seemed completely genuine. Somehow the Christmas spirit has always seemed a little bit forced, a little unreal.
But in Bethlehem, Pa., it's real.
When we visited during the holiday season last year, the citizens of this historic town 60 miles north of Philadelphia shared their "Lovefeast" sugar buns and coffee and didn't care that we were strangers. After a sing-along of Handel's "Messiah," the choir director joked that our musical glitches would be redeemed and invited us all downstairs to the Fellowship Room for homemade cookies and cherry punch. The church had real bell pulls in the stairwell. The ushers traded football scores in the anteroom. Kids scampered around the pews.
In Bethlehem, I came home to the small-town Christmas I have never known: the fresh smell pine boughs tied to every lamppost, the hopeful light of candles in every window and, maybe best of all, a real Sunday quiet -- something that is lost to the malls in most places.
In this oddly picturesque steel town straddling the Lehigh River, the residents try to celebrate Christmas without commercialism. Despite the energetic promotion of the "Christmas City" image by the Chamber of Commerce and despite the tour buses that mob the town during the holiday, Bethlehem largely succeeds in keeping Christmas homey and familiar.
You will find no fluorescent Santas in Bethlehem, no tacky holiday billboards and certainly no artificial Christmas trees. Instead, each night during Advent, the town twinkles with more than 60,000 lights, clear white on the older side of town north of the river, multicolored on the industrial south side. On the South Mountain, above the city, an electric yellow Star of Bethlehem shines, visible until hills and the Earth's curve block it out 20 miles north. The lights are such an attraction that the Chamber of Commerce runs "Night Light" bus tours during the yuletide season.
The festival of electric lights is perhaps the only element of modernity in Bethlehem's celebration. City fathers have tried to keep Christmas in the spirit of 1741, when Moravian Protestants sang carols in the stable of their first house in America, and named their new community after the place of Christ's birth.
Moravians, whose Protestant doctrine of equality and simplicity predated Martin Luther, say they may be the oldest Protestant denomination in the world. As such, they faced persecution early, and were successively hounded from their original home in what is now Czechoslovakia, first to Poland, then to Germany. After a sympathetic nobleman helped them gain sanctuary in America, Moravians kept their Bethlehem apart for 100 years, educating women, dressing in uniform so no one would feel inferior and living in what some say are the nation's finest examples of German colonial buildings.
The modern celebration begins on the first Sunday in Advent in the city's oldest district, north of the massive mills of Bethlehem Steel, among stately grids of Victorian mansions.
We arrived last year on the afternoon of that first Sunday. Without a star to guide us, we followed Interstate-78 and promptly got lost. In the workers' neighborhood that scrabbled up the gray winter hills near the steel mill, a young man in Reeboks set us back on track, north across one of the many bridges in this river town.
We found the historic district, but nothing was stirring, not even the Christmas shops. Sunday is truly a day of rest in Bethlehem. This is the sort of town where the hotel -- yes, there's only one -- has escaped the attention of a multinational chain. The town department store is still family-run. And in the local coffee shop, everyone seems to know the waitresses' names.
Still, the Hotel Bethlehem was welcoming visitors in its homey way, its lobby filled with Christmas trees and ablaze with lights.
"It's Sunday," the desk clerk told us. "Nothing run by the Moravians is open on Sunday."
Which meant almost nothing was open. Even with the newcomers, Moravians dominate the town's cultural life as the river, church spires and hills dominate the landscape. Most of the buildings in the historic part of town are owned by Moravian College or are rented as apartments to its students.
But whatever their denomination, it seems everyone is in church on Sunday, especially on the first Sunday in Advent. This day begins the holiday celebrations and the procession of tour buses that, no doubt, have kept this picturesque city from the more gritty fate of other old steel towns.
With the help of the Hotel Bethlehem desk clerk -- it's the kind of hotel where "concierge" would seem pretentious -- we found our way to Salem Lutheran Church, which was hosting a "Messiah" sing-along.
When we finally made it to the right church an hour late, the ushers fluttered around us. Where were we from? Tenor, bass or baritone? Alto or soprano? No, there would be no problem getting a ticket, but they had sold out of sheet music. We decided, realistically, to listen.
The Lutheran congregation is blessed by a nave of interlocking wood painted in the traditional wheat and mulberry color scheme of the 19th century. More than 150 years ago, Bible study groups and Sunday School classes had donated the simple stained glass, now restored. As we walked in, people smiled like old friends, and moved their coats. The Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra and four professional soloists accompanied the sing-along, but it stayed informal. The conductor even stopped once in mid-measure, to begin again when someone missed a cue.
"Okay, Letter D." The chorus chuckled, abashed.
We basked in the good humor, the warm wood and the glowing glass, and the swirl of music, complete with two Hallelujah choruses. For what was left of the three-hour performance, we wallowed in Christmas. And when we left, I, who am not particularly religious, was ready to go back to the fold.
Dusk was falling when we made it to the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the civic center. The chill wind bit through the crowd that huddled to watch the traditional beginning of the town's Christmas. The city lights have been a symbol of America's Bethlehem since December 1937, when the Chamber of Commerce decided to keep the Depression at bay by stringing lights everywhere and declaring Bethlehem the country's "Christmas City." In years past, guides say, the city was such a tangle of blinking red, green, blue and yellow lights that it was hard to make out the traffic signals. Now most of the lights are white, except on the south side of town.
Each year, the switch is thrown on the first Sunday in Advent, in front of the creche and the Advent candles at the civic center. Last year, it was so cold that the pomp and circumstance had to be moved into the municipal garage below the civic plaza. Undaunted, the mayor speechified. The high school band, a riot of gold buttons, gold braid and epaulets, played. More than 2,000 people in overcoats and mufflers sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Jesus, Thou Call Me," which tradition says the Moravians sang at their first Pennsylvania Christmas. Then a schoolchild threw the switch with a flourish. The lights went on.
Or at least the enormous Star of Bethlehem did. In 1988, turning on so many lights at once blacked out the town for five hours. Now, the lights fire up gradually. But soon they twinkle everywhere: on the Christmas trees that decorate the lampposts and bridges, on the trees in the Main Street shopping district, and in the houses. Almost every family, it seems, puts electric candles in each window, as a sign of welcome to the Christ Child and a symbol of the Christian word going out into the world. And on almost every porch hangs a lighted Moravian star.
Lights also play a big part of the show at the town putz (from the German "to decorate"), an elaborate display of figurines. Families also have private putzen. But the display at the Central Moravian Church is the most elaborate, run by a computer that spotlights each figure, as recorded readers and singers tell the Christmas story.
Church ladies lead you down to the basement where the figures are displayed. They'll put it on for even two people, though there are usually more. Our docent was a tiny middle-aged woman.
"It was tough when the power went out," she confided as she adjusted her pillbox hat and went to start the program. "You never know, nope, you don't. I keep a script just in case I have to tell the story myself. Say, where are you folks from?"
Back at the Sun Inn, a colonial establishment that is now a museum-cum-restaurant, the dining rooms flickered with the lights of homemade beeswax candles, traditional in Bethlehem. Dried apple slices hung on Christmas trees, their smell mingling with that of the wood smoke. It was easy to make a mental leap back to the dinners that George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette are said to have enjoyed there.
The after-dinner streets are quiet and cold in Bethlehem. The only thing stirring seem to be the costumed women and children leading candle and lantern tours of the historic district and, on some Sunday nights, the procession of people going to church.
The West Side Moravian Church is small, spare and white inside. When we visited, only evergreen trees decorated the sanctuary. There is no cross and no altar. The small room smelled of evergreen and beeswax.
A solid-looking man welcomed us and pointed with rough hands to a simple pew. Soon the singing began. Except for a short lesson from the Bible and brief homily, the entire service -- called the Christmas "Lovefeast" -- is sung.
Matrons dressed in white and wearing lace caps appeared after the first hymn and passed out sugar buns wrapped in white napkins. The sacristans reappeared, alternating with men carrying trays steaming with sugared coffee and chocolate milk. Then, as the green-robed choir sang, we ate our rolls and drank from white mugs in this variation on Communion.
Later in the service, the men and women sacristans reappeared, passing out handmade beeswax candles trimmed with red paper. The Central Moravian Church makes as many as 14,000 candles for these Christmas services. The purity of the flesh-colored beeswax symbolizes Christ; the light, His word; and the red paper, His blood. Hands passed a lighted candle to each person in the church. The electric lights dimmed and warm light muted the world's sharp edges as we sang "Sing Hallelujah" and raised the candles high.
When it was over and the electric lights snapped on, the old man in the pew next to us asked us how we were and chatted about the weather as he buttoned his coat and gave us incomprehensible directions back to the town center.
The pastor shook our hands as we left.
"Come again," he said.
"We will," we said.
We meant it.
A calendar of December events and a list of accommodations in and around Bethlehem is available from the Bethlehem Visitor Center, 509 Main St., Bethlehem, Pa. 18018, 215-868-1513; or, upon arrival, from the Christmas Tour and Information Center at Broad and Guetter streets. Advance reservations are required for all light tours, and are available by calling the visitor center. Reservations for walking tours may be made on the day of the tour.
Heather Millar is a freelance writer.