Christmas wrap: Bethlehem’s sacred and secular sides

Pennsylvania's Photo: Lehigh Valley CVB

WASHINGTON, November 27, 2012 – Mention Bethlehem, and most minds turn to the ancient city in Palestine, location of the Nativity. But Eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley has a Bethlehem of its own – “Christmas City” – now with two distinct sides to explore during the holiday season. 

The Historic Moravian Bethlehem District ( where European settlers founded the city on Christmas Eve, 1741 is Bethlehem’s quaint and quieter side. It’s there you’ll find a quaint and quiet atmosphere, seasonal music concerts, small shops and variety restaurants like the Celtic McCarthy’s Tea Room and Restaurant or Edge with its French and Asian influenced modern cuisine.

Across the river, new entertainment additions brought by recent redevelopment of the former Bethlehem Steel plant campus offer alternative secular options.

Moravian Bethlehem

The stunning 26-point Moravian stars (which originated in the church’s schools as geometry lessons) and other traditions continue to light up wintry nights throughout Moravian sectors of Lehigh Valley. Christian and secular events such as Christkindlmarkt and sacred music concerts fill the calendar late November through December.

A good plan is to sleep in the Historic Hotel Bethlehem next to the Moravian district where you can enjoy narratives and buildings associated with the 18th century faithful who settled the area.

Reserve one of the hotel’s mountain view rooms to have good vantage on the giant lighted star on South Mountain by night. It was set there in the 1930’s when the town was trodden by the Great Depression. The wife of Bethlehem Steel’s president wanted to give the city a lift, so she installed the 91-foot star with five points as a symbol of hope. It has remained a beacon for “Christmas City USA” through the decades. To get a closer look at the star and some long views of Bethlehem and narratives its history, hop on a guided bus tour at night.

Do a self or guided walk of Bethlehem’s two-block “Moravian Mile,” the route with lots of what the early settlers left behind such as the Gemein House which they built to replace their original log house.

The Central Moravian Church is one of the best halls to sample the local classical music tradition. The church’s trombone and brass choirs are among the oldest ensembles in the world, and December weekend concerts are sold-out events. The internationally known Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bach Festival Orchestra present the composer’s nativity works in concerts, and additional concerts in most Bethlehem churches line most of December, especially on weekends. Area churches also offer the “Christmas Putzes” – diorama of figurines, lights, music, and narration – that depict the Nativity.

The New Bethlehem

Across the river from the Moravian district is former home of an American industrial icon, Bethlehem Steel. Redevelopment projects have brought new life on the site that includes resort style lodging, gaming and restaurants such as Emeril’s Chop House and St. James Gate Irish Pub and Carvery inside Sands Casino Resort.

“Christmas at SteelStacks” is the music and light show lineup beneath the site’s towering blast furnaces that remain sentinels over Pennsylvania’s industrial past. Included on the season roster at the ArtsQuest Center are artists ranging from Clay Aiken and the von Trapp Children, to the Second City comedy troupe and The Celtic Tenors. A Cupcake Bowl is on the roster for December 29, and the PEEPS Chick Drop and Fireworks will get everyone excited for the calendar turning event on December 31st.

SteelStacks visitors also enjoy horse-drawn carriage and wagonette rides through Bethlehem’s historic SouthSide or hop on the free Christmas City Trolley to tour the city’s seasonal events and attractions.

Nearby Easton gives kids a discovery thrill and jolt to their creativity at The Crayola Experience. And all ages enjoy Lights in the Lehigh Parkway in Allentown, a drive-through display of seasonal light sculpture. Koziar’s Christmas Village is probably the largest Christmas lights display in the U.S., an attraction that one family has been mounting and growing on their dairy farm since 1948.

So for a Christmas travel package of both sacred and secular Christmas activities, set your sites and your digital road finder for Bethlehem’s two diverse sides, an hour north of Philadelphia. More event and attractions information is at

 Read more of Ruth Hill’s columns in the Washington Times Communities at Contemporary Christian Travel.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Ruth Hill

Ruth Hill writes for magazines and newspapers about the business and pleasures of travel. Read more about her views and news of Christian heritage travel around the world at

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