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The Star of Bethlehem Is Moravian Church Tradition

December 25, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Ever since its founding on Christmas Eve 244 years ago by Moravian Church missionaries who came to the New World from Europe, Bethlehem has been known as America's Christmas City.

This holiday season, as always, thousands have come to Bethlehem from throughout the nation to see the city's Christmas lights and decorations.

Single, white electric candles glow in windows of homes, churches, stores and in almost every window in the Old Moravian quarter in the heart of this Pennsylvania city of 70,000 in the Lehigh Valley. White lights, townspeople say, symbolize purity and simplicity.

Diane Frantz, 26, one of the more than 500 librarian/guides of the Christmas City Night Light bus tour, told why Christmas candles burn in the widows of Bethlehem. Dressed in 18th-Century Moravian attire--blue skirt, white apron, blue bodice, white blouse and a schneppelhaube (white hat with a peak like a bird's beak), she said:

"On Christmas Eve, according to the age-old story, the Christ child bearing bundles of evergreens wanders all over the world. Those who long for his coming set a lighted candle in the window to welcome him into their home and hearts. . . ."

As the bus slowly moves along red-brick streets, passing the immense 18th-Century limestone structures in the Old Moravian quarter, Frantz leads the visitors in "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

Traditional 26-pointed Moravian Christmas stars can be seen in doorways, on rooftops and porches. A star of Bethlehem 97 feet high and 53 feet wide crowns 976-foot South Mountain overlooking the city.

The most distinctive feature about the Moravian faith is music. Concerts are presented daily in Bethlehem throughout the Christmas season and nightly vesper services feature some of the nation's most outstanding choral groups.

Sugar Cakes, Cookies

Visitors come here during the Christmas season to feast on Moravian sugar cakes and heart-shaped cookies filled with raisins and spices. They also buy Christmas items that are hand-crafted by local artisans and sold in the Moravian Book Shop, established in 1745.

And they come to attend a Christmas putz , an integral part of the Moravian Christmas celebration in Bethlehem ever since city founder Count Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf of Saxony named the settlement in honor of Christ's birthplace.

A putz is an elaborate Nativity scene with musical accompaniment where the story of the Nativity is recounted. The term comes from the German word putzen , meaning to polish or shine. In the Saxon dialect of Zinzendorf's time, however, it meant to decorate.

There are putz parties in Bethlehem where people gather to create a putz and enjoy a potluck supper. There are many putzes around town, but the most famous is put on by the congregation of the 1806 Central Moravian Church. The annual tradition is one of the year's biggest social events for the 1,500-member congregation.

Preparation begins early in November when families head for the Pocono Mountains to gather moss as bedding for the Nativity scene which includes mountains, valleys, tumbling waterfalls, lakes, forests and villages.

Visitors to Bethlehem view the putz at the Central Moravian Church auditorium in half-hour programs throughout the day and evening. At least 20,000 people will attend this year.

The putz at the Central Moravian Church is filled with hand-carved figures, many of them 100 to 200 years old.

It was in 1741 at the first putz in Bethlehem that Count Zinzendorf led his flock of worshipers to a stable to re-enact the Nativity. They sang an old German hymn as they made their way:

Not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem

'Twas that gave us Christ to save us,

not Jerusalem.

Favored Bethlehem! Honored is that name;

Thence came Jesus to release us;

Favored Bethlehem.

It was then, according to legend, that the Count decreed the new settlement be called Bethlehem.

John Hill Martin, a Philadelphia lawyer writing in 1872, noted: "All Christendom has adopted the Christmas tree but the Moravians of Bethlehem have brought with them (to this country) the putz. "

The Moravian Church is a Protestant denomination with fewer than 500,000 congregants throughout the world. There are 60,000 members in North America, 10% of them in Bethlehem.

The original settlers were German missionaries from Moravia, now part of Czechoslovakia, who sought to bring the Gospel to the Indians.

Original 18th-Century log and limestone Moravian buildings have been in continuous use in Bethlehem for more than 200 years, structures like Geminhaus, a five-story medieval-style log structure built in 1741.

There is the Brethren's house, built in 1748, where single men lived and worked. The Sisters House, dating back to 1744, is where single women lived and worked. It still houses Moravian widows and single women, as does the Widows House, built in 1768.

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