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Christmas Stars in Bethlehem; Tourism Follows Close Behind : Pennsylvania: City changes its traditions to conform with expectations as it looks for an industry to replace steel mills.


BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The darkened shells of the steelmaking factories stretch for miles along the Lehigh River, smokestacks rising like spires on these onetime cathedrals of a vibrant manufacturing age.

On one side of the river, the historic buildings of the city's Moravian past are flanked by stylish shops and the prosperous homes of the men who ran Bethlehem Steel. In a mix of aesthetics, commerce and religion, only white Christmas lights are allowed on this side.

On the other side of the tracks that brought tons of iron ore into the city are the row houses, homes to generations of immigrants who spent their lives in steel mills now virtually shut down. Here, amid the taverns and churches, are elaborate Christmas decorations festooned with colored lights.

And shining brightly over both sides on a mountaintop, as it has for decades, is the Star of Bethlehem, lit up during the Advent season as a symbol of the coming of Christ.

But even before the last steelmaking plant shut down in November, this symbol of the community too, had changed. Last year, the star was lit year-round. The tourists, you see, expect it.

This Moravian outpost in the New World, founded in 1741, is now trying to sell itself as Christmas City, a must-stop spot for bus tours in the '90s.

Those who favor the selling of the city's Christmas heritage say promoting tourism is one part of an economic package that has spared Bethlehem the devastation experienced by other steel towns.

But others fear the loss of something more, a sense of place that transcended the demands of the marketplace.

"If we try to sell Bethlehem as a religious city, it's just not going to work," said the Rev. Catherine Ziel, executive director of the Greater Bethlehem Area Council of Churches. "We lose our uniqueness, and it's that uniqueness we have to sell."


The story every local schoolchild is told of the founding of Bethlehem begins on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1741. Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a nobleman who was a patron of the Moravians in Europe, led a service in the first house built at the settlement. As the story has been handed down, von Zinzendorf was inspired to go next door to a stable reminiscent of the biblical scene of Christ's birth.

There, they sang Christmas hymns, including one German hymn extolling Christ's birth not in Jerusalem, but in "lowly Bethlehem." Hence, the town was christened Bethlehem.

Even as recently as two generations ago, Christmas was still a relatively simple affair here.

Long before bitter strikes and union organizing efforts provided relatively high pay for steelworkers were the days through the 1930s when immigrants were crammed into apartments, men sometimes sharing beds on alternate 12-hour shifts. Steelworkers would earn a dime an hour for long days in mills filled with smoke and dust but no heat.

Christmas pleasures were found in simple activities--midnight Mass, caroling throughout the neighborhood and in various ethnic traditions. In the Slovak neighborhoods, for example, straw would be placed under the table for the Christ child.

The years strip away from grandmother Anne Horwath's face as she recalls how, as a timid young girl, she would crawl under the kitchen table and fall asleep on the straw.

"You were the Christ child," said Margaret Baranyay, lost in the same image, as she smiled at her older sister in the basement of St. Anne's Catholic Church.

The gifts they and their friends usually received back then were new clothes for Christmas services.

In Jewish homes, older synagogue members at Congregation Brith Sholom recall, no gifts were given at Hanukkah. But there was nothing to be jealous about, because the Christian children weren't getting anything either.

With the prosperity of the steel mills after World War II came more commercial Christmases. All of a sudden, presents were piled high under trees, and many of the earlier immigrants moved to the north side.

Bethlehem still has remarkable ties to the religious bond of that first Christmas, even though Moravians, who controlled all land into the 1840s, now make up less than 1% of the population.

In many ways, visiting Bethlehem is like taking a walk back in time to the days before legal challenges over the enforcement of the separation between church and state stripped many public squares of any religious symbolism.

Kids still sing Christmas hymns in school. On a municipal square between City Hall and the library is a large creche. A live Christmas pageant complete with animals, in which all residents are invited to participate, is an annual tradition in the historic district.

"Bethlehem kind of lives on the religious side of the tension, not the secular side," said the Rev. Gareth Icenogle, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

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