In the dining room at Iacocca Hall at Lehigh University, with its panoramic view of Bethlehem, hundreds of people gather for the Advent Community Breakfast. The main speaker issues a familiar litany: Giving and receiving presents is nice, but beware "the commercialization of Christmas."
What is unusual is that he delivers the sermon dressed as jolly old St. Nick.
You need look no further than those conflicting images to grasp the odd partnership business and religion have formed to sell Bethlehem as a tourist destination.
Two years ago, the Chamber of Commerce became a co-sponsor of the breakfast, which was started by the Council of Churches in the 1940s as a religious kickoff to the Advent season. The chamber also formed a Citizens' Christmas City Committee, which distributed flyers at the breakfast encouraging people to put white candles in their windows.
The chamber's purpose: a commercially attractive downtown. But its pitch to residents is to display a sign of welcome to the Christ child.
So far, business has been good. The city expects 100,000 visitors this holiday season, including some 400 tourist buses. It's hard to move in the Moravian Book Shop on a Saturday afternoon in the shopping season. And lines form in restaurants along Main Street much of the day.
But one price of success has been a loss of some of the traditions that made Bethlehem a true Christmas city for residents.
Falling by the commercial wayside, along with the lighting of the star only during Advent, was the practice of waiting for the start of the Christian year for the annual lighting of city streets and trees.
This year, Advent did not begin until Dec. 3, nine shopping days past Thanksgiving. But if out-of-town tour buses couldn't see the Christmas lights--about 70,000, nearly matching the population--many would turn around and go home, civic leaders feared. So the lights were turned on the day after Thanksgiving.
In creating their own traditions to drum up business, tourism officials have tried to include religion in the mix.
Begun in 1993, Christkindlmarkt is basically a large craft fair with Santa Claus on one end and a display of creches on the other. In the bigger-is-better commercial tradition, a key selling point this year is a 40-ton sand sculpture of the Nativity scene.
Jeffrey Parks, one of the city's leading tourism officials as president of the Bethlehem Musikfest Assn., noted that an effort has been made to respect religious customs. The city is "not selling Santa Claus," he said, "and we've no desire to do that."
What the business community realizes, he said, is that what Bethlehem has to offer tourists is "a really religiously based experience. And it's not fake. And it's not one we've created for them."
Some religious leaders agree that city officials have shown restraint in marketing Christmas in Bethlehem.
Even Rabbi Allen Juda, comparing the city "to the other Bethlehem, as we put it here," said the eastern Pennsylvania community has been relatively restrained compared to the huge number of shops at what is believed to the historic site of Jesus' birth.
"When I came here, what struck me was how understated Christmas was for the Christmas city," said Juda, who has been at Brith Sholom for 20 years. "It was fascinating to me that the community here--the national Christmas City--had not done much more."
But many see a growing gap between the business and religious communities.
"The star is about Advent and the coming of the Christ child," said 76-year-old James McKee during an Advent gathering at St. Peter's Lutheran Church on the South Side. "I'm afraid now it's a magnet for the retail trade."
Over at Second Baptist Church, the Rev. Edward Thompson grabbed the pulpit with both hands and looked directly down at his congregation to exhort them to remember "the reason for the season."
In an interview, Thompson said the city is trying "to make it Xmas instead of Christmas. They will start earlier and earlier and stretch it out further and further until it comes to a point where they won't think of Bethlehem as a Christmas city."
"What would God say about Christmas in Bethlehem today?" sixth graders at the Moravian Academy were asked.
"I don't think he would be very pleased," said Adam Mattina. "They're kind of sucking the life and religion out of Christmas."
Added Josh Roberts: "I think he would just say, 'What the heck happened down here?' "
And yet, there is something special about Christmas in Bethlehem that the forces of tourism have not touched.
There are events such as Advent Lovefeasts, where visitors to Moravian churches are given coffee and sugar buns during a hymn service. And there are simple tellings of the Christmas story at putzes, traditional handmade depictions of the events two millenia ago.
Even with the loss of some 30,000 steel jobs since the '60s, the feeling still crosses over to unite both sides of town.
The special meaning of a Bethlehem Christmas is felt at First Presbyterian Church, where a long driveway leads to the mansion-like grounds of the elite congregation.
And it is present at the soup kitchen at Grace Episcopal Church, where scores of people, many of them ex-steelworkers, will spend their Christmas.
"I don't think the spirit of Christmas is ever going to away, no matter how bad it gets," said volunteer Eddie Micek, who helped build one of the mills and is now receiving disability benefits. "The spirit is still here. The lights are still up."