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IN PENNSYLVANIA, A BETHLEHEM FULL OF LIGHT AND CHEER

I REMEMBER very little about the trip. The time was the late '40s. I was only 8 or 9 then, and my parents had decided we would drive from our home to see the Christmas lights in Bethlehem.

All that remains in my memory is a large lighted star on a hillside and white lights glowing in the windows of Bethlehem homes.

Those window lights are still there at Christmastime in Bethlehem, Pa., and that big star still burns brightly from atop South Mountain. Each December, thousands of visitors come to see the show in this city that justifiably calls itself the Christmas City of the United States.

Christmas in Bethlehem is rooted in a rich heritage that dates back nearly 250 years.

According to tradition, the city, situated 60 miles north of Philadelphia, takes its name from a hymn sung by Count Zinzendorf, who visited the new settlement of immigrants from the Moravian region of Czechoslovakia on Christmas Eve in 1741:

"Not Jerusalem -- lowly Bethlehem

'Twas that gave us Christ to save us . . . "

Ever since, the citizens of Bethlehem have combined music and lights to mark the celebration of Christ's birth.

During Christmas Eve vigils at Central Moravian Church, congregants are immersed in the sacred music of the season, and each is given a lighted beeswax candle to symbolize Christ as the light of the world. These tapers have been in use in Bethlehem since 1756.

The practice of placing one white electric candle in each window of a home originated much later, in 1926. Eleven years afterward, the city created its spectacle of lights, which now includes some 60,000 white lights throughout the city. A large outdoor Nativity scene adorns the City Center Plaza. For Advent, candles and 500 Christmas trees add to the beauty.

There is ample reason, then, for visitors to justify a trip to this city "to see the lights." Christmas in Bethlehem offers more than lovely lights, however. A full schedule of seasonal events awaits those who journey to the Christmas City.

Beginning in November and continuing through the last day of the year, an exhibit and sale of contemporary crafts by Lehigh Valley artisans is open to the public. Known as Christmas in the Gallery, this exhibit is held at Luckenbach Mill Gallery, 459 Old York Road.

Luckenbach Mill also is the site of the Bethlehem Visitors Center, where free maps, a dining/accommodations guide and brochures about the surrounding area can be obtained. A film depicting life in early Bethlehem is shown to visitors.

A traditional Moravian Christmas activity many visitors enjoy is the display of putzes. The word putz is derived from the German putzen, meaning "to decorate." Moravians use the word to refer to a reconstruction in miniature of the Nativity.

Many families create their own putzes. One that is open to the public is the Moravian Christmas Putz, held at the Central Moravian Church through Jan. 1. Hours are from 4 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

About 120 figurines, including some hand-carved wood figures from Oberammergau, Germany, help tell the story of the first Christmas. Preparing the Putz requires hundreds of working hours. The Putz is closed Dec. 24-25.

Lantern Light Walking Tours of the town's historic district allow visitors to relive 18th and 19th century Christmases in Bethlehem. Guides in historic garb portray town citizens of the past and interpret Bethlehem Christmases of years ago.

There are two tours, and reservations are necessary for both. Reservations for the Church Street tour can be made by contacting the Kemerer Museum, 427 N. New St., (215) 868-6868. The Sun Inn handles reservations for the Main Street tour; the address is 564 Main St., telephone (215) 691-5300.

For those who prefer to see the lights of Bethlehem by bus, Christmas City Night Light tours are available. These tours, which draw tens of thousands of visitors each year, run nightly through Dec. 30, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas night. Reservations are necessary. Call the Visitor Center at (215) 868-1513.

The music of Christmas also is an important part of the city's heritage. Among the many events featuring music of the season is the Lehigh University choir Christmas Vespers, 4 and 8 p.m., Dec. 16 at Packer Memorial Church, Lehigh University.

Also well-known is the Moravian Trombone Choir, consisting of 20 men and women from varied religious denominations. The choir performs at major church festivals throughout the year, including Christmas.

For many, the crowning event of the holiday season is the Live Bethlehem Christmas Pageant. About 200 people of all ages, with the help of several animals, re-enact the story of the Nativity. Open to the public free of charge, the pageant takes place at the Community Arts Pavilion on West Lehigh Street. This year it will be held next Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 16, beginning at 2 p.m.

The beeswax candles used during the Moravian churches' Christmas Eve vigils are made in town. The public can watch candle-making on the second floor of the 1762 Waterworks Building, just off Main Street opposite the Central Moravian Church. The demonstrations take place Wednesday through Saturday in December from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m.

The lights of Bethlehem still glow at Christmastime. Many visitors are fascinated by the Moravian Star, a unique 26-point star displayed at many homes and churches.

It originated in Germany more than a century ago, and also is known as the Herrnhut Star (so called to designate the German community which manufactured it exclusively when it was introduced). It is the first decoration hung in the churches during Advent.

Moravian stars, the Star of Bethlehem aglow on South Mountain and the white lights in city homes draw visitors to the Christmas City.

If you plan to be one of them, you will find numerous activities to help you celebrate the holy season. Write for the 1990 "December in Bethlehem" brochure to the Visitor Center, 459 Old York Road, Bethlehem, Pa. 18018.

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