USA Today once dubbed Bethlehem one of the top 10 best places to reflect on Christmas. Follow the Moravian star here for a holiday weekend, and you might find the Christmas peace that's missing from say, your DVD of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. "Bethlehem is festive in a non-secular way," one longtime resident said. "Even the non-religious can respect the religious aspect of the holiday as expressed through our town."
Where does it come from? The peace begins, I think, with Bethlehem's sense of history. On Christmas Eve 1741, a band of New World missionaries from the Moravian Church held a service in their lodge. Their humility, plus the rustling of livestock in an adjoining stable, inspired them to christen the new settlement after their savior's lowly birthplace.
That service could have been held last year. That's how close it feels. Walk a block fromt he 1920s-era Hotel Bethlehem to the Moravian Museum, where the first meetinghouse is naturally decorated, frontier-style. The Moravians erected America's first known Christmas tree and here it is - not a cut-down tree as we know it, but boughs stacked, teepee-like and adorned with apples and Bible verses.
Bethlehem embraces tradition, even guards it. You can take a walking tour or carriage ride to see the white lights, which are lit on the first Sunday of Advent (November 25 this year). Elaborate nativities from early Moravian homes inspired a room-sized, narrated nativity scene called a Christmas Putz. Even the clever minds at Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, a treasure in itself, are tackling holiday traditions by beaming in an exhibit on space toys from Buck Rogers to Darth Vader.
Music, nativities, toys - nothing new there, so where does this Christmas peace come from? I started thinking about the people I met. Sure, they treat visitors well. Find worth the price filets at Hotel Bethlehem's steakhouse, or hefty sandwiches at Bethlehem's Brew Works, a pub themed after the town's steel-producing past. Shop for everything from boutique wear to Irish imports. And absolutely do not miss the Moravian Book Shop, a gift and food emporium with an array of Moravian stars, the 29-pointed star that began as a geometry exercise for 19-th century Moravian schoolboys.
But the people here don't just take your money. They offer their town. Loretta Hein is a dance teacher - until Christmas, when she costumes as an unmarried Moravian woman (marriageable young ladies wear pink ribbon in their caps) and leads walking and bus tours. "I like to share this with people who don't know about it," she said. "The city looks like it's glowing!" The people of Bethlehem love everything their city stands for - its history contained in a few walkable blocks, its university, its eye for beauty.
Alas the meaning of Christmas blurred for you? Turn you feet to this little town. Find your own kind of peace and keep the lights burning all year long.