This Bethlehem is aglow in traditions of Christmases long ago O LITTLE TOWN

December 13, 1992|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

It was on Christmas 1741 in Pennsylvania's wilderness that Moravian settlers marked two beginnings: the birth of Jesus and the naming of their community by Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, patron of the Moravian missionaries.

Although Bethlehem has grown into a large, diverse city, it has preserved much of its heritage. And its traditions are particularly visible during the Christmas season.

At this time of year, "Christmas City USA" has quite a glow, literally.

The 81-foot-tall star of Bethlehem, which sits atop South Mountain, can be seen from 25 miles away. The first star went up in 1935; the current one has been there since 1967. It takes 246 bulbs to produce the brilliant white light.

Other stars and single, white candles also illuminate windows in the community, and many of the city's trees in the historic district are laced with tiny white lights. Meanwhile, multicolored lights are the rule across the Lehigh River on the ethnically diverse south side of the city.

While most of the window candles are now electric, the tradition stems from the Moravian use of molded beeswax candles, which burned longer than tallow and gave off a sweet scent. The six Moravian churches in Bethlehem, with a congregation of approximately 4,000, still mold more than 15,000 beeswax candles annually for use in Christmas Eve services.

Special to the Moravian Church in America is the miniature Nativity scene. It is an elaborate must-see with music and lighting to enhance the retelling of the Christmas story. Ceramic and hand-carved wood figures lie in natural settings of wood, moss and stones, much of which has been gathered by children.

The Nativities can be seen at three area churches: the Central Moravian Church, (215) 866-5661, in the historic district; Edgeboro Moravian Church, (215) 866-8793, and East Hills Moravian Church, (215) 866-8669. The churches attract crowds and often have long lines, so it's a good idea to call ahead to find out if there will be a wait.

(For a traditional Christmas pageant, bring a chair Saturday and next Sunday and watch costumed characters, camels and livestock re-enact the Christmas story outdoors in the downtown area.)

To view the various holiday decorations, a nighttime, hourlong bus tour has two distinct advantages. It offers a marvelous view of the lights as you ride in warmth and a discussion of three centuries of local history from a guide clad in Colonial-era Moravian garb.

Historic buildings

Comfortable shoes will give you a chance to explore the historic district and Moravian community, viewing buildings that have been in continuous use for 250 years.

The Moravians, a Christian denomination in Europe that broke with the Catholic Church in the 15th century, came to the New World in 1732 as missionaries and to seek religious freedom.

A walking tour guide for $1.95 is available at the Moravian Book Store, near the Central Moravian Church. Also offered at the store are Moravian mints -- delicately flavored sweets made by the churches only in late fall.

One interesting place to visit on Main Street is the Sun Inn (1758), a restored inn with a red tile roof. A tour of the building, which was visited by every president up to the Civil War, includes a piece of sugar cake, a traditional Moravian dessert. Its restaurant serves lunch and dinner, including dishes such as sliced duck in peach sauce with spaetzle and cabbage.

A guided walking tour will immerse you in history, too. Most guides wear traditional Moravian dress, and some carry lanterns with beeswax candles.

Some of the tours offered are:

* The Moravian community: Visit sturdy brick and stone buildings still in use that date back to the mid-1700s. Among the brick and stone structures is the Gemeinhaus (1741), the oldest standing building in the city and home to the Moravian Museum, and the sex-segregated buildings that housed unmarried Moravian youths who were learning trades. The two-hour tour details the life of the early settlers. Call (215) 867-0173; by reservation only for groups of 10 or more.

* Old City tour: The one-hour walk goes through the Moravian community and historic district. Call (215) 868-1513; reservations not necessary.

* 18th-century industrial complex: There are five buildings, including the restored 1762 Waterworks, the first municipal water pumping system in America. Moravian settlers had established this site along a creek as a center for 32 crafts and trades. Beeswax candle-making demonstrations take place ,X Wednesdays through Sundays until Dec. 30 in the reconstructed Spring House. Call (215) 691-5300; reservations not necessary for the 1 1/2 -hour tour.

* Moravian Museum: Adjacent to the Central Moravian Church, the museum is a treasure of simple Moravian furniture and religious items. Craftsmanship and handwork show the settlers' skills. Call (215) 867-0173 for the afternoon-only tour.

* Tour through the centuries:

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