It seems perfectly natural that Bethlehem is known as the Christmas City for its name alone, but the official designation as the Christmas City turns 75 years old this year.
In 1937 the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce began a letter writing campaign (oh yeah, letters. Not emails.) to 2,500 other chambers throughout the country asking them to alert their local newspapers and residents to use Bethlehem as the official Christmas City. They could send their Christmas cards to the Bethlehem post office and they would hand cancel the envelopes with a special seal saying “Christmas City.” At the end of this campaign, 1,800 chambers decided to participate and the Bethlehem post office was flooded it letters and so it began.
Next came the “Candle in Every Window” tradition. This Moravian custom is called Illumination. It refers to the custom of putting a lighted candle in each window of the settlement after dark, a custom continued today in a majority of the homes in Historic Bethlehem. It also refers to the illuminated pictures found in some of our churches. The candle in the window is an especially beautiful part of Christmas in the settlements – Salem, Bethlehem, Lititz. History records that in the Herrnhaag, Germany settlement there were so many candles in the windows that “it appeared from Budingen as though the whole hilltop were a single sea of flames.”
The city also decorates intersections and corners with 800 five to seven foot tall Douglas Fir trees; a decoration that totals $10,000 annually for the city. In 1964, the city decorations were in danger of not going up because of the cost when the Citizen’s Christmas City Committee decided to find ways to raise money for the beloved decorations. They came up with the Bethlehem Christmas seals for people to use on their Christmas cards. The seals are not sold, but rather offered for a donation and the city collects up to $15,000 in small check donations that pays to light and fill the city with trees. Every year a new piece of artwork is chosen for the seal from a large pool of contestants.
Another Christmas City fundraiser is “Adopt a Tree,” in which you can put your name or the name of your business and a holiday message on a plaque for $100 and it will stay there for six months.
Before Christmas and for the last 47 years, the city celebrates the beginning of the Advent Season in a multi-denominational service at the Community Advent Breakfast. For ten dollars, anyone may attend the breakfast at Moravian Village in Bethlehem on December 1st where they will listen to a speech on the Christmas season, a trombone choir and witness a candle lighting ceremony.
We know it’s a little early to start getting ready for Christmas, but now you have two months to impress your friends with this bit of Bethlehem history!