It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year in Christmas City, USA
So many places feel a bit of ownership over the Christmas season. Big, bustling cities with bright lights and high-end shops, towns filled with quaint charm and ski resorts covered in picturesque snowfall all declare themselves must-visit holiday destinations. But which of these can claim the title of the Christmas City?
Surprisingly, it’s not New York City or some pop-up, Christmas-themed village. No, you’ll find the 280-year-old Christmas City, aka Bethlehem, nestled in the historic Lehigh Valley. And it’s only a short drive from just about anywhere in NEPA!
Celebrating centuries of Christmas.
In 1741, after weeks spent traversing cold, rough terrain, Moravian missionaries founded a community on Monocacy Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania. On Christmas Eve, while singing “Not Jerusalem, Lowly Bethlehem,” the Moravians aptly named their settlement for the very spot where the holiday originated.
Nearly 200 years later, on December 7, 1937, the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce declared Bethlehem “Christmas City USA.” They even erected a star atop South Mountain. The same city that acted as a beacon for expedition-worn missionaries once again became a beacon for a country pulling itself out of a depression. To this day, the star is lit every evening, signifying Bethlehem’s legacy as a bright light.
Take a break from the holiday hustle & bustle.
Today, Bethlehem is a popular travel destination year-round, but the city truly thrives when it lights up for the most wonderful time of the year. Once ornamented trees appear and sleigh bells start ringing, it’s showtime.
Between great gift-shopping, historical holiday tours and even a traditional Christmas market, visitors can easily fill an entire day in the city with festive fun.
The spirit of the season is alive at Christkindlmarkt.
The season officially begins on November 18th with the Christmas Tree Lighting at Payrow Plaza. On the same day, Bethlehem’s famous Christkindlmarkt kicks off its 30th year at PNC Plaza.
Christkindlmarkt is one of the city’s main holiday attractions. Check names off your gift-buying list with the help of small businesses and local vendors. Catch live musical performances of holiday classics. Get the kids in on the fun with some holiday activities. And when all is said and done, refuel with a diverse selection of food and beverages. Even the biggest scrooge will feel that Christmas magic.
Traditions, new and old.
This year, the Christmas City launches a new addition to its lineup of events and celebrations. Below the iconic SteelStacks, an Ice Rink sponsored by ArtsQuest and Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital brings out everyone’s inner figure skater. Lace up your skates for a few laps (and maybe some twirls).
For an older tradition, join the crowd gathering outside the Goundie House for the 17th Annual Live Advent Calendar. Each evening, a member of the crowd knocks on the house’s door. Everyone then waits in anticipation before a local business or organization emerges to hand out holiday treats.
Sightsee with festive historical tours.
Besides its Christmas reputation, Bethlehem’s second claim to fame is its rich history. During the holiday season, Bethlehem’s historic tours transform into carriage rides and festive strolls. Led by guides in period attire, guests will hear the stories of past Christmases. Be sure to get a good look at the city’s stunning decorations along the way.
Speaking of history, the first Christmas tree in America was put up in Bethlehem in 1747. Now, the Bethlehem Garden Club keeps the tradition alive with the Trees of Historic Bethlehem, a collection of 28 beautifully-decorated trees displayed across 5 historic sites.
Head downtown for local fun & festivities.
If you didn’t get your fill of shopping at Christkindlmarkt, you can always stop in and support a few shops downtown. From clothing stores and wineries to book shops and taprooms, Bethlehem covers all the gift-buying bases.
Even outside the sponsored events and celebrations, Bethlehem’s local, small businesses get in the spirit just as much as their big-name counterparts. Simply walking the streets can lead you to beautiful light displays and surprises around every corner.
End with a silent night on South Mountain.
Close out your day of festivities with a bird’s eye view of the Christmas City illuminated in the darkness. Hop on the Bethlehem by Night Motor Coach for a trek up South Mountain to see the star that started it all. Looking out over the warm, twinkling lights of Bethlehem, you understand why this, of all places, is called the Christmas City.
Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt runs from November 18 to December 18. The Ice Rink at SteelStacks is open from November 22 until January 1. Check out the Christmas City website for full schedules. And follow them on Facebook for even more updates.
* Featured Image (top) courtesy of Craig Roberts for The Christmas City