1100 Warships Manufactured
“Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” I still sing this song every time I drive down Wyndotte Street Hill and see the splendour of the valley spread out below. It’s imprinted in my mind forever as I lived in this beautiful city for twenty six years. The story enfolds below.
Birth of a city: On Christmas Eve in 1741, a small group of Moravians lead by David Nitschmann and Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, founded the mission community of Bethlehem along the banks of the Monocacy Creek by the Lehigh River in the colony of Pennsylvania. They started their city amid the Lenape tribes of native Americans. Ok, there’s a conflict here. The other side of the story is that the Windish/Slovenians founded the city of Bethlehem! Since I’m Windish, I support that theory. What’s Windish, you ask? Ages ago there was a nomadic tribe wandering through Europe called the Vens. We all know Vs and Ws interchange in Europe so the Vens became the Wens and the Wens became the Wins. A gypsy! That’s me! Slovenia was once part of the great Austria-Hungary empire. The Slovenian Windish people emigrated to South Bethlehem and worked in the Bethlehem Steel and in various cigar factories and silk mills. They built two Windish churches, one Lutheran and one Roman Catholic.
Conflict still exists today between the Moravians and the Windish Slovenians. It is visually demonstrated at this time of year. The Moravians prefer all white Christmas lights and the Slovenians prefer lights of all different colors. How is this conflict demonstrated, you ask? There are three bridges spanning the Lehigh River. From the center, each bridge has only white xmas lights heading to the north side of town; and, only multi-colored lights heading to the south side of town! As you cross the bridges, you cross from one set of beliefs to another. It was always exciting to see the annual Christmas lights strung across the city streets and brightly colored lights on the gigantic live tree in the center of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge.
Traditions: On the day before December 6, St. Nicholas’ feast day, all the chldren prepared for hs visit. Empty bowls, stockings or shoes were left out with hope that the kindly bishop would fll each with fruits, nuts, or exotic
candies. However, if a child was “bad,” he would receive a lump of coal, or
worse-a “siba,” Slovenian for a big stick or paddle used on the behnds of
Since most families could not afford expensive decorations, Christmas
tee ornaments consisted of wrapped candies and nuts, cookies, oranges,
apples, candles and a few glass ornaments. At the Christmas Eve supper, no
meat was eaten-rather, the meal consisted of a dried fruit compote,
followed by hot cream of potato or cream of mushroom soup, pancakes
flled with cottage cheese and fnally, breaded or baked fsh fllet. Families still made the traditional European desserts at Xmas including dobos torte, a cake with sixteen layers, each only 1/4″ thick and kiffles which are a folded or crescent shaped filled pastry.
The Bethlehem Steel Corporation (1857–2003), founded and based in Bethlehem, was once the second-largest steel producer in the United States, following only U.S. Steel based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bethlehem Steel was also one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world and one of the most powerful symbols of American industrial manufacturing leadership. When one of the five blast furnaces on Third Street fired up, the BOOM rattled windows and shook the houses on the South side, where I lived as a child, only three blocks away.
The first I-beam was pioneered here in Bethlehem. Bethlehem Steel manufactured construction materials for numerous New York and other city skyscrapers, as well as for major bridges. The company became a major supplier of armor plate and ordnance products during World War I and World War II, including the manufacture of 1,100 warships. After roughly 140 years of metal production at its Bethlehem plant, Bethlehem Steel ceased operations there in 1995, in the face of overseas competition and declining demand.
The Star of Bethlehem: On December 7, 1937, at a grand ceremony during the Great Depression, Mrs. Marion Brown Grace pulled a large switch to turn on the new Christmas street lights and a large wooden star. The Hotel Bethlehem was chosen as the site for the ceremony since it was built on the site of the first building in Bethlehem. The colorful, multi-colored lights were swagged across all the main streets on both the North and South sides of town, divided by the Lehigh River. The old wooden star was replaced with a gigantic steel structure over ten stories tall built by Bethlehem Steel on top of South Mountain in 1939. Mrs. Grace again pulled the switch to light this new, permanent star. This star shines over the city twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to represent Bethlehem as the Christmas City. At this time of year, the Moravians present a live putz, the scene of the birth of the Christ child. The show of lights shows the journey of the Holy Family as they made their way to Bethlehem for the census. The Moravian Star is a popular Christmas decoration.
Higher Education: My alma mater, Lehigh University, a most distinguished school of engineering is located on the South side of the city. Moravian College, founded by the Moravians, is on the North side. The beautiful bell tower of Moravian College oversees the city.
Bethlehem was a wonderful place to grow up. I wouldn’t change a thing. Today people flock (no pun intended) to see the beautiful Christmas City and the lights strung everywhere. The Star of Bethlehem shines down on the city and on you at any time you choose to visit.