Moravian Church historian Jeanette Zug tilts her head back and tells the story of how Bethlehem received its name as though she were there that winter's night 247 years ago.
It was Christmas Eve in 1741, and a group of Protestant missionaries known as the Moravians were celebrating the holiday in the Pennsylvania wilderness, where they had come to convert the Indians.As they gathered for an evening communion service in their log cabin, the words of a hymn, "Jesus, Call Thou Me," struck a chord with Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, the congregation's visiting patron from Europe:
"Not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem, `twas gave us Christ to save us; Not Jerusalem."
With that inspiration, Zinzendorf led the small group to the stable, where he christened the new settlement Bethlehem.
Zug, a petite, intense woman who is a noted authority on the early church, said the spirituality imbued upon the city by its Moravian founders is part of what makes Christmas in modern Bethlehem special.
Today Bethlehem draws tourists who are impressed by the strict standard the city has set to keep the holiday season pious.
"We emphasize the religious aspect of Christmas, not the commericial," Zug said.
Much of the attention Bethlehem receives at Christmas can be credited to the efforts of Zug, Harry Trend and Jean Kessler.
Trend recalled the local Chamber of Commerce decided in 1937 to launch an campaign to make Bethlehem the "Christmas City" for the entire country.
Word went out to Chambers of Commerce across America to have members ship their Christmas cards to Bethlehem to be stamped with a special postmark. The custom caught on and continues to this day.
Just as Bethlehem's religious traditions revolve around its Moravian heritage, the centerpiece of Moravian holiday tradition is the nativity scene or creche known as the "putz."
The word "putz," which comes from the German "putzen," meaning "to decorate," is used only by American Moravians to describe their nativity scenes.
"It tells the whole Christmas story," said Kessler.
At three Bethlehem churches, room-size community putzes each use more than 100 ceramic and hand-carved figures, accompanied by lighting, narration and music, along with moss, rocks, evergreens and tree trunks gathered from the Pocono Mountains.
When tourists see one of the elaborate displays, "it's the first time they really see Christmas," Zug said.
On the city's North Side, 60,000 white lights adorn 500 evergreen trees. Colored lights are favored on the South Side. The custom of lighting the city during Christmas was interrupted only during World War II, Trend said.
The city provides the lights and the Bethlehem Area Chamber of Commerce pays the cost through the sale of Christmas City seals.
The tradition of placing a single, white electric candle in windows has spread to many homes and businesses throughout the Bethlehem area. Lighted 26-pointed Moravian stars, also known as Advent stars and made from paper or glass, glow from porches throughout the historic district.
The largest star shines from South Mountain, overlooking the city, and is visible for 20 miles.
The beeswax candles carried during Christmas Eve vigils are another Moravian tradition, dating back to 1747, when the candles were introduced during a service for children.
The air is heavy with the sweet smell of melted honey in the shop where Robert Smith carries on his family's tradition of handmaking beeswax candles.
He said the beeswax represents the purity of Christ, while the red paper frill at the bottom of each candle signifies the blood of Christ and the lit taper symbolizes the belief that Christ is the light of the world.
Guides in colonial Moravian attire escort visitors on lantern walking tours along the settlement's restored and reconstructed buildings. In the old Moravian quarter, shoppers are drawn to specialty boutiques along Victorian-era Main Street.
As a day of shopping and touring wanes, weary walkers get a reprieve from the bustle by stopping into the Old Moravian Chapel to hear "Silent Night" played on the organ. The hymn holds special meaning for the Moravians, who were among the first to sing the original version in German.