Bethlehem

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I guess it’s okay to post about the upcoming.  It’s actually pretty hard to avoid, living so near Bethlehem.  While Easton claims the first Christmas tree in America, Bethlehem was settled on Christmas Eve and named accordingly by the Moravians.  It’s a tourist destination for Christmas aficionados everywhere, and, as my wife quotes about 2020, “we could use a little Christmas.”  So we headed to the Christkindlmarkt over the weekend.  Apart from an abundance of consonants, Christkindlmarkt is a chance for vendors to bring their wares to where tightly shut pandemic wallets are willing to open up a bit.  This year, however, the “markt” was completely outdoors rather than under the usual four large tents with heaters running.

It was an enjoyable morning out, with temperatures near sixty—certainly not something you can count on for late November.  There were fewer vendors here for a variety of reasons.  You get a boost, for example, by getting people gathered together.  Our herd instincts kick in.  Seeing others spending, we decide to take our chances.  Outside the great rusting behemoth of Bethlehem Steel’s famed stacks stands sentinel.  This year, however, socially distanced tents and booths meant having to walk and stay back while others browsed, all while wearing masks so that smiles could not be seen.  Gathering without gathering.  With no interest in leading a charge against the disease on a national level, we’re all left to muddle through.

Several of the vendors had novelties portraying the year 2020 as the disaster that it’s been.  Instead of ending it with wishes for national peace, the incumbent is trying useless lawsuits to prevent the voices of voters from being heard.  Stirring up his followers to protest against frauds that never happened, while having hundreds of lawsuits awaiting outside his own door as his actual deeds have been examined seriously for the first time.  Bethlehem reminds us that peace and hope ought to be in the air at this time of year.  Thinking of others rather than ourselves.  Do we see that being modeled by 45 and his ilk?  Instead I’m standing here outside where there used to be a warm gathering tent.  A place where we each donate our body heat to help keep everyone warm.  Giving, even as the Republican-controlled senate withholds any stimulus package they think is too generous.  Yes, we could use a little Christmas right about now.


Steel and Snow

I sometimes feels I need to pause before launching back into my usual reflections.  Commercialism tells me the holiday season is here (I noticed while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that the real highlight is Santa and the official start of Christmas).  Please don’t misunderstand—I love the holiday season and look forward to it every year.  It’s not that I want to get things or spend lots of money.  For me the holidays are about rest and respite from the constant stream of work that never really gets done.  I need to retreat once in a while.  Ensconce myself in a quiet room and not have to worry about the next crisis facing me as an editor or the publishing industry as a whole.  I do love the holidays, but I often wonder about how we’ve let their symbols become the main point.

Now that we live near “the Christmas City,” we attend the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem while family is home.  One of the more stark symbols of this festival is the juxtaposition of a Christmas tree against the now silent and rusting steel stacks of what used to be Bethlehem Steel.  The evergreen, of course, was a Teutonic symbol of life continuing in the midst of the shutdown of the growth season.  Nature hasn’t really died, although it may appear to have done so, but we feel that difficult times with short days and cold temperatures will now dominate our existence.  Our industrial efforts participate in this slowdown too.  What once identified one of Pennsylvania’s two steel cities has ceased an Bethlehem has had to adapt.  We see the change and wonder.  I grew up just north of Pittsburgh when it was a very large industrial city.  When I was in high school it was the 16th most populous city in the country.  Currently it’s 66th, with Charlotte, North Carolina holding its former place.  We adjust to changing seasons.

Christkindlmarkt is a lively place with four large tents dedicated to symbols of the season.  Christmas merchandise is a large part of it, of course.  Small business vendors, however, take advantage of the fact that crowds throng in.  Food, naturally, comes to hold a place of some significance as your blood sugar drops after spending a few hours on your feet.  Music is in the air and people don’t seem to mind the masses of others who all had the same idea.  I never purchase much at the event, but I enjoy being among those inspired by it.  Some of us are the rusty towers in the background, and others are the lively, decorated tree that stands before them.  The season has begun, and the symbols are open for interpretation.


Christmas Time

As children we can’t wait for Christmas because we’ll be getting things.  Now that I’m older I try to avoid the frenzy building up to the holiday, although I look forward to the vacation days that I’ll cash in to take time to be with family rather than business.  It’s not that I don’t like holidays—it’s just I’m no fan of hype.  Still, now that December is nearing, and Thanksgiving has reminded us that work isn’t everything, I can feel the anticipation.  Yesterday I attended the Christkindlmarkt  in Bethlehem.  Amid the backdrop of the truly colossal, rusting stacks of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, this is a seasonal event with nothing but good spirit.  People of all descriptions were crowded into the massive event, but rudeness and complaining were strangely absent.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

When I worked at Nashotah House, the atmosphere for Advent was austere.  We weren’t really encouraged to look forward to Christmas, bringing a tree home before the 24th was frowned upon.  It was a time to reflect on our sins, not to anticipate our rewards.  Still, I had a kind of epiphany among the secular crowds seeking to get into the spirit of things yesterday.  Bethlehem is a city that has known hard times.  Its industrial base eroded away, residents were left unemployed and wondering about a very (and increasingly) uncertain future.  Recasting itself as the Christmas City is a way of throwing new light on a holiday famous for its commercialism.

Christmas can be about resurrection.  It’s a season to think of birth.  It matters not if the mother is a virgin or if the child is for an exclusive sect.  People throng here for hope.  Beauty in the midst of ruin.  Some businesses clearly spend all year building up to Christmas, selling ornaments so delicate that I feared even to look too hard at them lest they shatter.  Handcrafted goods that represent the livelihood of others who compel strangers that art is worth more than money itself.  Wandering through the four tents of booths, the feeling of resurrection was palpable.  We were all here seeking something.  Loosening the grip on the wallet just a bit.  Wanting to make others happy for a while.  Birth is the symbol of hope.  Advent, it seems, need not be a dreary season of wallowing in unworthiness, awaiting a mythology taken too literally.  The proof of the goodness before us is just down the road in Bethlehem.