Old and New

Annual holiday traditions show just how deeply ritual is established in our behavior.  As the holiday season rolls around we find our familiar customs to be fun and comforting.  I’m not much of a commercialist; for me the end-of-year celebrations are mostly about rest and peace, still a family tradition since settling in the Lehigh Valley is the Christkindlmarkt.  Bethlehem, founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians, has attempted to live up to its namesake and celebrate the season well.  It’s become an established family tradition to visit the Christkindlmarkt and we wander the tents with artisanal goods, some Christmas-themed, and others more just gift-ideas.  We seldom buy much.  It’s the spirit of the holidays that seems to come through and we need something to help us get through winter.

Each year things are a little different.  Many of the mainstays are similar, however, with the same vendors with the same merchandise.  What has changed in the past year is really us.  We’re not the only ones who make an annual tradition of this and we’re not the only ones who see the same scarves, sweaters, pillows, and pottery.  And ornaments—lots of ornaments.  We see new things because we’re different from our selves who’ve wandered through here before.  Hopefully we’re better selves.  Each time I do this I find myself growing more and more reflective.  A celebration of peace and love to all seems to hold, for the most part.  There are lots of people—too many for my comfort at this stage of the pandemic, but we’re wearing masks and hopefully most of these people are vaccinated—peace and love for all.

The end of the year has long been a season of festivities.  Even ancient peoples, especially in temperate regions, longed for the return of warmth and light.  In response to the long hours of darkness around the solstice they instituted holidays.  Times for us to get together and work a little less and relax a little more, recharging our spiritual batteries.  Yule with its Christmas trees and logs, served to bring the message of light into the darkness.  The twinkling of holiday lights is a festive sight, bringing back childhood memories of gifts, special foods, and time off from school.  I’m a different person than the one who’s written a blog post about Christkindlmarkt in the past.  If you’ve read such posts you’re a different person now too.  We all hope that the present person is a better one than the previous as we enter this season of joy and kindness.


The Dots

Connections have always fascinated me.  Maybe it’s because life is a random stream of stuff constantly thrown at you that makes a mockery of any plans you might try to implement.  Me at Nashotah House?  Really?  Nevertheless, these events shape us and everything that happens thereafter is seen in light of them.  So when connections occur amid this continual flux, I sit up and take notice.  For example, I had never thought of moving to eastern Pennsylvania.  Now, around Christmastime, I find myself not far from Bethlehem.  Bethlehem was so named because it was founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians who’d settled in the area.  Although not counted among the most numerous of Protestants today, Moravians had a profound effect on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.  In fact, he met Count Zinzendorf, whose name appears on this handsome plaque in historic downtown Bethlehem, at a pivotal moment in his own spiritual journey.

Having grown up Fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church would not have been our choice, although we had unwittingly attended one of the Methodist offshoots—the Church of the Nazarene—from time to time.  In one of those unplanned things, we found ourselves in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where the only Protestant church was United Methodist.  Once ensconced in the UMC it was my plan to become a minister in that tradition.  That led me to Boston University School of Theology where I first learned about the Wesley-Zinzendorf connection.  It was also there that I met my wife.  And subsequently joined the Episcopal Church.  Why?  John Wesley had been adamant that his followers not drop out of the church in which he was an ordained priest.  I was only following instructions.

Had that not happened I would never have had my first, and so far only, full-time academic job.  Nashotah House was conservative, and I was not.  We nevertheless had a connection.  Growing up I’d barely heard of Wisconsin, let alone planned to live there.  When Nashotah no longer required my services my career had to change as well.  None of this was in the plan.  Who plans to move to New Jersey?  And now everyone thinks of me as an editor, a fallback position if there ever was one.  Since I work in New York City, moving back to my native Pennsylvania wasn’t really on the agenda.  An outside agent led to that.  So I find myself near Bethlehem in the Christmas season, staring at Count Zinzendorf’s name, which I first heard of in a seminary now far away.  Connections, even with those long gone, are always worth noting.


A Star in the East

The times they are a, well, you know—nobody wants to violate copyright.  In any case, nothing stays the same for long.  New York, for example, is a city in a constant state of transformation.  Fully grown buildings now stand where there were literally holes in the ground when I began working there.  One building near Times Square recently had a facelift that revealed the steel girders beneath.  On the I-beam were the words “Bethlehem Steel.”  And it’s not just New York.  Our cultural transformation has been taking place over the last few centuries as populations have moved to urban areas, abandoning farming to the few who remember how.  Being from western Pennsylvania, I pretty much thought the eastern part of the state was Philadelphia.  I’d heard of other urban regions, of course, such as Scranton and Allentown, but they were well outside my experience.  We didn’t get out much.

Now that I’m here in the eastern part of the state, I’m begun to explore the ever-changing micropolitan area of Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton.  The three cities blend at the edges, and this region is the third largest population zone in the state, after Philly and Pittsburgh.  It’s also the fastest growing region in the commonwealth.  I suppose we might’ve helped with that statistic.  The other day I had to run an errand in Bethlehem.  I pulled over to marvel at the hulk of what had once been Bethlehem Steel.  Now, I grew up in a town with an active steel mill, and Pittsburgh grew to fame for the same metal, but this was a behemoth of a plant.  Subdivided and open to development, it now houses a casino, in part, and an arts center.  And still there’s more space.

Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve by the Moravians.  Perhaps appropriate for a town trying to resurrect itself, Bethlehem calls itself the Christmas City.  Star imagery abounds, and many businesses name themselves with this Christian symbol.  The image is quite different from that of a steel city with hard-working men on the shift.  The grime and din of industry.  Bethlehem, like many places in the state, was named for its biblical forebear.  On my visit to the original Bethlehem many years ago I was, like many tourists, disappointed that it isn’t “O little town of” anymore.  There were people everywhere and it was difficult to imagine a quiet stable inside a noisy stone church thronging with the faithful.  Clearly things don’t remain unchanged for long, even in towns famous for their remoteness.  Although far from New York, they share a common heritage of people everywhere, and that heritage could bring us peace if only we would allow it.  The answer, it seems, is blowin’ in the, well, you know.