Have Bethlehem’s holiday lights lost their original purpose of unity?

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Reference yesterday’s Gadfly post on the meeting Tuesday 5-7PM, Banana Factory, with a design consultant on Bethlehem’s Christmas lights schema.

Reprinted as it originally appeared in the Morning Call, December 3, 2000.

ANOTHER VIEW: Have Bethlehem’s holiday lights lost their original purpose of unity?

At 5:30 p.m, on Dec. 17, 1937, the citizens of the City of Bethlehem witnessed an event that was to forever alter the nature of the city. At that precise moment, Mrs. Eugene Gifford Grace pulled a switch at Hotel Bethlehem, thus illuminating the entire city and designating it officially as “The Christmas City.” All streets within the shopping districts north and south of the Lehigh River were uniformly bedecked with garlands of colored lights, with the centerpiece being a massive 40 foot tree decorated with white lights at the rotary of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge.

Vernon K. Melhado, a Sephardic Jew and a 1920 immigrant to the United States from England and then Jamaica, was appointed in 1937 as chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce. He was very active in civic and social causes, vigorously promoting and supporting the Boy’s Club and the Salvation Army. Being sensitive to ethnic and religious bigotry, he became acutely aware of the divisions within the city carried over by the lingering animosities and distrust left from the old borough mentality. Thus, he devised a plan of social and ethnic unification of both areas north and south of the river. This plan included the unified lighting scheme. Mrs Grace, a native of Bethlehem who was also aware of the divisions within the city, became a staunch supporter.

The inscription on the monument in the city park at Eighth Avenue and Union Boulevard gives a bit of background and underscores the brillianace of his plan. The story is particularly timely today, as Bethlehem once again begins the yule season.

“The first house was built early in the year 1741. On December 24, 1741, the settlement was named “Bethlehem” by Count Zinzendorf. Until January 11, 1844, this was an exclusive Moravian settlement, in which none but members of the Moravian Church were allowed to hold real estate. The village was incorporated as a borough on March 5, 1845.”

The portent of this statement is that the Borough of Bethlehem was to continue according to the wishes of the original congregation. This kept the borough a quiet, residential community. This was in sharp contrast to what was to become of the farms south of the river, large areas which were owned by the congregation. This land was sold off to various entrepreneurial individuals, who soon changed this community into a “boom town.”

It drew its vast labor force from non-English speaking immigrants from central and eastern Europe, a group whose customs and behavior were in sharp contrast to the gentrified citizens of Borough of Bethlehem.

Citizens of the Borough of Bethlehem who considered themselves to be “Native Americans” viewed these “unwashed” who lived in “Shanty Town” as “foreign invaders.” These attitudes fostered mutual distrust and animosities between the two boroughs.An elder of the congregation summed the differences by stating:

“Where once the Pilgrim Congregation went forth, “their feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace’ today stands the thriving city of steel. These grounds hallowed by the incarnation of the Invisible Church have been defiled by the smoke and sordidness of American industry. The rule of Spangenberg has given way to the rule of Schwab; and Bethlehem, though it cherishes its religious origins as the seat of Moravianism, now lives on steel.”

The borough of South Bethlehem in 1913 was granted third class city status, reverted back to being a borough and eventually, the industrial and business community began to promote unification of the two boroughs. Using World War I as rationale, they mounted a campaign based upon a patriotic theme, claiming that a united city, could best support the war effort. So, in 1917, the two boroughs were joined, not based upon principles of brotherly love, but rather a patriotic theme that overshadowed the deeper, underlying sense of mutual distrust and animosity.

All of this shows the brilliance of Mr. Melhado and Mrs. Grace in defining “The Christmas City.” The visible symbol of this unity was the city-wide uniform lighting scheme. This annual lighting continued for a number of years, waned in the mid 1960s, and was severely cut back during the national energy crisis of 1973. The following year, the lights were back. Various schemes had been implemented, prompting a local paper to run in 1977 a survey as to the preferred scheme. The consensus was that uniform colored lights were preferred. The scheme of recent years reflects the white lights of the north side of the city and colored lights on the South Side.

Various members of the city government and civic groups said “it was traditional that the colored lights of the South Side reflected its ethnic heritage, along with the historic white lights of the north side.” Many visitors, when asked, felt that the lighting differences represented two different communities. Christmas lighting is handled by the Christmas City Commission, but now there is a Southside Lighting Committee. There is now the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission, while there is also Historic Bethlehem. Is this a subtle return to the old borough mentality?

Gregory Farrington, the president of Lehigh University, very astutely observed that an “Intellectual Iron Curtain” isolated it from the South Side, and took immediate strong and decisive action to integrate the school into the community. Might the city’s leaders follow this gesture and reinstall that profound symbol of city unity, the uniform Christmas lights of 1937, thereby protecting the city from lapses into the old borough mentality of ethnic and social differences and discrimination?

Stephen C. Antalics Jr. is a resident of Bethlehem’s South Side.

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2 thoughts on “Have Bethlehem’s holiday lights lost their original purpose of unity?

  1. From Dana

    The ideal way to address this would be to have a mix of both colored and white public lighting exhibits throughout the entire City. Let the residents and businesses then decorate however they’d like. It would certainly present a more homogenous approach to Christmas decorating in Bethlehem.

  2. Definitely missing an opportunity to have a more unified display. There may be some historic justification for white lights in the Moravian area, but people have pointed out many times that the use of all white lights north of the river and all colored lights south of the river is seen by many as a racist scheme.

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