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

Take the “Connecting Bethlehem” survey

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.

Take the “Connecting Bethlehem” survey

Think Christmas

Nicole Radzievich, “Bethlehem weighs holiday makeover to fit ‘Christmas City’ nickname.” Morning Call, March 26, 2019.

There was a decently charged discussion during the budget hearings in December over whether Payrow Plaza should have a real or an artificial Christmas tree.

It’s the kind of subject that heats up quickly. Gadfly followers may recognize it across their own dining room tables.

(Who hasn’t put away the Christmas decorations yet? ‘Fess up.)

Need for a change:

“The current decorations and lighting the city uses during the season is dated and the overall decoration program needs updating,” Mayor Robert Donchez said. “As technology changes, so do the options we have in employing new and exciting decorations and experiences for our residents and visitors.”

Opportunity for input:

The design team hired by the City solicits public feedback from 5-7 p.m. this Tuesday,  April 2, at the Crayola Gallery at Banana Factory.

A good sign:

“The consultant has already begun researching the city’s history, sifting through records — including historic Bethlehem postcards uncovered in a Boston library — and wants to understand what the community wants Bethlehem to look like during the holidays.”

A mayoral mine field:

“Some changes have triggered backlash. In 1976, after visiting Disney World, then Mayor Gordon Mowrer decided to string the Mayor’s Tree in the Plaza Mall with multicolored lights. In his autobiography, Mowrer recalled people asked the newspaper whether the mayor was Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.”

Bethlehem Christmas Moments (tip o’ the hat to Nicole) :

  • “Christmas City” begins 1937
  • with “sparkle and glitz”
  • with “the star” and the “big tree”
  • 1960s, the white lights
  • South side goes multi-colored
  • large Advent candles
  • some artificial trees replacing real ones on light posts
  • last year, lighted stars on Fahy Bridge and Broad St.
  • Tuesday, expect Gadfly #1 Mr. Antalics to light up (just kidding, just kidding)

5-7 Tuesday, you have time to pitch your ideas and get across the bridge to attend Council (you’re already out!) or home to watch it on tv at 7.

Do you remember that Council meetings are now live-streamed as well as available for watching later?


Leisure to watch the Spring come in

The Gadfly invites “local color” photos of this sort

Gadfly got high on all this talk of walkability and bikeability.

Peeled his fingers from the keyboard.

Fished some Aardvark beauties out from way under the bed.

And went for a walk this afternoon.

Paying attention to the sidewalks, Anon., paying attention.

But they didn’t break my Spring spell.

Great to be retired.

People would ask me what I would do when retired. Echoing Thoreau, I would often say, “I’d finally have leisure to watch the Spring come in.”

Nature’s miracle.

What’s blooming around your way?

Vicki Snow drop

Victoria R. Leister

“The snowdrop is the first flower of the year that shows its nice flowers. Often the blossoming of the snowdrop is a sign that the winter is transforming to springtime. Therefore the snowdrop symbolizes hope, the hope that this winter will finish too, that new warmth will enter our lives.”

Really good police work!

Lynn Rothman, a twenty-year resident of Bethlehem and Chair of the Bethlehem Environmental Advisory Council, took this photo at a local gas station.


I continue to be impressed with our City and the actions of our police department.

As stated in the Mayor’s State of the City Address: “Our Police and Health Departments responded to the increase in overdoses by creating the BPAIR program, in which a drug addicted person, can call or show up to the police department, and request assistance in finding treatment, with no criminal consequences.”

Not only did they institute the program, but they are getting the word out!


On the road with Ron


Many Gadfly followers know Ron and Sharon Yoshida.

Ron was my boss for a while. yoshida

He is a great talker.

He talked me into things.

But now Ron is a walker.

As I write, he is a day or two or three into the arduous 88-Temple walk in Shikoku, Japan.

A multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi), who lived c. 800.

A walk that will take about 60 days.

And not always on flat rail trails.

Temple 3Temple 1

 I knew he was walking. For exercise, I thought.

I had no idea what he was really walking for.

What IS he walking for? (See his T Minus 3: 27 February 2019 post)

He will reconnect with his Japanese roots.

I get that. Like many retirees, Gadfly has turned to genealogy, producing small books on each of his parents. And hoping to go back further.

Yoshida 3But there’s something more.

It’s contained in the answer from an Australian finisher of the walk to Ron’s question about what effect the journey had on him: he said that the pilgrimage “restored his faith in mankind.”

I get that too. There must be (for want of a better term) a spiritual dimension to Ron’s journey, his “pilgrimage.”

I envy him the quest for that goal. And hope for its completion.

So I’m going to follow Ron like he’s been following Gadfly.

Hoping something will rub off.


Join us, won’t you?

Buddha: “I am the awakened one.”