Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem 2017
What a great host ye were!
By Mike Whalen
At first glance, one might think this city which takes its name from a much more famous one in the mid-east, has seen better days. Its charm though soon captured all of us, even the old rusty remains of the Bethlehem steel works that provided the steel for nearly half of America’s high rises. Adjacent to the steel works is the new sprawling casino and shopping mall. Bethlehem, past and present, side by side.
As with our previous gatherings, the two days prior provided optional excursions to places of interest nearby to creche lovers, The Byer’s Choice factory and museum, Shady Maple super lunch /gift store, the Glencairn Museum and the National Christmas Center all did not disappoint in the least to get us into the mood of what we all love to do and seem, namely learn and view nativities.
Because of the deeply rooted connections with the Moravian church in the Bethlehem area, many of the talks and events were steeped in learning about their customs, especially involving the Christmas season. The Moravian star shown brightly in this firmament and one could go few places without seeing it in some form or another.
Our lead off speaker spoke on how to make your own star, a simple one of twenty-six points to one of one hundred and ten points and the mathematical calculations needed to attempt that. Thomas McCullough, assistant archivist for the Moravian archives in Bethlehem set the tone by giving the history of the Moravian church in America as well as the tradition of the Moravian star.
Following Mr. McCullough, Kate Kohen addressed our group about the twenty-year tradition of the Luminaria night in early December when much of the city is lit by thousands of bags filled with sand and a candle. This wonderful tradition was begun by a small group of people in one neighborhood and now provides the funds for an entire ministry dedicated to those seeking to fill common needs such as shelter and a safe haven, very much in keeping with the “Bethlehem stable” connection.
Wrapping up the morning session, Dave Landis or better described as a Wiseman from the east (appearing in costume), described an even older event, namely the live nativity. This staging of the first Christmas uses the talents and effort of many including the effort to gather the funds needed to pay for it. One such item in the budget is the “animal package” consisting of one cow, one mule, one camel and two sheep and various other costs needed to keep the costumes in decent shape, a working sound system etc. etc. Of course, Mr. Landis had us all laughing about the one participant in the pageant that got away one year and had to be chased down the street.
In the ballroom, also on display were the works of artists, Michael Palan and Karen Loccisanowho built elaborate detailed Flemish barns that we got a glimpse of last year in South Carolina. They also did a presentation on Saturday of how they collaborate on such a project,
Of course, running Thursday evening through Saturday, one could find ten plus vendors set up in the room adjacent selling all manner of nativities from the world over, both commercially made and made one by one by hand. This is always a highlight of any convention and eagerly awaited by our members.
Also, in a room nearby Michael Stump showed several elaborately detailed presepi and was on hand to answer questions about his creation. Outside in the hallway was a backdrop of shepherds heading for the stable in which registrants were encouraged to be photographed making them appear to be joining them to seek the newly born Child, which we all truly are at least spiritually.
The highlight of the convention for many was the short trip to the Moravian church in Nazareth for a Love Feast. Many wondered exactly what that was and all soon discovered that it was basically their candlelight service done on Christmas eve. This festive event staged early for our benefit included singing the wonderful carol, “Morning Star,” as well as other traditional carols familiar to almost all of us. We were then served a sweet cake and some coffee and lit our candles as the light of Christ slowly spread through the congregation. The choir along with instruments indeed made it a reverent as well as joyful occasion.
Prior to the service, we were served a wonderful meal in the downstairs hall made by the members of the community. See the menu card pictured in the centerfold of this issue as well as some other wonderful moments from the “Love Feast.”
Another highlight of the same evening was viewing of the Putz, set up each year with great loving care by the community. Basically, it is the story of salvation with lights and music. A husband and wife team were on hand to answer questions about the tradition both before and after dinner as well as hosts during the supper itself.
Saturday provided more opportunities to stuff our suitcases with more things from the Manger Mart as well as hear Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano describe more in detail about how they get inspiration for their work and what is involved in the detailed work they do. The piece on display depicted a creche maker’s workshop with several tiny creches within the piece itself. The intricate work in creating a crib builder's workshop area in various stages of the creative process was simply stunning.
Carol Reifinger, a retired pastor of the Central Moravian church in Bethlehem, closed the formal presentations with the opportunity for all to make a Moravian star as a souvenir of the convention.
Friends of the Creche closed our gathering as always with the announcements of the winners of the silent auction. This year's most coveted item appeared to be a set of hand painted nativity made from Dutch, wooden shoes (see picture in centerfold).
Rose Fremerthen tickled the ivories in the lobby of the hotel for our usual carol sing prior to the final night banquet where some old friends had the opportunity to meet some new ones. A good time was had by all.