Members of the Ulster Scottish Pipe Band mingle at Bethlehem's Celtic Classic on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. The third tier level band relaxed and grabbed a pint after their impromptu performance that afternoon. (Molly Brooks/ B&W photo staff)

Bethlehem’s Celtic Classic returns: 27th Highland Games attract a quarter million visitors

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Bethlehem hosted its 27th annual Celtic Classic Highland Games and Festival this weekend. The Festival drew in more than 250,000 visitors from around the world for a weekend of Celtic music, crafts, food, competitions and family fun.

The festival first was hosted in 1988 by two Bethlehem residents that wanted to celebrate the strong Celtic heritage in the Lehigh Valley. Since then, it has grown significantly, attracting hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to experience various traditional Celtic activities. These traditions and activities include everything from music to food, as well as competitions in the Highland Games, which are a series of traditional Celtic athletic events.

This year, the festival began Friday afternoon and continued into Saturday and Sunday.

The festival grew significantly this year, expanding into North Bethlehem’s Main Street. There, a new stage was featured for the first time this year, where some of the headline acts performed. In addition, five Main Street restaurants, including Brew Works, opened their doors to sell food.

According to the Celtic Classic website, there were nearly 40 food vendors, selling traditional Irish food like shepherd’s pie, corned beef and cabbage and Irish stew. However, other modern food options were available, such as pizza, tacos, gyros, hotdogs and hamburgers.

A variety of beer and alcoholic beverages were also available as part of the Celtic Classic, including the famed Irish draft, Guinness. A popular booth, “Pour The Perfect Pint,” had an expert on Guinness demonstrating the proper way to fill a pint. There was also a very popular whiskey tasting that sold out online in August.

“It was fun!” Krista Stefkovic, ’16, said. “I definitely want to go back when I’m 21, because I really wanted to try all the traditional Irish drinks.”

The festival also had many other activities aimed at those who were not 21 to watch and participate in.

The U.S. National Highland Athletic Championships are hosted at the Celtic Classic, bringing the most elite athletes to Bethlehem to compete to be the best in events like hammer throwing, caber throwing — lifting and throwing a long log — and stone put — throwing large, heavy stones. These events test competitors’ strength and agility and are a festival favorite.

Gabrielle Martin, ’17, said she enjoyed seeing all of the diverse athletes compete and that seeing some of these competitions was a unique experience for her.

In addition to the exciting competitions, there was also an abundance of free, live music. More than 90 performances at 10 different stages were presented over the three day event. Festival-goers could participate in the Highland Dance competition, where teams of dancers competed in different Celtic dances. The sword dance was a crowd favorite.

There were also different Celtic bands featured at the festival, including violinists, percussion groups and, of course, the bag pipes.

Visitors could also visit different retail merchants selling Celtic clothing, jewelry, artwork and more.

“I bought all kinds of different jewelry . . . I really like the different style of the things they sell here,” said Tara MacDonald, 26, who came from Allentown just to do some shopping.

North Bethlehem resident Betsy Fitzpatrick attended the Celtic Festival all three days it occurred.

“It’s such a cool atmosphere to be in and explore,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s always interesting to learn about a culture that’s different from our own. This festival is just so much fun…Good food, good music. What’s not to love?”

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