Christmas is especially important to the people of Bethlehem.
Founded in 1741 by Moravian settlers, the city was christened “Bethlehem” on Christmas Eve of that year. In 1937, capitalizing on its name and history, Bethlehem was officially given the title “the Christmas City.”
Since then, Christmas attractions have become a major tourism event for Bethlehem, bringing in visitors to patronize its shops and visit its historical landmarks. To show the city’s best side to the world, Christmas decorations have become a major aspect of Bethlehem’s identity.
Though the city contributes some funding, Bethlehem residents organize and fund the majority of the city’s decorations.
The Citizen’s Christmas City Committee, which is part of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, has been helping to fund Bethlehem’s Christmas decorations since the 1960s. According to the city’s website, the committee raises over $15,000 each year and has raised more than a million dollars since its inception in order to make Bethlehem shine each winter.
However, Bethlehem is a divided town — not only socioeconomically and culturally, but also on the topic of Christmas lights.
Bethlehem councilwoman Olga Negron said for years, Bethlehem’s Christmas lights were a plain, white color and created a simple, uniform look through the whole city that North Side residents preferred.
South Side residents, however, wanted multi-color Christmas lights to represent their diverse cultures.
“I think (it’s) symbolic (because) this is where the future residents of Bethlehem would come hot off the boats,” said Roger Hudak, the chairman of the Mayor’s South Side task force. “All different colors and all different languages from all over the world.”
In 1985, the South Side finally got its wish, according to The Morning Call archives. In the years since, the north and south sides of the city each have their respective Christmas light colors, with the white and colored lights alternating on the bridges between the two halves of the city.
“We like the color lights, and we’re keeping them,” Hudak said.
In addition to the conflict over the color of the lights, South Side Bethlehem showcases noticeably fewer lights than the North Side. The majority of the historic district and Main Street area of North Bethlehem is covered in decorations, while the South Side displays only a few lights on Third and Fourth streets.
Negron said the disparity is mainly due to the fact that tourism revenue during the Christmas season is much higher on the North Side and because the city itself does not control the decorations.
The answer to fixing this disparity may not lie solely with fixing the distribution of lights, but changing the underlying problems that create the divisions between the North Side and the South Side in the first place.
“In these superficial matters like the Christmas lights, what you are actually seeing being enacted is people’s fears and anxieties about wealth and poverty,” said Seth Moglen, an associate professor of English and a South Side resident. “In other words, it becomes a symbolic demonstration of difference which is surrounded by anxiety, which most people are unwilling to talk honestly about.”
Though it may not be the core issue in the Bethlehem community, the Christmas lights have become a visual metaphor for the differences, both negative and positive, between the two halves of the city.