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History's Headlines: Bethlehem's dedication as Christmas City was 75 years ago this month

History's Headlines: Christmas City dedication 75 years ago

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The year 1937 had not been a good one for the city of Bethlehem or a very peaceful one for the world.  In that seventh year of the Great Depression, Bethlehem Steel was operating only three days a week. Labor troubles plagued both it and the nation in general.

Things were no better overseas. Headlines shouted of Italian troops battling natives in Ethiopia, goose-stepping Nazis in the streets of Berlin, civil war in Spain and the sinking of a U.S. Navy gunboat on a river in China by Japanese planes. All were precursors to World War II, whose outbreak in Europe was less than two years away.

Bethlehem merchants had problems closer to home. They had not had a good Christmas since 1929. More than a few had gone under. And as if shoppers were not discouraged enough by the bleak economy, newspapers were reporting an outbreak of tire slashing across the city. "More than 100 tires on 33 cars were punctured," one newspaper noted, at a local high school basketball game. City police were investigating.

But not everybody was giving in to despair. Earlier that year Bethlehem mayor Robert Pfeifle had started thinking of ways to get his city's economy out of the Depression's doldrums. Elected as a crusader who "cleaned up" the bars and other seedy hangouts that had given South Bethlehem a national reputation for vice, Pfeifle, a deeply religious man, was widely respected in the city. To this day some who remember him from their youth call him, "dear Mayor Pfeifle."

Since its founding by the Moravians on Christmas Day 1741, Bethlehem had regarded it as its special holiday. Why not take advantage of this, Pfeifle reasoned, by doing something that would "brand" Bethlehem with Christmas? It would not only aid merchants but also add to the reputation of the city.

Pfeifle began by sharing this idea with other community leaders. Victor K. Melhado, president of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, was particularly impressed.

And somewhere along the way the idea was apparently suggested to Eugene G. Grace, the powerful president of Bethlehem Steel. In Bethlehem in 1937 if Grace liked an idea it was going to happen. His wife Marion Brown, daughter of Charles Brown, who was the co-founder of Brown Borhek lumber supply company, represented him on the various planning boards.

The date chosen for the event was December 7th. But planning had begun long before.

Pfeifle decided, apparently to rally the community around the concept, to make the focal point the creation of a large "Star of Bethlehem" to be funded by a community wide campaign. School children donated their pennies and nickels and service clubs made it a focal point of their fundraising effort that year.

Eventually over $800 would be collected for the star, a large sum for the Depression-struck community. When completed its vertical ray was 60 feet high and the horizontal, 45 feet across. It was erected on South Mountain on guy wires from two 78 foot poles.

The decorating was not confined to the "Star of Bethlehem." Five miles worth of lights-over 22 city blocks-were strung along city streets and across the Hill to Hill bridge. These decorations were provided by the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce at an estimated cost of $10,000. The Chamber also paid for renting out what the press called the "crystal ballroom" space at the Hotel Bethlehem and decorated it in festive fashion.

At 4:15 p.m. on December 7th, crowds began to gather at the hotel while seasonal music set the scene.

"Dr. T. Edgar Shields, conducted a chorus of 50 voices in singing 'O Little Town of Bethlehem,' and 'Silent Night.' The Bethlehem High School orchestra, directed by Joseph Ricapito, played ‘Around the Christmas Tree' and the Globe Times chorus under Frank G. Hoch sang ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo…," noted one newspaper.

Among the special guests were Allentown Mayor Malcolm Gross and Easton's chief executive Joseph Morrison. Others included Moravian Bishop Paul de Schweinitz and Arch Johnson, a former Bethlehem Steel executive who had been the first mayor of the united city of Bethlehem, created in 1917. Melhado, in introducing the bishop, noted he was a direct descendent of Count von Zinzendorf.

Once the guests were welcomed Melhado, after introducing him as "a gentleman and a Christian" turned the microphone over to Pfeifle. With a few words the mayor announced that from this day forward Bethlehem was to take on a new mission as "the Christmas City of the United States."

Former mayor Johnson hailed those who by their, "thought, painstaking effort and energetic action," had made the dedication possible. State Senator William G. Barthold expressed the hope that Bethlehem would live up to the name Christmas City, "by setting high standards so that to each and all of us these lights will be a Christmas joy."

It was now 5:30. Rising from the dais, Marion Brown Grace walked to a switch and pulled it. With that lights sparkled all over the downtown and across the Hill-to Hill Bridge. And for the first time a bright Star of Bethlehem glowed over South Mountain. The Christmas City dedication was complete.

Interestingly when the ceremony was held in 1938 there were lights but no Star of Bethlehem. This may well have been because Bethlehem Steel had their own surprise for the city. On December 15, 1939 a new and more powerful Star of Bethlehem donated by the company and said to have cost $5000, was lighted by Marion Grace.

Tall as a 10 story building, it was said to be the largest electrical display in the world. Today that Star of Bethlehem-with modifications for modern lighting technology-still shines at the 75th anniversary of the Christmas City.

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