BETHLEHEM, Conn. — Did you know there are towns named Bethlehem in America? Some are little, like the carol goes, and some are much bigger. Whatever the size, some Bethlehems become a destination because they try to connect in some way to that miraculous event of 2,000 years ago.
A favorite destination is the rural town of Bethlehem, Conn., and the crèche at the Regina Laudis Abbey (AbbeyofReginaLaudis.com), a community of cloistered Benedictine nuns founded after World War II.
Their early 18th-century masterpiece is displayed in a barn nearly as old and specifically donated to house this Nativity scene. Both recently received a meticulous three-year restoration by experts who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
This is no small crèche. From end to end, it spans 16 feet and is six feet deep, with a backdrop mural of a seaside and azure sky.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph are at the heart of the crèche. Our Savior’s birth is vividly set in a Neapolitan mountainside village. Angels hover overhead in wonder, while villagers react in different ways to the presence of the Holy Family. The 68 figures of carved wood, ceramic, metal and plant fiber stand up to 16 inches high and are dressed in their original early dress that The Met specialists carefully restored to pristine condition.
The story goes that this crèche was a gift to Victor Amadeus II of Sardinia for his coronation in 1720. In 1948 it was brought to America; then, in 1949, the owner gave it to the abbey. Also on the grounds is a simple, life-size Nativity scene of the Holy Family, located in a simple shed, with Joseph dressed in a checked farmer’s jacket.
Four miles from the abbey and a few yards from the center of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity remembers the birth of Jesus year-round. The parish’s new church was built in 1992 of fieldstone and wood and specifically designed to look like a crèche. The church (ChurchoftheNativity-ct.org) is topped with a star that is lit at night. The focal point of the vestibule, which looks into the church (it has glass walls) is a life-size manger scene. All the figures were carved from a single pine tree by a Maine artist. Joseph kneels, while the Virgin Mary stands cradling Jesus to her shoulder. Jesus looks over her shoulder into the church toward what will come — the cross.
A panorama of the town of Bethlehem is etched on the glass behind the Holy Family.
The stone and wood beams add to the manger atmosphere inside — and so do the words “O Come All Ye Faithful” behind the altar.
The Knights of Columbus are finishing a crèche in front of the church. The 20-foot-by-15-foot crèche, with heavy beams and stone walls, will be ready before Christmas.
Farther to the south, Bethlehem, N.C., lives up to its name every year, beginning with a star lighting in early December in front of one of the town’s churches that includes a live Nativity scene, a Scripture reading and carols. The star remains lit until New Year’s.
Another Christmas highlight is the Bethlehem Drive-Thru, which attracts thousands of people to this town west of Winston-Salem (TheLittleTownofBethlehem.com). Vehicles drive past 30 scenes with more than 100 people re-enacting events from Christ’s birth through his resurrection. Audio narration is provided. Passengers can even stop and take part: They can don a simple costume and interact with the characters.
In Georgia, a short drive from Athens, the state’s Bethlehem (BethlehemGA.org) calls itself “The little town under the star.” It received its name from Bethlehem Methodist Church, which dates to the late 18th century.
The streets in this small town have names related to the Christmas story: There’s Joseph Street and Mary Avenue, as well as Star, Shepherd and Angel Streets, and Manger and Christmas Avenues. A live Nativity pageant is held on Dec. 22-23.
Although not named Bethlehem, McAdenville, N.C., is known as “Christmas Town USA.” (McAdenville is less than two miles from Belmont Abbey College.)
The tradition of decorating trees with lights started small in this town just west of Charlotte in 1956. From nine trees decorated that year — all in Christmas colors of red, white and green at the suggestion of the president of the local yarn company — the number quickly grew.
The tradition continues with help from the company, and now more than 375 evergreen trees around town are radiant with these lights — more than 450,000 lights — including around the town lake, in addition to a manger scene. Christmas is “when almost every home and evergreen tree proclaim the birth of Jesus,” according to the town website (McAdenville-ChristmasTown.com).
Other decorations and the chimes playing Christmas music from atop the steeple of the McAdenville Baptist Church through all 26 nights of the Christmas display add to the seasonal atmosphere. On one of the days, there is also a live Nativity.
Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem got its name on Christmas Eve in 1741 from Moravian Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf when he founded the city as a Moravian settlement.
In 1937, when Christmas street lights were turned on and a huge wooden star was lit on South Mountain, Bethlehem got the nickname of “Christmas City, USA” (ChristmasCity.org).
Over the years, the star got bigger; it can be seen from historic Bethlehem’s Main Street, where several Christmas activities are featured, including tours by costumed guides.
Holy Infancy Church is also part of Bethlehem, Pa. Founded in 1861 and celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, for decades Holy Infancy has welcomed people. First it was the European immigrants arriving to work in Bethlehem Steel. Now it is also home to many from the Caribbean and South America; Masses are offered in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
The church’s Christmas celebrations begin with a posada, a Mexican tradition with singing throughout town. A first-time Musical Navideno on Dec. 17 was to feature carols sung in various languages.
Before Mass on Christmas Eve, Holy Infancy features a living Nativity in the church, with Mary and Joseph making different stops throughout the church looking for shelter. They finally find it at the manger, where the scene continues with a real baby representing Jesus.
In their own way, each of these little towns honors their namesake in the faraway Holy Land that was the birthplace of the Savior.
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.