Star of Bethlehem: Beacon of Hope in Christmas City, USA

‘O Come Let Us Adore Him’: Christmas City, USA

Christmas City, U.S.A., celebrates the reason for the season.
Christmas City, U.S.A., celebrates the reason for the season. (photo: Alex Rosenberger and Chamber of Commerce, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania )

Sitting high atop South Mountain, the lone star peeking out of the trees can be seen from just about anywhere: the highway and Main Street, and its bright light shines directly into Bethlehem Hotel, one of the oldest and most historic hotels in the country.

Reaching more than 90 feet high and 40 feet wide, the illuminated star can be seen more than 20 miles away. When it was constructed, it was reported to be the largest individual electric display in the world.

And with celebrations muted this year in the Holy Land, the star hovering over Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, seems to shine a bit brighter these holy days. Originally erected in 1937 to replicate the star that the Magi followed so intentionally to find the Baby Jesus lying in a manger, it’s a steadfast constant above the city’s annual live Nativity event, where troves of residents, young and old, come to retell the true story of the season, reminding tourists and visitors that this is Christmas City, U.S.A.

Star hovering over Main Street in Bethlehem, Pa. public domain
The star hovers over Main Street in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.(Photo: Derek Ramsey )

“Bethlehem did not create Christmas, Christmas created Bethlehem,” Vernon Melhado, president of the 1937 Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, said as he kicked off a letter-writing campaign to chambers of commerce across the country asking them all to report through their local papers that Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem was indeed “Christmas City.” And with the town’s record of not only the Bethlehem star, but also the first documented Christmas tree in the nation, and Christmas markets on both sides of the bustling town’s river, the most important holiday in history is central to the city’s identity.

Close-up of the Bethlehem star at night. Alyssa Murphy
Close-up of the Bethlehem star at night(Photo: Alyssa Murphy)

Founded by Moravians in the 18th century, the journey Mary and Joseph took can also be experienced by residents of the neighboring Keystone State towns of Nazareth and Emmaus.

The territory was founded to replicate the Holy Land on American soil, Father Martin Kern, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Bethlehem, told the Register Dec. 5. And the star high in the sky, a beacon of hope in Christmas City, is still a guide for many waiting with joyful anticipation to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

“The star touches my own heart during the Christmas season,” Father Kern said. “I’m always struck by the fact that we are in the Holy Land here. … To be in Bethlehem on Jesus’ birthday… how many people can say that?”

A live Nativity is also an integral part of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School, where Father Kern is affectionately known as “Father Marty” to the schoolchildren.

Live nativity and Christmas liturgy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bethlehem, Pa. courtesy
Live Nativity and Christmas liturgy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania(Photo: Courtesy photo)

School Principal Danielle Frio has been at the helm for the past six years, and as a native of Bethlehem, the star illuminated in the sky has always meant so much to her; during the Advent and Christmas season, she and the faculty work diligently to bring it to life for students.

“Last year, the tableau was focused on the angels, but this year the live Nativity is centered on the shepherds, imparting the message to our students that the Lord didn’t appear to those with power but to a lowly shepherd in the field,” Principal Frio said.

Children take part in a live Nativity just ahead of Christmas break at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pa. courtesy
Children take part in a live Nativity just ahead of Christmas break at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Bethlehem.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

“And the live Nativity is a culmination of four weeks of preparation during Advent, where students write their own prayers focusing on aspects of our faith, mixed in with community-service projects helping students to see all the gifts God has given us, and to share them with others, especially those most in need.”

Visiting the campus, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of the city, students filed out of the classroom of Mrs. Debra Toohey's second-grade class to light the Advent candle perched above a map highlighting how the Holy Family journeyed to Bethlehem. Children recited prayers and were quick to answer questions about distance and what the terrain must've been like. The Advent prayers offer a unique opportunity for the students, as Principal Froio elaborated:

"We hope, by sharing these different prayers throughout Advent, the students will have time to reflect on all the shepherds contributed to the Nativity story. This helps the students better understand our theme when we celebrate our school Christmas liturgy."

Mrs. Toohey's second grade class lights the second Advent candle and recites a prayer for the week ahead of the Christmas liturgy Dec. 22, 2023. Courtesy
Mrs. Toohey's second-grade class lights the second Advent candle and recites a prayer for the week ahead of the Christmas liturgy, Dec. 22.(Photo: Alyssa Murphy)

Service as the Heart of the Season

Principal Frio shared several ways students help during the Advent season including the pairing of first- and seventh-graders as buddies for a fun pajama day, during which students create care kits for young patients receiving cancer treatment at Reilly Children’s Hospital in Leghigh Valley.

“In order to wear pajamas, the students needed to bring in a donation [crayons/coloring books, small travel games, books, etc.]. The seventh-graders took those items and assembled activity bags, which will be distributed to children as they come in for treatment or a hospital,” Principal Frio explained.

1st and 7th grade students work together on care packages for children receiving student at Reilly Children's Hospital. courtesy
First- and seventh-grade students work together on care packages for children at Reilly Children's Hospital.(Photo: Courtesy photo )

“Our first grade brought in teddy bears, which they packaged with homemade cards and hugs to be given to the sick children when they arrive at the hospital,” she continued. So many children receiving treatment are the same age as the students making the kits, and Principal Frio hopes the project will help the students “have empathy for others and be grateful for their own blessings,” she explained adding, “At a time of the year when the focus can sometimes be on material things, we strive to have the students focus on others.”

And this is just the tip of the iceberg for the care and concern that goes into community service on this Catholic-school campus in Christmas City, USA.

Other classrooms buddy up, too, giving necessities to the homeless through a partnership with Catholic Charities. Kindergarteners and fourth-graders make Christmas ornaments for Good Shepherd Rehabilition Pediatric Unit to add some cheer to the facility’s Christmas trees. Christmas cards are made by fifth- and eighth-graders just ahead of a festive senior citizen Christmas dinner hosted by Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. Rounding it all out is the school’s support of the local Olsen Christmas Wish organization, "which provides Christmas gifts and a party for families dealing with illness and loss," Principal Frio explained.

Children take part in community service projects throughout the year but especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons. courtesy
Students take part in community service projects throughout the year, but especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons.(Photo: Courtesy photo )

Faith Formation Comes First

Above the fun pajama events and making costumes for the live Nativity, this gem of a Catholic school in Bethlehem is all about educating the whole child, "mind, body and spirit," Principal Frio told the Register. "We do this by fostering a deep relationship with God, academic excellence, a commitment to service, and a sense of belonging to a family," she said, adding, “By providing a solid foundation in faith and values, we aim to prepare our students to become responsible citizens and leaders who positively contribute to their community and the world.”

And while the lights may be dim in the Holy Land this Christmas, this little Bethlehem, tucked off busy highways in Pennsylvania, is keeping the spirit of the Nativity of Our Lord alive and well, as prayers continue for those suffering this winter where, long ago, the cry of the Christ Child told the world that Love was born.