BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Visitors looking to get into the holiday spirit have long traveled to Bethlehem, a lovely little city in eastern Pennsylvania founded by Moravians on Christmas Eve, 1741.
With its well-preserved Moravian architecture, a popular seasonal bazaar called Christkindlmarkt, an impeccably decorated downtown, and a host of Christmas-themed events between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, Bethlehem comes by its reputation as the "Christmas City" honestly. The city even has its own star: the electrified Star of Bethlehem that shines year-round from its 81-foot perch atop nearby South Mountain.
This year, though, Bethlehem has developed something of a split personality. The Christmas City has become the Casino City — offering slot machines in addition to Santa Claus.
A marketing nightmare for tourism executives? Not really. Christmas in Bethlehem is still Christmas in Bethlehem. And the $743 million Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem is still a glitzy new gambling hall with 3,250 slot machines, entertainment, and two restaurants by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
In other words, each caters to its own audience.
"People who generally are coming to shop or visit downtown Bethlehem (during Christmas) aren't necessarily the same folks who will be putting money into slot machines, and vice versa," said Michael Stershic, president of the Lehigh Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But we're anxious to see what the crossover is."
Despite grumbles that it would sully the city's carefully cultivated image, the casino opened in May on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel plant in south Bethlehem. A convention center, shopping mall and 300-room hotel are also planned, though construction has been delayed amid the recession. (Sands pledges it will complete the project once economic conditions improve.)
Sands has its own advertising budget and Stershic's group does not generally market the casino alongside the city's Christmas attractions. But there is some cross-promotion. With the holiday season in full swing, a few motor coach operators are testing the waters by offering travel packages that include the casino, Christkindlmarkt and heritage-themed tours run by the nonprofit Historic Bethlehem Partnership, said Sands' president, Robert DeSalvio.
"It is our first year open so we are trying this program with the hope that it continues to grow in years to come," he said via e-mail. "I believe the Sands will also benefit from the influx of visitors who come to Bethlehem during the holiday period."
Most of the city's Christmas attractions are located about two miles away from the casino in a compact, walkable downtown.
Visitors looking for a bit of shopping nostalgia can be found strolling through the city's lovingly restored commercial district, where Victorian-style street lights are festooned this time of year with live greens and red ribbons — no tacky plastic for this Main Street — the storefronts are appropriately bedecked, and the trees are wrapped in thousands of twinkling white lights. The strains of "Silver Bells" fill the air as a plush horse-drawn carriage clops past, driven by a man in a top hat and carrying tourists bundled against the December chill.
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Another seasonal draw is Christkindlmarkt, a holiday market where dozens of vendors sell everything from ornaments to pottery to jewelry to Christmas-themed candy. There's a food court, live music, ice carving, and, of course, Santa, all under two enormous heated tents. A single-day ticket costs $8, though children under 13 are free.
Barbara Ogno, 65, of Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J., visited Christkindlmarkt on a recent Thursday with her daughter. She came away duly impressed. "It's a very nice little town ... especially if you have a day and want to take your family someplace," she said.
Ogno had visited the Sands on a previous outing, but not this time. "This trip is about Christmas shopping. We have to put that on the back burner for a while," she said with a laugh.
Another popular attraction is the Christmas Putz at Central Moravian Church, just off Main Street. The putz, a centuries-old Moravian tradition, uses narration, music, and antique wooden miniatures arranged on a moss- and rock-covered platform to recount the events surrounding Jesus' birth. White lights illuminate each tiny scene as the Nativity story unfolds.
Construction of the putz (from the German word for "decorate") begins in early November when Moravian families head north to the Pocono Mountains to gather the moss. Central's putz opened in 1937; it's free, but donations are accepted.
Anna Kodama, a church member and putz volunteer, said visitors find it to be a good escape from the hustle and bustle of a commercialized Christmas.
"They come here and exhale," she said. "It's nice. It's dark and it's quiet and they're told a story."
And then there is the glittery new Sands, the opposite of dark and quiet. And something of an odd duck in this flock of Christmas geese.
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