European-style Markets in Pennsylvania Celebrate the Holidays and History

By Lisa Perez | Posted on 12.06.16 – Destinations, Travel

The countdown to Christmas began late last month when Advent was celebrated the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Black Friday, that secular holiday marker, slid in just before that, ready to give retailers and shoppers a chance to break records.

For a different way of buying presents, visit the Christmas markets or, in German, “christkindlmarkts” that dot the central and southeastern hills of Pennsylvania. German settlers came here 400 years ago and their stamp is still felt in the local holiday customs. Cristkindlmarkts, meaning “Christ child markets,” present a unique way to get some shopping done while enjoying the special treats and decorations marking this loveliest of seasons.


An easy trip through the rolling Pennsylvania farmlands takes us to the town of Bethlehem, home of a well-known Christmas market. Located in the former Bethlehem Steel factory, the building, abandoned 20 years ago, was repurposed as a home to one of the largest Christmas markets on the East Coast.

As visitors approach the building, the old steel plant looms, old and unattractive. A large parking lot is free and easily available. Admission, however, is charged to enter the Steel Stack Building. While the outside of the building still looks like an old factory, inside the large space is transformed every year into a Christmas wonderland.

Festivities started the weekend before Thanksgiving. More than 135 vendors fill the spaces, many annual repeats, but every year new vendors come, ready to try their hand at satisfying the over one million people that come to shop and enjoy the entertainment at the “Christmas City.”

Old staples like breakfast with St. Nick mix with opportunities to purchase from the enormous variety of decorations, gifts and holiday treats in the market. Glassblowers make ornaments and for a small fee, shoppers can be entertained and create their own glass-blown beauty. This year, a renowned ornament and nutcracker maker from Germany will be providing custom-made ornaments. Original jewelry, wheel thrown pottery, hand-made candles, ice sculptures and gourmet treats are only a few of the many vendors, booths and displays at the Christmas market this year.

Above the town on a nearby mountain, a man-made star shines, easily seen as far as 20 miles away. Constructed during the Great Depression in the 1930s, it was deemed too bright to shine during World War II when blackouts were enforced to prevent the country from revealing too many possible targets.  Made of the famous Bethlehem Steel, the star stands 91 feet tall and is lit every evening of the year.


The melding of both objectives, holiday shopping and spiritual preparation, can be traced at least as far back as the 1500s in Germany, where christkindlmarkts have long been a part of the Christmas celebrations. Begun in the Middle Ages, these markets opened at the beginning of Advent and were designed to give merchants and shoppers a chance to buy and sell.

In the bygone era of a barely literate society, these gatherings also provided an opportunity to act out and tell the Christmas story. These markets continue today all through Germany, Austria and Switzerland, as well as other European countries. At the time of the Reformation in the 1500s, Martin Luther seized the opportunity presented by these fairs to suggest memorable ways to celebrate the Christmas season. He is widely credited with initiating the decorations of the Christmas tree and encouraging gifts be given in honor of the Christ child.

When Europeans first came to the American continent, many Germans settled in what are now the Mid-Atlantic states, so similar in climate to their old country. Among these settlers, a group of Moravians arrived in 1741 and moved in along the Monacacy Creek near the Lehigh River. Because their arrival occurred on Christmas Eve, Bethlehem became the name of the new town. In addition to the decorations of the Christmas season, there are a number of historical displays including an old Moravian church and museum, plus exhibits of the old houses and first enterprises built there.

Moravians lived communally and the buildings reflect the community’s ties with each other. They believed men and women, Europeans, Africans and Native Americans, should be treated the same, with the same educational and economic opportunities. They believed that all should work for the good of the community and at one time in the mid-1700s there were 15 different languages spoken in the little Moravian town. They believed their mission was to minister to the poorest and neediest in the world, even selling themselves into slavery in the West Indies in order to reach the slaves in those islands.


Once more on the road after shopping and seeing the sights of Bethlehem, we wound our way towards Lancaster, also an old enclave of Pennsylvania German culture. Here, along with the Moravians, a strong cast of Mennonites and Amish populate these valleys.

Lancaster has a plethora of events, museums, historical markers and some of the oldest markets on the East Coast. Christmas brings the lighting of the tree, and here the Pennsylvania German culture introduced other familiar customs.

Candles, so familiar in this holiday season, were first used to decorate Christmas trees. In Old Europe, the birth of a prince was celebrated by lighting candles. Visitors in Amish country frequently notice the candles displayed in windows all year, not just during the holidays. The nativity scenes or putz, which means to decorate, are also a tradition from this area. Originally constructed from clay, and incorporating many facets of the Christmas story, they were created at home and are still frequently a family project.

Rounding out our mini-tour of Christmas fun, we land in Harrisburg, the state capital, which hosts a Christmas extravaganza. Lasting two weeks, it also bills itself as largest in the area. Located in the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, we encountered a spectacular display of treats, activities and musical Christmas shows. Running through Dec. 4, it provides us with yet another chance to grab the fun of the season.