Christmas in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Community Putzes
Bethlehem’s Moravians have also contributed the Christmas putz to the town’s repertoire of Christmas customs. A putz is a miniature Nativity scene, depicting not only Jesus’ birth in a manger, but also scenes of life in the surrounding countryside (see also Christmas Village). In past times members of the Moravian community vied with one another to see who could build the most imaginative and elaborate putz. Between Christmas and Epiphany they visited one another’s homes to compare and enjoy the putzes. The custom of putz visiting also caught on with non-Moravians. Things started to get out of hand in the 1930s, when one particularly successful putz-building family, that of Edward Neisser, received just under 1,000 Christmas season visitors.
Neisser suggested that the town build a community putz for the public to enjoy. The Chamber of Commerce took him up on that suggestion in 1937. The first community putz, set up in the office of the Chamber of Commerce, drew 14,000 visitors and so interrupted the Chamber’s duties that they found another location for it the following year. In 1939 the community putz was built in the lobby of Hotel Bethlehem. Two hundred volunteers helped manage the putz by reading the narration for the display and working the lights. The attraction drew 30,000 visitors, overwhelming the hotel. Several more changes of venue followed until three community putzes were established in local Moravian churches.
Since the beginning, members of Bethlehem’s Moravian churches have built and managed the community putzes. These days the members of Bethlehem’s Central Moravian Church appoint a committee to manage this task. The process begins with an expedition to the Pocono Mountains in November to gather moss. It takes volunteers about a week to construct the putz. Viewing begins at the start of Advent. Several times a day visitors can enter the darkened auditorium to view the putz, while a guide reads a narrative describing the scene. The lights in each section of the putz rise as the guide tells the story of those figures.