Decorating The Christmas City

By Jennifer LoConte

For most of us, the annual holiday decorating begins around Thanksgiving weekend. Lighted candles appear in neighborhood windows, festive outdoor lights pop up and Christmas trees tied to the tops of automobiles make their first appearance as December draws near. For one man and his team, however, the arduous task of decorating the entire city of Bethlehem begins much earlier.

Gregory Cryder, city electrician for the Bethlehem Department of Public Works, and his crew are dreaming of a white Christmas while the rest of the city is still putting away their bathing suits and shorts. Their initial planning begins in September as Cryder and foreman Charles Grenos start “tree shopping” for two large Christmas trees that will stand at City Hall and the Hill to Hill Bridge. Hundreds of local families and businesses express interest in donating a tree each year. Cryder must carefully examine each possibility and make the final decision based on several factors including size, shape, location and surroundings. Cryder states, “I might find a great tree but it’s standing directly next to a utility pole and that could make things very complicated.” By the time you read this article, this year’s selections will have been cut down and brought to their destinations via a police escort. Cryder explains that it is quite a difficult process to get the trees safely onto the wide truck bed and then driven through the city streets.

It is a dreary Tuesday morning in October and I am driving around Bethlehem with Cryder as he explains what his crews will be doing for the next month. Eight hundred small trees (from Seltzer Bros. Tree Farm in Lehighton) have been delivered the day before and it is up to Cryder to make sure that every tree is properly set up, secured and decorated by Black Friday for the annual Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony. Every tree throughout Bethlehem is turned on by a single switch. “Really?” I ask. “Well no, not exactly,” says Cryder. “People like to think that, but it’s really a well-choreographed event that our guys are responsible for.” Most of the trees are in fact, illuminated at the same time, but via interconnected timers turned on by crewmen throughout the city on that special night. As we continue our drive through town, Cryder tells me that he is originally from Seattle and this is his second Christmas in Bethlehem. He says, “Seattle has festivals but none that rival what Bethlehem does – Musikfest, Celtic Fest and then the Christmas season all one after another.”

The crews, made up electricians, technicians and a foreman, secure 24 trees per day to traffic signals and various light poles throughout Bethlehem. Cryder explains that most of the trees do very well, but approximately 50 may need to be replaced during the season. As I look up at a finished intersection, I see what looks like perfect mini-trees but they are actually two smaller trees joined together and adorned with three sets of lights. Cryder purchases 250 strings of lights each year. He explains that trees north of the Lehigh River are decorated with white lights and those south are adorned with multi-colored lights. Additionally, there are a dozen or so standing trees located throughout the city that are decorated each year as well as smaller trees delivered to various city buildings.

In addition to tree trimming, the Bethlehem Department of Public Works is also responsible for the lighting of the Advent candles, a weekly Christian celebration that takes place every Sunday in December. There are five sets of Advent candles set up at various locations throughout Bethlehem, including one at City Hall and another at the Hill to Hill Bridge. Finally, let’s not forget the holiday music that plays throughout the festive downtown shopping area. We can thank Cryder for that as well.

Cryder saved the city thousands of dollars with regard to the historic star of Bethlehem. Originally built out of wood in the 1920s, Bethlehem Steel renovated the star in the 1940s. Today, the steel structure stands 110-feet tall, 60-feet wide and is double-sided. The star is made up of 250 lamps and thanks to Cryder’s idea of using energy efficient LED lamps that last 100,000 hours, the bulbs will only need to be changed every 17 years, instead of the usual two-and-a-half. The star is turned on every night of the year from dusk to midnight and with the recent bulb upgrade, will now appear to be even brighter.

After the holiday season winds down, all of the trees are taken to the Bethlehem compost. Cryder and his crew will have worked tirelessly for several months and can put another Christmas season behind them. Many of us take for granted the amount of work that goes into decorating an entire city. As I begin my holiday decorating, shopping and festivities, I’ll look at those beautiful little trees with a new appreciation for Cryder and his Christmas elves as they make the city of Bethlehem a magical place year after year.

Jennifer LoConte, a Bethlehem-based writer, is getting a head start on her Christmas shopping for the first time ever as a result of writing this article.

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