Every year in August, my hometown is embraced by music. The streets of Bethlehem are taken over by a festival that weaves the musical traditions of our city’s Moravian founders with a variety of diverse contemporary musical acts.
In 1741, a small group of Moravians settled on the banks of the Lehigh River near the Monocacy Creek. They represented what is now recognized as the oldest organized Protestant denomination in the world, the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren, founded in 1457 by followers of John Hus. On Christmas Eve of that first year, the Moravians’ patron, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Saxony, Germany, visited the new settlement and christened the community ‘Bethlehem’ during a traditional ‘Love Feast’. For Moravians, music was an essential aid to worship, so it was part of every religious service and celebration. Moravian choruses were renowned for their beautiful harmonies, and Bethlehem became a musical center.
Founded in 1984 by ArtsQuest, the first Musikfest featured 295 performances on six stages, attracting more than 180,000 people to historic Bethlehem. Over the past three decades, the event has grown, evolving into one of the largest and most diverse music festivals in the nation, with 500-plus shows on 14 stages held over 10 days. Each year hundreds of thousands of people make their way to the Lehigh Valley to experience all the music, food, and fun of this musical celebration.
Local German roots are the foundation of the celebration, and most of the festival’s venues use the German word for place, ‘platz’, at the end of their names. For example, ‘Festplatz’ holds 300 dining tables and features a number of polka bands throughout the week. This ‘platz’ is surrounded by vendors offering an array of food and drink choices ranging from gyros to pierogies to corn-on-the-cob to fried oreos. Many local craftsmen also rent stands to sell their goods to the large crowds that attend the festival. One of the other great traditions of Musikfest is the collectible beer mugs that everyone can be seen carrying around town. The light-up mugs, especially, have become a collector’s item that usually sell-out within the first few days.
Many of the events are free and because of this, Musikfest is considered the nation’s largest non-gated free music festival. The main (and not-free) stage, the Sands Steel Stage, has recently been relocated to the Southside and now occupies a prominent place beside the imposing blast furnaces of the former Bethlehem Steel Complex. The Southside of Bethlehem has undergone extensive building works in recent years to develop an arts center, shopping district, and a casino, and Musikfest has embraced this regeneration by expanding to the south side of town. This year I had the opportunity to attend the OneRepublic concert at this venue and it was fantastic!
As much as I enjoy traveling the world, it’s always nice to celebrate one of the events that makes my hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania so special!