I like to imagine, in the year 3013, an archaeologist being completely befuddled by the human artifacts she finds in the province historically known as Bethlehem, Pa.
Using her dust brush, she’ll gently clear the dirt from a giant, glowing, yellow icon of a baby chicken. Then she’ll unearth photos — on an ancient website called Facebook — of crowds of Bethlehemites gathered around the giant chick, chanting and cheering with joy as it slowly descends from the sky.
“What sort of strange people were these?” she’ll ask in a presentation to her fellow professors, most of whom will respond by noiselessly bouncing into the university walls around them. (By this time, naturally, the world will be controlled by Roombas, the dangerously self-aware vacuum cleaners.) “And what the heck is a ‘Peep’?”
Here in the year 2013 — kazoo sound — we know that for more than the last decade, plucky Bethlehem residents have celebrated New Year’s by dropping an 85-pound fiberglass version of their proudest local product: the teeth-melting, sugar-coated marshmallow confection known as a Peep.
But the biblically named Pennsylvania town about an hour and a half from Philadelphia and New York City isn’t the only place in the country to “drop” strange things at the turn of the New Year.
In Atlanta, they drop an 800-pound peach. In Plymouth, Wis., of course, they drop a block of cheese, and in Elmore, Ohio, celebratory throngs watch a giant sausage twirl to the ground. In Key West, Fla., it’s a drag queen in a shoe.
Pennsylvania is definitely the country’s leader when it comes to dropping weird things. In Dillsburg, an enormous, startled-looking pickle in a top hat and white gloves descends. In Lebanon, the object of mirth is a 225-pound stick of bologna. In Mechanicsburg, it’s a wrench. In Lewistown, it’s an effigy of a potato-chip bag produced by a local factory.
There’s a cathartic element to the “drops” paying tribute to regional industry. Americans work dang hard all year long. But come Dec. 31, we like to drop everything and … drop everything.
Which is why in Seaside Heights, N.J., for the last couple of years they’ve dropped their own local product, Snooki. Really: the perma-tanned reality-TV star sits in a ball and drops to Earth as her fellow Jerseyites count down to zero.
Is this the best holiday of the year, or what?
And if the New Year is all about cleaning the slate and reinventing yourself — unearthing your ’80s-era elliptical machine from your garage and swearing off any of those aforementioned Pennsylvania food products — then Bethlehem is apt inspiration.
For more than a century, one of the globe’s busiest manufacturers — Bethlehem Steel — churned out metal that built the George Washington Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler Building, part of the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam and Alcatraz, to name a few American landmarks.
In 1995 — like those in Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh — the Bethlehem steel plant shuttered. A large casino now squats on the factory’s former site, surrounded bizarrely by the wild, rusted spires of the once-thriving plant.
But Bethlehem, nestled just south of the Pocono Mountains, still feels vibrant. Gourmands from Manhattan and Philly have invaded the town, bringing with them scallops as big as a fist and sticky rolls the size of my head. (Check my expense report if you don’t believe me, speaking of dusty elliptical machines.) Now, Bethlehemites celebrate the manufacture of the very opposite of massive steel rods: soft and sugary chick- and bunny-shaped treats, produced by local candy maker Just Born since the 1950s.
It ain’t steel, but Peeps have acquired a bit of iconic cachet themselves. Artists have used the benign-looking bunnies to re-create masterpieces and historic events, and — a bit more sadistically — YouTube users have posted hundreds of videos of Peep “torture” involving microwaves.
Several months before the Peep Drop, I lurked outside Just Born HQ, a very private compound guarded by Peep-shaped benches and Volkswagen Beetles. I asked factory workers on a smoke break where I could find the 85-pound Peep and they looked at me like I was nuts, or worse, a Steelers fan.
Just Born honchos also rejected my advances on their giant fiberglass icon. “When it’s not in season,” lamented spokesperson Ellie Deardorff of the huge Peep, “it’s all crated up in the middle of Pennsylvania.”
Yep, the Peep people do not abide cheating. If you want to see the thing in person, you must report to Bethlehem at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, to take part in a custom that will look awfully strange in a thousand years.