Kris Wagner is the 2023 ‘Conqueror of the Haggis’ at Bethlehem’s Celtic Classic
- There's food, drink, music and kilts galore in Northside Bethlehem this weekend
- This weekend marks the 36th showing of the beloved Celtic Classic
- Pending weather, the show will go on except for one notable Saturday parade
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Whether it was witnessing Kris Wagner downing a pound of haggis in just over 41 seconds to top 14 other competitors, watching as mighty athletes tossed a huge caber end over end for screaming fans or listening to the stomp-clap of an old sea shanty, Friday night was an eventful fall kickoff for the beloved Celtic Classic in Northside Bethlehem.
The Haggis Bowl, though short, was hard to miss, as onlookers screamed from the stands and sidelines at Highland Field between Spring and West Lehigh streets. It even featured background music from a pipe band.
Haggis is a dish of Scottish origin, typically made using sheep or calf organs, oatmeal, onions, salt and other spices. That concoction is typically boiled within the sheep or calf's stomach for an hour before enjoying.
“With a long tradition, the Celtic Classic Haggis Eating Competition is a favorite among festival-goers. Competitors travel from as far away as Alaska for the honor of holding the title of ‘Celtic Classic Eating Champion.’”Celtic Cultural Alliance website
“With a long tradition, the Celtic Classic Haggis Eating Competition is a favorite among festival-goers,” the Celtic Cultural Alliance website reads. “Competitors travel from as far away as Alaska for the honor of holding the title of ‘Celtic Classic Eating Champion.’”
Wagner walked away with $25 worth of meal tickets for the rest of the festival, a souvenir mug and also bragging rights for another year.
Familiar festival faces
Mary Szakmeister, of Whitehall, is running a jewelry booth at the event alongside her daughter Virginia Ellen, of Allentown.
They’ve been in business since 2011, and this year makes for their eighth appearance at Celtic Classic.
“If you change the shirt, now you need the necklace to be a different length. And so I came up with this idea like we need to make the length adjustable somehow.”Virginia Ellen, of Artists at Heart
The two are also featuring the work of Zionsville resident Charlie Shackelford: an assortment of decorative Celtic wooden trivets.
Szakmeister and Ellen said they shop all over to find the perfect stones and accents to complement the gems. They make their jewelry in their studio, Artists at Heart, located on Greenleaf Street in Allentown.
Their big pull in custom jewelry? Necklaces with semi-precious gemstones and adjustable length. And after lots of requests from inquiring customers, the two banded together to make it happen.
“If you change the shirt, now you need the necklace to be a different length,” Ellen said. “And so I came up with this idea like we need to make the length adjustable somehow.”
Szakmeister said their jewelry is something that the buyer can treasure, especially since each piece is individually made locally.
“We take pride in the fact that everything that we sell is made in the Lehigh Valley. And people give lip service to that, but they don’t realize that it’s not something manufactured, [that] comes in a big box that we can just unpack and sell more.”Mary Szakmeister of Artists at Heart
“We take pride in the fact that everything that we sell is made in the Lehigh Valley,” Szakmeister said. “And people give lip service to that, but they don’t realize that it’s not something manufactured, [that] comes in a big box that we can just unpack and sell more.”
For the chains you’ll find pewter, silver, copper and gold, while the stones can be anything from Amazonite to dragon’s blood jasper to kambaba to jade.
The Gill family — Glen Robert, Elizabeth and Fiona — of New Jersey, were donning their matching Maple Leaf tartan kilts on Friday.
Glen Robert said he’s been attending the event for about 15 years. He said that’s par for the course considering he also teaches Celtic mythology at Montclair State University, but first-year attendees should be sure to check on a few things in particular when coming to Celtic Classic.
“Enjoy the music because I think the Irish dancing is particularly good,” Glen Robert said. “You should try and check out the Highland Games.”
The three agreed: Bethlehem’s a great spot to have an event like Celtic Classic.
“Enjoy the music because I think the Irish dancing is particularly good. You should try and check out the Highland Games.”Glen Robert Gill of New Jersey
“The restaurants are awesome, so you can wander up and get dinner,” Glen Robert said. “ … So you come here and it’s not just the festival, it’s the town.”
Little Fiona said she enjoyed the ice cream shop, wood carvings and jewelry. But she especially liked the Bethlehem Mounted Police, people who bring their dogs to the event as well as the dog statues in the window of the shop at Hotel Bethlehem.
Elizabeth said she always keeps an eye out for a particular baker’s tent that sells shortbread and scones.
Skip Drake, of the Saylorsburg area in Monroe County, was strolling about the festival grounds with his service dog Gilly, an 8-year-old blue heeler.
He said he was part of a bakery tent selling shortbread cookies. He runs Tombler’s Bakery in Williams Township.
He’s no stranger to Celtic Classic himself, as he’s been involved every year since the turn of the century, Drake said.
“You know everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day? Everybody wears a kilt at the Celtic Fest,” he said, laughing.
“You know everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day? Everybody wears a kilt at the Celtic Fest.”Skip Drake of the Saylorsburg area
“The games are interesting to watch and listen to while you’re working, or go check out as much as you can,” he said.
Since the weather was “perfect” last year, Drake said business was the best he had ever seen at the Classic. He recalled 15 years ago or so when the whole event “got flooded out.”
“You take the good with the bad,” Drake said. “But for the most part, every year is a good experience.”
USA Kilts, of Spring City, Chester County, was on-site sharing their products and custom-made possibilities.
Ian Anderson, store manager, started off as a customer but later found a way to join the company as an employee, where he started off sewing and ironing for eight years.
He said USA Kilts has been coming to the Bethlehem festival in particular for over 15 years. The tent was busy throughout the evening.
“We do off-the-rack kilts here at the festival, but we make custom kilts in a variety of tartans, as well as other goods,” Anderson said.
Customers had their choice of jackets and vests, rugby shirts and a newly designed tartan from USA: the Nordic heritage tartan. It was launched by USA for “celebrating the strong connection between Nordic countries and Scotland,” Anderson said.
“Who wants to spend their life in pants, right? You get out of your pants, it’s a good day."Ian Anderson, store manager for USA Kilts
Custom-making a kilt can take anywhere from two hours to a day and a half depending on the specifications involved, he said. But generally, a custom order takes about six to 10 weeks to arrive to the customer since the materials have to be brought in from the United Kingdom.
A warning from Anderson for those looking to order a kilt: your kilt size will be larger than your normal pant size.
“You wear a kilt much higher than you wear your pants; it’s up or even at your belly button,” he explained. “But we also go by measurements, not pant sizes; pant sizes are a lie.
“ … If you wear 34 pants, your actual measurement’s probably more like 36, 37, 38, somewhere in that range.”
The business has sold to every state, Anderson said, but their work is requested internationally, from Brazil, Chad, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Normandy and even the United Kingdom. Anderson said that the last part was ironic.
“Who wants to spend their life in pants, right? You get out of your pants, it’s a good day,” Anderson said, chuckling.
What to expect
As for 2023 and pending the weather, more Highland Games, youth fiddle competitions, dog demonstrations, baking contests, dancing, storytelling, poetry and more are planned to continue through the weekend.
The event's faithful followers are keeping their fingers crossed for the rain to stay tamed. Organizers on Friday announced the Showing of the Tartan Parade — scheduled to begin Saturday morning — was canceled because of the weather forecast.
If you’re a foodie, you’re in luck. The festival spread includes numerous varieties of potatoes whether baked or pancaked, haggis, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, fish and chips, birdies, corned beef and cabbage poutine, and a whole lot more. There's also Guinness galore.
A brief history, weather outlook
This year marks the 36th Celtic Classic, featuring the U.S. National Championships of the Highland Games, one of the largest pipe band competitions on the East Coast, five stages of music, and about 45 Celtic retail merchants and 40 food vendors, according to Celtic Cultural Alliance Executive Director Jayne Ann Recker.
CCA is the nonprofit host organization for Celtic Classic. Recker joined the group in 2009.
With a weekend of normal weather, Recker said the event has been known to bring out about 230,000 people.
Though event officials canceled the Tartan Parade, the festival’s first night on Friday was full steam ahead and the rest is planned to be a rain-or-shine endeavor.
“Until we get a call from the county, we will be open for business,” Recker said.
As of Friday afternoon, it’s been predicted the Lehigh Valley could see up to three inches of rain this weekend.
“Until we get a call from the county, we will be open for business."Jayne Ann Recker, Celtic Cultural Alliance executive director talking about potential storms during the event
LehighValleyNews.com has reported rainfall could result in flooding impacts from North Carolina to New Jersey through Sunday.
Celtic Classic has seen its share of weather troubles in past years.
In 1992, tropical storm Danielle sent three days of rain to Bethlehem, canceling the event’s opening ceremonies. The host group also saw financial troubles following the storm.
Tons of rain affected attendance in 1996, but the year 2000 saw major success and revival with a record attendance of 215,000 alongside the arrival of the new millennium.
Rainfall in 2008 flooded Monocacy Creek and caused more than $100,000 in losses. Remnants of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 flooded festival tents with six feet of water in the days leading up to the event.