How Still We See Thee Lie

December 20, 1992|By WAYNE HARDIN

BETHLEHEM — Out beyond the marshland of the Choptank River lies the little town of Bethlehem -- Maryland's gift to Christmas.

A lighted star marks the spot, hanging over the Route 331-Route 578 intersection. It's a beacon to all those people who want on their Christmas cards the postmark of the town with the same name as the place where Christ was born. Christmas puts the Caroline County crossroads on many travel plans in December -- and Bethlehem's mark on 75,000 holiday cards each year.

All this got started because Marjorie Ann Chambers from Preston, just down the road, thought it was terrible that those other American Bethlehems (in Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, West Virginia) received more Christmas attention than Bethlehem, Md. When she was 14, she created a commemorative design of the three wise men on camels looking for the Christ child. (She's now 68, and her name is Marjorie Ann Lake. She has lived in Seaford, Del., for 40 years but says she gets back through Bethlehem three or four times a year.)

Although it has been transformed through the years, her basic design remains in use today. June Wagner, who has worked for the Bethlehem post office since 1971 and has been postmaster there since 1985, makes two or three rubber stamps and ink pads available on a table in the post office. The sender puts the Bethlehem cachet on the upper left corner of the envelope.

Ms. Wagner also hopes that while you're there, you will buy Christmas postage stamps from her. When you mail the card at her post office, she hand-cancels each Christmas card, adding the treasured Bethlehem postmark.

"It's hectic for us," she says. "But the people enjoy it so much they want to come again."

Sharing the building with the post office is Bethlehem General Store. There, Billie Cohee will sell you a souvenir of your visit.

Her store features all sorts of items celebrating the Bethlehem cachet and star -- including cards, tiny bells, mugs and sweat shirts.

Ms. Cohee, 52, is a one-member task force to keep Bethlehem in the Christmas spirit and vice versa. Last year, she organized the first star-lighting ceremony, the day after Thanksgiving. In previous years, she says, the star was turned on for the season but without a ceremony.

Bethlehem, which has maybe 150 residents, lies in an open area of flat Eastern Shore terrain, broken by a green piney tree line or two. The houses, white frame for the most part, a few businesses, and three churches radiate from the star.

Toward Easton, west of the star, you'll find Carl and Susie Ewing's furniture store. Mr. Ewing, 53, says the furniture is "new, used, antiques and some just plain junk." His brother, W. Francis Ewing Jr., owns a junkyard/used car lot next door.

The Ewing family has left its mark on Bethlehem. Carl Ewing says he built several of the newer houses on the old Ewing farm, which ran up to the intersection. His father, W. Francis Ewing Sr., bought the 1876 Methodist church when it closed and moved it over to Route 331 as a gift to the Catholic church. It's now Holy Child Chapel.

Residents of Bethlehem speak of the town as nice and peaceful. But many of them believe that the tourists who descend on Bethlehem at Christmas probably don't stay long enough to get a real feeling for the community.

Elaine Wranik and the Rev. Glenn Staehli, pastor of the Bethlehem Wesleyan Church on Route 578, have gotten that feeling. Both have the perspective of former city dwellers.

"There's a kindness here, a sincerity of spirit," says Mrs. Wranik, 52, who lives with her daughter and son-in-law, and who used to manage a 320-unit apartment house in Washington. "People care about each other. In my apartment building, it wasn't unusual for next-door residents to not know each other. That's sad."

Says Mr. Staehli, "People here cooperate. If I need something, they're there to help me.

"I grew up in Cleveland, went to school in Cincinnati, worked in Baltimore and Washington. But they got the city out of me jTC quickly down here."


WHO'S BEEN HERE: Visitors from Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Iceland, England and "every state in the Union," have signed the guest book of the general store.

ORIGIN OF THE NAME: Probably given by Methodist circuit-riding preachers, to honor prevailing peace and quiet. There no longer is a Methodist church in Bethlehem.

KENNEDY CONNECTION: In his family history, "From Edentowne Bethlehem," the late W. Francis Ewing Sr. wrote that in 1864 Caroline Ewing married John Vernou Bouvier, and they were the great-grandparents of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, widow of President John F. Kennedy. One of two subtitles of the book: "Caroline Kennedy's Kinfolks."

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