Bethlehem post office fire threatens tradition

Shore site may not reopen in time for holiday stamps

November 06, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BETHLEHEM - A fire in this Caroline County crossroads has postal officials scrambling to restore service in time to continue a Christmas ritual that annually draws patrons from throughout the region to have their holiday mail postmarked with the biblical name.

The tiny Eastern Shore post office was shut down Monday after a blaze in a second-story apartment caused smoke and water damage to the building, which also houses a convenience store. Postal workers were able to remove mail as firefighters from nearby towns fought for about an hour to douse the flames.

About 70 postal box-holders who usually pick up their mail in Bethlehem have been sent to the post office in Preston, about four miles away, said Preston Postmaster James Apple.

"Right now, I don't know whether we'll have time to get it back open before Christmas," Apple said. He suggested that, if necessary, the Preston office "might be able to get the rubber stamp from Bethlehem and people can stamp their mail with it here."

Every holiday season since 1938, tourists, local residents and others have crowded into the one-room Bethlehem post office, eight miles from Easton. Weeks before Christmas, as many as 8,000 cards and letters a day are mailed from the town, home to about 150 people.

Following a tradition that residents say started as a Depression-era fund-raiser, patrons usually hand-stamp their cards with an inked image of the Three Wise Men and the star that legend says guided them. Each envelope is then stamped with the postal service's official 21609 ZIP code.

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