BETHLEHEM, Conn. -- This small community calls itself "The Christmas Town" all year long, but during the holiday season, it truly sparkles.
In the month of December, nearly 200,000 pieces of mail pour into the Post Office in this town of about 3,500, from letter writers seeking a Bethlehem postmark along with one of 70 cachets, or decorative stamps, carrying a seasonal greeting.
But the holiday highlight comes on the first weekend of the month, when the annual Christmas Town Festival draws thousands of visitors to the postcard-pretty town green. If the weather cooperates, Bethlehem during the festival can look like a snow-globe town.
"It's a nice way to kick off the whole season and go back to the basics of good country fun," said festival chairman Kathy Haven.
The classic country fun includes ornament making at the 1754 Bellamy-Ferriday House, home of the Rev. Joseph Bellamy, Bethlehem's first minister . This year's festival will feature an Early American theme and costumed volunteers will direct visitors down Main Street to take in events that range from holiday music to spinning demonstrations to hayrides.
The opening ceremony, which begins Friday at 6 p.m., features a candlelight procession and a re enactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in the biblical Bethlehem. Santa shows up later to light the 75-foot Christmas tree set up in the center of the green. A tree decorating contest is a new feature this year.
Benedictine nuns from the Abbey of Regina Laudis are among the more than 70 artisans selling handcrafted gifts at sites throughout town. The abbey, which was the subject of the 1949 movie "Come to the Stables," houses an 18th- century Neapolitan creche that will be available for viewing.
The festival began in 1981 as a small craft fair designed to raise money for Memorial Hall, the community's gathering place, which had been destroyed in a fire the year before.
"After that was so successful, they established a Bethlehem Christmas Town Festival committee," Haven said. "Our sole purpose is still to raise money to offset the cost of maintaining and running Memorial Hall."
A local pewter artist works with the committee to create the town's annual limited-edition holiday ornament, which is sold for $8. The two-person ornament committee keeps the design secret.
"You never tell what the ornament is going to be or how many [will be available] ," said Sue Oullette , 46, a festival committee member and Bethlehem resident for 18 years. Tremendously popular, most of the ornaments are sold before the festival begins.
Jean Smith, 78, a Bethlehem resident for 54 years and former committee member, always receives the first ornament in the edition.
The 1999 ornament is inscribed with her late husband Arnie's name as a tribute to his dedication to the festival. A plaque honoring him hangs in the entrance to Memorial Hall.
At the Post Office, clerks wear sweatshirts imprinted with the design of one of the cachets, which have been introduced each year since 1938. Former postmaster Earl S. Johnson created the first cachet as an addition to a holiday card he sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Shaped like a Christmas tree, it reads: "From the little town of Bethlehem, Christmas greetings."
The cachets and coveted Bethlehem postmark attract holiday well-wishers from all 50 states and as many as 11 countries. The Post Office often receives small packages containing cards with notes asking the postmaster to decorate the cards with the cachets and provide the Bethlehem postmark.
"Kids often come with their grandparents," said Vera Rosa, officer in charge of the Bethlehem Post Office since 2004. "Their grandparents have been coming for 30 to 40 years. They love to tell the story of how far they've come from ."
Caroline Lounsbury, 86, has lived in Bethlehem for 53 years and was a member of the original festival committee. She mails 125 cards, complete with individualized handwritten letters, each year.
"I couldn't mail them without stamping them," Lounsbury said, studying her ink-stained hands. "Remember your fingers will get a little colored; you can't help but get ink on your hands."
Lounsbury always decorates her cards with the same Christmas tree and snowman cachets.
During December, the Post Office becomes one of busiest postal facilities in Connecticut. Visitors from out of state and local customers make new friends and greet neighbors while they wait patiently to sort through the cachets, set out on folding tables.
Diane Hubacz , 44, of nearby Watertown has brought 110 cards to Bethlehem every year for 10 years.
"The out-of-state people love it," Hubacz said. "They think it's nice I go to the trouble to do it." The cachets "always bring up questions. "
The Post Office extends its hours and is open seven days a week during the holiday season.
"I won't get a day off from now until January," Rosa said. "But I live around the corner, so it's OK."
Contact Melissa Robotti at firstname.lastname@example.org .