By Gregg Mangan
Nestled in a quiet section of Litchfield County lies the picturesque town of Bethlehem, Connecticut. Named after the birthplace of Jesus, the town’s history is one steeped in religion. Bethlehem was the site of the first theological seminary in the United States and is home to the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a monastic community of contemplative Benedictine women. Despite these attractions, what perhaps draws most visitors to Bethlehem is its designation as “Connecticut’s Christmas Town.”
Each year the Bethlehem Post Office processes hundreds of thousands of letters and Christmas cards during the month of December. People from all over the world forward mail to Bethlehem to receive special Christmas cachets and a Bethlehem post mark.
How It Began
It all started in 1938. A week before Christmas, Bethlehem postmaster Earl Johnson decided to send out a Christmas card with a drawing of a little tree on the envelope and the words, “Merry Christmas from the little Town of Bethlehem.” Hearing about this innocuous gesture of holiday spirit, Johnson’s uncle wrote a story about it that ended up published in the Chicago News and, later, in the New York Herald Tribune. Suddenly, the volume of mail coming through Bethlehem skyrocketed.
Over the following decades, people came to Bethlehem from all over New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to get the “Bethlehem” postmark on their holiday mail. In addition, Johnson provided cachets (at his own expense), for application to customers’ envelopes. These festive stamps featured numerous different designs, including one that read, “The Christmas Town.”
A Tradition Begins
The little post office on Main Street soon became overwhelmed. During the 1950s and ’60s the Bethlehem post office handled over 200,000 pieces of mail every December—a volume 1,000% higher than the rest of the year. The town stationed police officers at the post office to control traffic, and Johnson set up an unofficial postal substation nearby where volunteer Grange workers stamped the festive cachets on outgoing mail.
By the time Johnson retired in 1974 at the age of 70, he had processed Christmas mail rerouted through Bethlehem from all 50 states, Canada, Japan, England, Germany, Israel, Sweden, and Italy. After his retirement, the Christmas postal tradition continued, with the United States Postal Service taking responsibility for providing the town’s Christmas cachets—many of them designed by local artists.
It was also shortly after Johnson’s retirement that the town began another annual tradition. While the Bethlehem green traditionally bore lights, a Christmas tree, and a nativity scene every holiday season, in 1981, the town held its first Christmas Town Festival. This tradition carries through to the present day, offering things to eat, hayrides, music, and a chance to witness Santa Claus appear on the town green to officially light the town Christmas tree.
Gregg Mangan is an author and historian who holds a PhD in public history from Arizona State University.