With her Christmas cachet, a teenager made tiny Caroline County post office famous
BETHLEHEM — When Preston High School junior Marjorie Ann Chambers first stamped the famous Bethlehem cachet on a batch of collectible Christmas envelopes, she left an indelible mark that has endured for 80 years.
The cachet design has changed about three times since 1938, but the three wise men on camelback focused on the star above the biblical town of Bethlehem are still stamped by patrons of the post office in Bethlehem, the rural village in Caroline County.
“I’ve been here every year ever since I was a little girl,” said Debbie Mills of East New Market. “It’s a tradition. It’s something my mother started. She still does it, and she’s 85.”
Chuck Bealefeld, originally from Cordova and now a resident of Rehoboth Beach, Del., drove more than an hour to mail the nearly 50 cards his wife addressed at home.
“It’s just something I started doing years and years ago,” he said.
Bealefeld thumped the Wise Men stamp onto a red-inked stamp pad, one of four in the tiny lobby. Then he carefully positioned it over the left-hand side of each envelope, imprinting them with the historic cachet.
Other customers like a couple from Felton, Del., spread out their cards on a table or counter covered with festive red and green vinyl tablecloths topped with Christmas decorations.
When 15-year-old Marjorie Ann conceived the idea as a Depression-era fundraiser, her father Max was the longtime editor of the Preston-based
News and Farmer newspaper, and James R. Christopher was the postmaster in the nearby village of Bethlehem, or as locals pronounce it, “Bethlum.”
“She thought we ought to have something special to celebrate our little town of Bethlehem,” said Bethlehem native June Hopkins Wagner, who was the village’s postmaster from 1985 to 2001.
“So (Marjorie and Max) designed the envelopes with a Christmasy design and inside was a little leaflet with a Nativity picture, and it told about Bethlehem in Israel and also told about our little town of Bethlehem,” Wagner said. “People would mail in and get (an envelope) sent back to them for a few cents, and some of her teenage friends would help her, and they would mail them out and have them postmarked in Bethlehem.”
According to local legend, the tiny crossroads community formerly known as Brannock’s Crossroads was renamed Bethlehem by Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury near the turn of the 19th century. The post office was established in 1866, according to one account. Today, drivers pass through town under a lighted star suspended over the intersection.
Marjorie Ann wanted to draw attention to the town’s unique name by enticing stamp collectors to purchase the postmark for a few extra cents and receive a cachet, or distinguishing mark, on the envelope along with the stamp cancelled “Bethlehem, Md.” For the first few years, the cancellation date was Dec. 25. Enclosed in the envelope was a leaflet summarizing both the biblical and Maryland Bethlehem stories.
A copy of the original envelope with the cachet is posted in Dickie Christopher’s scrapbook.
“She worked with my grandfather on this,” Christopher said. He is vice president and acquisitions chairman of the Preston Historical Society. He said he will bequeath his scrapbook to the society’s museum.
James R. Christopher ran the post office out of his home, as most small town post offices were back then.
“I was about that high and a big pest hanging around,” Dickie Christopher said, holding his hand at knee height and laughing often as he reminisced. The house no longer stands, but it was located on the east side of Dover Road at the southern end of the village.
“People would send him packages of Christmas cards, and they’d want them all stamped and sent out from there,” Christopher said. “That kept them rolling.”
A Dec. 24, 1938, newspaper article reported that “a steady stream of philatelists’ mail arrived today ... from New Zealand, the Philippine Islands, Bermuda, Wales and Newfoundland.” The article went on to say that the cachet “bearing the inscription ‘Peace on earth, greetings from the little town of Bethlehem, Maryland, Christmas Day, 1938,’ has attracted several hundred subscribers.”
J.R. Christopher continued the practice until he became too ill to continue. The cachet was not stamped in 1945, according to one newspaper account.
“The leaflets were put out by the church (who) got aboard. I don’t think that had anything to do with the ‘catch-its,’” said Christopher, eschewing the French pronunciation. “Marjorie was the little girl who put everything into it and got it going. But it was her idea, and Pop just helped her along with it.”
Marjorie Ann’s project quickly garnered national attention. Newspapers from Alaska to Hawaii to Florida picked up on the story. Newspapers at first, and later television stations, picked up wire stories or trekked to Bethlehem to capture the romance of the tiny village’s cachet through the years.
Even after her graduation from Preston High School, Marjorie Ann and her friends sent out leaflets and stamped the cachet during Christmas break in college. Christmas card senders and stamp collectors from all over the world still send their packets of Christmas cards to be stamped with the cachet and postmarked from Bethlehem.
Eventually, the post office moved into the picturesque country store that occupied the same corner lot as the present post office and adjoining consignment shop.
Wagner still lives nearby. She worked for the post office for 30 years beginning in 1971, and as postmaster from 1985 to 2001. She, too, has a collection of articles about the Christmas cachet and the post office.
“We used to get a lot of media attention (especially) in the old country store.” Wagner said. “A girl going out the door one day said, ‘Just like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”
The post office occupied “about a 7-by-9-foot little section behind the counter,” Wagner said. “It used to be the store owner was the postmaster, and we had these little pigeon holes you put the mail in. We used to expand into the store during the Christmas season — we’d have to use part of the store, the back room, and just spread out. People coming in and stamping their cards and spreading them out on the ice cream cabinet or whatever to stamp them.”
People used to send packets of cards from out of town to be stamped by postal employees, but “there’s not as much of that as there used to be,” Wagner said. She said that rising stamp prices and electronic communication has diminished the volume of Christmas cards going through the post office.
“We used to be really swamped,” she said. “They used to say we did about 85,000 cards a year. It was very hectic. And then we used to hand-stamp all of them. When I started, the employees used to do all the hand-stamping. We stamped the wise men and we put the postmark — all done by hand. But after I became postmaster, I initiated having people stamp their own.”
Tammy Hayman Coulbourne, a director of the Preston Historical Society whose great-grandparents lived next door to the post office, said she’s “emotionally attached” to it. She’s afraid the U.S. Postal Service will eventually close it. Five years ago, the post office was assigned reduced hours.
Although Marjorie Ann Chambers Lake of Seaford, Del., passed away in late 1993, just three months before her husband George, her legacy lives on.
“I think receiving a card in the mail this time of year, especially with this technology world we live in is a special thing,” Mills said. “Even for a person to get a get well card or a happy birthday card instead of a Facebook or text message.”
On Thursday, Dec. 6, Kerri Brandow, postmaster of Bethlehem and Preston post offices, donned vinyl gloves and flipped the switch on a blue, suitcase-sized machine. It whirred loudly while Brandow fed batches of about a dozen cards upside-down through a slot. The machine issued a sharp slap on each envelope that cancels the postage and adds the local postmark.
Wagner said postal patrons went out of their way to seek out the Bethlehem cachet and postmark.
“They really seemed to enjoy it,” she said. “It’s really something extra, something special, and the people that received them — I think they looked forward to it. They expected it year after year.
“Actually, it keeps the spiritual meaning because it seems like there’s not so much of that anymore,” Wagner said. “Jesus is the reason for the season, which is very true. There wouldn’t be Christmas without the birth of Jesus.”
This newspaper clipping shows 15-year-old Marjorie Ann Chambers of Preston in 1939 after her Bethlehem, Md., cachet captured national attention.
Even Santa Claus mailed his Christmas cards on Dec. 2 from Bethlehem, Md.
Current postal customers stamp their own cards with the “cachet” of the ancient wise men journeying towards the star of Bethlehem.