BETHLEHEM, MD. -- Inside and out, the tiny general store and post office in this Eastern Shore town overflows with Christmas cards and letters from around the country and beyond.
Outside, the blue mailbox is so full its lid cannot close.
Inside, customers line up at the post office window and thousands of incoming cards are spread onto the store's ice cream freezer and other counters.
"We're really swamped," said Postmaster June Wagner, whose ink-stained hands never stop working as she talks to a visitor. "You need to be a bit agile to get around in here."
The Christmas mailing rush has once again hit Bethlehem, which for the 50th year is canceling postage stamps with the town's name and a separate ink-stamped design of the three wise men. The hand-canceled postmark has become a seasonal favorite of card senders and collectors who want the special holiday theme carried through even to their envelopes.
The flood of mail and visitors each December is a "great change" for the rural crossroads town, which is "usually pretty quiet," Wagner said.
Requests last December totaled 60,000, Wagner said, a comparative deluge for her closet-sized post office booth that normally handles 50 pieces of mail a day.
The flood of cards, the media attention and the calls and letters from philatelists or collectors of envelope designs, called cachets, who want the cancellations can be "overwhelming," she said. Tired and sore, her own Christmas card mailing and shopping have been stalled. "To tell you the truth, we're looking forward to it winding down," she said.
But appreciative comments about the postmark and accompanying design help "boost our spirits" and carry her and helper Lillian Carroll through their task, Wagner said.
The post office also appreciates a burst in income in December, for many people seeking the special postmark also buy postage stamps and that extra revenue probably helps keep the small post office alive, Wagner said.
Located seven miles east of Easton, Bethlehem was founded about 200 years ago, Wagner said, and was reportedly named by a circuit-riding preacher. Its "high estimate" population of 200 works mostly in chicken farming.
When she was 13, said Marjorie Ann Lake, she and her father Max Chambers of neighboring Preston developed the three wise men design as a way to "get recognition for the Bethlehem of Maryland" after hearing of like-named towns elsewhere receiving attention at Christmas.
"Marjorie Ann was always a live one," gathering her schoolmates at the family kitchen table to help with the stamping, her father recalled.
After she went to college, the post office took over the stamping, for which requests had quickly reached the thousands.
About 40 percent of the requests come from people living outside the area, said Jean Chance, who runs the Bethlehem General Store.
"It's the religious significance more than anything" that attracts people, Chance said. "That's why I started getting it done."
But local interest has also recently picked up, most likely from increased media attention, Wagner said.
Helen Christopher, 71, of nearby Federalsburg, said she has known about the special postmark for several years. But her visit this month to the Bethlehem Post Office was her first, because she had been too busy in past years.
"But I said if I lived this year, I was going to do it," she said. "I'd just like my friends to know we have a Bethlehem in Caroline County."
Oxford area resident Mary Jo German also switched post offices in December to come the nearly 15 miles to get the special postmark for her Christmas cards. She recently mailed 60 cards from Bethlehem and then returned days later for two forgotten cards.
"I'm a born-again Christian and it just makes a nice extra touch," she explained.