BETHLEHEM — During the Christmas season, state Rep. Tom Riner and his family travel about 40 miles from his inner-city district in Louisville to rural Henry County to get their Christmas cards postmarked in Bethlehem, population about 100.
"I do this because it's truly a historic post office, and it reflects our Christian heritage with its unique pictorial postmark that is associated with Christmas and the birthplace of Jesus Christ," said Riner, pastor of Christ Is King Baptist Church, a church of about 25 in downtown Louisville.
The red-inked holiday imprint from Bethlehem's post office features the Three Wise Men on camels following the Christmas Star. It has adorned Christmas cards mailed from the office since 1947.
Requests for the festive flair for holiday cards come from all over the world. On a recent morning, Postmaster Susan Leopold got requests for the postmark from Iowa, Italy and France.
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Leopold figures the post office handles about 52,000 cards during the Christmas season.
Application of the Bethlehem postmark is done by volunteers, who come to the post office and stamp each holiday card by hand.
Bill Hackett, 80, a retired worker from General Electric who calls Bethlehem home, has volunteered this year to stamp the cards.
Hackett recently sat at a kitchen table in a room next to the one-room post office and postmarked the cards while listening to a radio playing Christmas classics including Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer and Blue Christmas.
"I'm just trying to preserve what's been going on in this town for a long time," he said.
Official postal records show that the Bethlehem Post Office was originally established as Henrico, and John Kephart was named its postmaster in August 1853. Six months later, in February 1854, the town's name was changed to Bethlehem.
Questions linger about whether the town got its name from the birthplace of Jesus or a racetrack in the community called Bethlehem Star. Regardless, local residents figure it had something to do with the biblical town.
Postmaster Anna Laura Peyton started the pictorial postmark in 1947, after a customer from Louisville brought 1,200 cards to the office a few days before Christmas.
It became a hit, especially after CBS Evening News did a segment about it in 1996.
Leopold added to the pictorial postmark the words "from Bethlehem since 1947" when she became postmaster in 2005.
So far, the Bethlehem post office has avoided consideration of being closed by the U.S. Postal Service to help slash costs. Six other states have a Bethlehem post office, and the one in Indiana is on a hit list.
Leopold keeps the Henry County office running 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday from with the help of employee Kathy Truax.
"We need this post office," said Zelma Winchester, 84, a daughter of postmaster Peyton, who ran it for 45 years. "It's the only place around here for everybody to greet each other, to keep up with the news.
"Even though the closest other post office is 5 miles away in Pleasureville, this post office serves a large part of Henry County. Its customers love it," Winchester said.
Rep. Riner, 65, a Democrat, is among that group.
He was about 12 when his mother, Frances Riner, an artist, encouraged him to send hand-made Christmas cards from Bethlehem to customers on his newspaper route in Shelbyville to show his appreciation and remind them of the meaning of Christmas.
He has maintained the tradition.
Riner said he uses his own funds to purchase postage from Bethlehem for his legislative surveys and other mailings to his constituents.
Last year, he got Gov. Steve Beshear and state Treasurer Todd Hollenbach Jr. to send their holiday cards through the Bethlehem post office.
Earlier this month, Riner and his wife, Claudia Riner, a former state representative, sat at the small kitchen table in the post office with volunteer Hackett and stamped the Bethlehem imprint on dozens of their Christmas cards.
"This means a lot to me," Riner said. "Our children used to sit around this table and help stamp our cards from this very important place."