Bethlehem — Bethlehem -- Jim Franke isn't sure when it happened.
But somewhere along the line, he realized that Christmas just doesn't feel like Christmas until his holiday cards bear the biblical postmark and stamped-in-ink nativity scene that draws hundreds to the two-room Eastern Shore post office here each year.
"Oh, it must be 30 years now," recalled Franke, 59, a retired research engineer from Easton. "It's such tradition; it's a part of Christmas. I don't remember starting to do it, but I don't remember not doing it. It's really the point of Christmas."
Every December, folks like Franke begin arriving, clutching stacks of holiday cards. They line up to receive the official Bethlehem postmark, then take their mail to a nearby table to hand-stamp every envelope with the familiar image of a bright star and the wise men astride camels.
The village of 150 includes a couple dozen houses, two car repair shops and a discount store that shares half of a nondescript metal building with the post office, about 10 miles from Easton in Caroline County.
A faded star hangs year-round above the intersection of Dover Bridge Road and Harmony Road. A portrait of the Virgin Mary hangs on a wall outside the post office.
Karen Durham, the postmaster here for almost six years, says the special imprints increase business 10-fold every year.
She hasn't tallied all the numbers yet, but from Dec. 4-16, she and a part-time clerk have processed almost 37,000 pieces of mail.
Durham, 56, says that on a normal day, the post office would handle perhaps 220 pieces of mail.
Collectors from around the country and overseas send self-addressed envelopes and postcards, asking Durham to mark them with the twin Bethlehem images.
"It's a lot of work, but it's something we enjoy," said Durham, 56. "You've got to want to be here, and the people have to want to come. As long as the customers are patient, it doesn't seem like work."
Patrons still get help from former postmaster June Wagner, 63, who lives three doors down from the post office where she worked for 30 years.
Wagner turns up most afternoons and volunteers to help people stamp cards. She keeps the radio tuned to nonstop Christmas music. Wagner also is responsible for carefully covering two desks in the lobby with colorful Christmas wrap.
The tradition, Wagner says, began in 1938, when a teenager from nearby Preston came up with the idea of embossing a nativity scene with the town's name on envelopes as part of a charity fundraiser.
A few years later, the image was revised, adding the three wise men. Its popularity never seems to fade.
Wagner's brother-in-law, James Bailey, lives nearby and spends a few hours each morning in the cramped lobby, helping keep the ink pads fresh and bantering with customers.
"People from all over the country come in every year," said Bailey, 72. "I've always meant to start writing it down, where they're from. It would make an interesting list. This is what puts Bethlehem on the map."
Connie Eskridge, who grew up on a produce farm a few miles from here, spent nearly an hour yesterday, diligently stamping and sealing 65 cards.
It is a ritual that marks the season in a way she finds reassuring in a culture she said seems more concerned with material gifts.
"This is what Christmas is all about, at least to me," said Eskridge, 57. "It's about the star, the wise men, the baby Jesus. I wonder sometimes if children even know why we give gifts. It's right here - it's because the wise men came with gifts."
Maureen Frase lives just a few miles away, outside Easton. She has made the Bethlehem Post Office a part of her holiday for more years that she can count, a visit that always seems to set the right tone.
"We never miss this, because it reminds you what Bethlehem is supposed to mean," said Frase, 72. "You feel like a part of the real Christmas spirit. This is the real Christmas that I love."