Despite COVID, hope abides in the little town of Bethlehem, Georgia

They come every year to Bethlehem, in a spirit of adoration. The little town of Bethlehem, Georgia, that is.

Crowds gather to behold the live nativity that local actors and volunteers have put on every year since 1963. Some come to send out their Christmas cards, for the seasonally fitting postal stamp.

“Even though it’s not overseas Bethlehem, it still represents the birth of Jesus,” said Gladys Williams, who has lived here for 24 years but has been sending her holiday greetings from the Bethlehem post office for the past 40.

Both coronavirus and Christmas have come to this North Georgia town of about 600 this year, but hope abides despite the pandemic.

Bethlehem First United Methodist Church senior pastor Frank Bernat said the town’s festive traditions have lent a sense of normalcy and purpose after so many months of tumult.

“With everything else they’ve lost this year, I think it’s important to hang onto the things that are most important in your life,” said Bernat, whose flock organizes the annual nativity display. “We haven’t been able to go caroling, we haven’t been able to have the parties we normally have and the social gatherings that we normally are able to do. A lot of families have not been able to do their Christmas gatherings they normally do. But, we’re still going to do the live nativity because it’s important to keep that alive.”

Credit: Sarah Kallis

Credit: Sarah Kallis

Leanne Kider of Monroe came with her family on Tuesday night to join in the outdoor, socially distanced celebration. Her 5-year-old daughter wanted to “see Baby Jesus,” and Kider plans to make the trip an annual family occasion.

“It’s outside, and they’re doing it even with COVID going on, which I thought was pretty cool,” she said.

Bethlehem is in Barrow County, which has seen more than 4,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since March. Its transmission is considered a “substantial spread.” The county’s cases have been trending up in the past two weeks, with an average of 66 confirmed positive cases daily for every 100,000 people.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

As residents await the vaccine with great anticipation, they are glad to see visitors are still coming to the town where streets have names like Manger, Mary, Joseph and Angel. The town’s main strip is Christmas Street.

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“Bethlehem has always been very Christmassy,” said longtime resident Bobby Nash. He moved to the town that sits about halfway between Atlanta and Athens when he was 12 and takes note each year when the post office starts getting busier.

“I’ve met people from even New Hampshire and New York here to get the little stamp for the Christmas cards,” he said.

In addition to the postal stamps and the live nativity, Bernat said, Bethlehem has a strong tradition of giving back to others in the community this time of year. The church and the Barrow County Holiday Connection organize an annual toy drive where donors contribute items and those in need can “shop” for their children, he said.

“My favorite thing about being pastor is the loving community and seeing all the support and care and encouragement that they give to each other,” he said. “I love the simplicity of it, and remembering the true meaning of Christmas and celebrating Christ.”

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