“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”