BETHLEHEM, Ky. (RNS)--Betty Moody takes a lot of pride in all her angels. Amber, Josh, Belinda and Teresa -- Moody's grandchildren -- take the compliment seriously. That's because from Dec. 22-25 every year, they are angels for this Henry County village's Christmas pageant centered around a live Nativity scene, replete with livestock, manger, wise men, angels and townsfolk. All very appropriate for a town named Bethlehem -- one of at least 28 so-named villages across the country that bear the moniker of Jesus' birthplace. Perched on the gently rolling hills about an hour's drive east of Louisville, this Bethlehem annually welcomes about 2,000 visitors from across the United States and Canada to see the pageant. Bethlehem is just a bend in the road, really, with a post office and general store. But members of this tiny farming community hold dearly their tradition of celebrating Jesus' birth by gathering family and friends and re-enacting their own interpretation of the first Christmas Day. For the past 43 years, members of three local churches have donned shepherds' cloaks, angels' haloes and the richly colored robes of the three wise men as they reconstruct one of the most beloved scenes in Christianity. Recreating the scene for four days in December is a monumental task. But it's one that everyone has been proud to participate in since its beginnings. Help abounds from local residents. Local farmer Tom McClain brings in a few sheep for the Nativity scene every year, and others loan the community a cow and burrows. Long-time resident Math Martin, 74, still helps erect the rough-hewn logs at the beginning of December for the manger setting. Alvin Lee Roberts takes care of advertising, and Kevin Croxton directs the entire affair. "Everyone's really proud to participate in the Nativity," Betty Moody said.
The rich Christmas tradition in Bethlehem, Ky., also extends to its mailing address: the village has its own special Christmas postmark, designed years back by former postmistress Anna Laura Peyton, who half a century ago used her front parlor as the community's post office, according to her son, Cecil Peyton, the village's recently retired postmaster. The post office is run part-time now, Moody said, but it is open during the Christmas season to make its famous postmark. Every year, thousands of pieces of Christmas mail are stamped with the special image of the Three Wise Men on the Bethlehem postmark. Peyton said visitors often will come by to have their mail given the special mark, then visit briefly at the Nativity scene. It's a chance for visitors to enjoy the village's history and heritage. Opel Heightchew, who has written historic pieces about Bethlehem over the years, said that Bethlehem's happy marriage to the Christian celebration was born sometime after the turn of the 20th century, when village farmers changed the name of the village from Mobley's Stand to its present name. "Nobody's really sure how it did get the name," she said, "but it's been Bethlehem since the early 1900s." Betty Moody noted that her 96-year-old mother, Fanny Spear, remembers a story about town fathers naming the village after a Kentucky racing horse named Bethlehem Star. But, as is often the case with folklore, nobody can prove the tale one way or another. Regardless of the name's genesis, a tradition of recognizing Jesus' birth in this Bluegrass byway was begun. "Years ago, one of the pastors in a local church thought it would be a good idea to have some kind of recognition of our namesake town where Christ was born," Moody said. "So people here all got together, and we came up with the idea of doing the live Nativity scene. That first year, we wore bathrobes or whatever we could get our hands on. It's improved every year since." "We've had people come from all over the country to see the Nativity," history buff Heightchew said. "They come by the busloads, and we try to have it set up so they can pull off the road and walk right up to the scene. The actors are asked to be as still as possible, and one year, a woman was startled when she realized that the `figures' in the scene were live actors." Altogether, about 200 people are involved in putting on the Nativity each year, Moody said. Already crews have begun construction of the manger, and schedules for actors are being drawn up.
"We're all ready for it again," Moody said. "This is a lot of preparation and work to get it all done, but come Dec. 22, we'll have our live Nativity here for all to see."