Small town, homespun Christmas fun in Bethlehem

by Emily Reily
Special to the Union Leader
New Hampshire Union Leader | Thursday, November 23, 2017 | Page E2

Santa arrives on the “Polar Express,” a train fashioned from a Bethlehem resident’s old truck.

Courtesy Chris Whiton, White Mountain Images

Regardless of how much it costs to put together Christmas in Bethlehem, everything, including the food, is always free. Jack Anderson makes sure of that. The soft-spoken Anderson, the town’s fire chief who founded the annual event, wants the celebration to be something everyone can attend, recognizing that the holiday season can be a trying time for some.

“A mother of three that might be really struggling; (she) may not go to an event because kids would be asking for money for this and that. She shouldn’t have to worry about that here,” Anderson said.

Anderson seems to enjoy the entire process that goes into making Christmas in Bethlehem. “If I sound excited about it, I am. I get excited every year. No matter how busy I am, I’m always looking forward to it. I’m always looking forward to the end of it too,” added Anderson, laughing.

“It’s all about community and celebrating the beginning of the Christmas season,” said organizer Angel Larcom. This is her third season planning Christmas in Bethlehem.

Activities for everyone

Christmas in Bethlehem committee members dress in Victorian-era clothes for the annual holiday celebration.

Christmas in Bethlehem committee members dress in Victorian-era clothes for the annual holiday celebration.

Larcom said a new addition is the “shop local” weekend, where participating business will offer store discounts. The post office will also provide their annual Bethlehem stamp for those wishing to mail their Christmas cards from the tiny town.

“They always make sure that that stamp is available through the night and through the festival,” Larcom said.

During Christmas in Bethlehem, the names of the town’s veterans on two memory trees will be read at the village center. There is also a community dinner and a grant-a-wish tree at town hall. And at the giving tree, people can pick a boy or girl
to send a Christmas gift.

“Kids have a great time. We try to give them some sort of a lighted toy. We’ve expanded our entertainment. We do bonfires and even fireworks. But it’s all done by donations,” Anderson said.

Live music will include the Bells of Grace and local talent. A bonfire will warm the crowd, while fireworks will round out activities. About 500 people are expected.

“There will be warm drinks and hot food and fireworks and a bonfire. There will be the reading of the names of the memory
tree, the lighting of our town Christmas tree, a children’s costume parade. There’s different ornament making workshops. There’s a holiday bazaar at the church,” Larcom said.

At the costume parade, children and their pets can get dolled up in the holiday spirit. “Everybody gets to cheer them on,” she said. Larcom said Santa and the Grinch will arrive on the North Pole Express, a fire truck festooned with lights and specially modified with a train engine, as a sort of motorized “train” that will drive down the closed street.

“We have a guy, Phil Bell. He’s got a pretty neat old vehicle that he’s turned into a train; give kids rides in a closed area. They love that,” said Anderson.

Going on eight years now Anderson started Christmas in Bethlehem in 2010. One reason Anderson thought of the event was
obvious: The town of Bethlehem was incorporated on Christmas Day in 1799. “It’s a real small town, sort of homespun  Christmas holiday kickoff,” Anderson said.

Santa and the Grinch share a hug during Christmas in Bethlehem.

Santa and the Grinch share a hug during Christmas in Bethlehem.

“Bethlehem is associated with Christmas. And I just thought it would be a good idea to have a town celebration,” he said. It first began with local talent and a few town decorations, and grew from there. The following year they wanted to add food to
the celebration, but Anderson wanted to make sure the event would still be free.

“I said, ‘OK, if we’re gonna do that, I want it to be free to everybody. That way even the poorest person in town could come and enjoy the same type of evening that the most wealthiest person in town (could). So we did it with donations, and it’s been that way ever since.”

In the past they’ve raised a couple thousand dollars each year, with leftover donations carried over to next year, but people  shouldn’t feel obligated to donate during the festivities. “We try not to do any fundraising at the event. That’s been my  criteria. Some day that may change, when I’m not doing it anymore. I’m really hoping that this event carries way beyond me. I’m very happy to have started it.” Anderson said funds are sought through a letterwriting campaign.

“Our three major contributors to it have been quite good to us over the years, and they’re more than happy to participate,” said Anderson, adding that they also get anonymous donations that go to needy families. He said the event has
been well received despite being on a smaller scale.

Flash mob carolers rehearse before the annual Christmas in Bethlehem celebration.

Flash mob carolers rehearse before the annual Christmas in Bethlehem celebration.

This year they’re hoping for about $2,500, to help upgrade some decorations. “We’d like to enhance it, that’s why we’d like to raise a little bit of money. You know Christmas lights. They have a life of their own. If they wanna work, they work, if they don’t, we have to replace them.”

Anderson also wanted to make sure others were thanked for Christmas in Bethlehem. “We have a lot of good people that help us. It’s not just me,” he said. Christmas in Bethlehem at the “North Pole of the North Country” is Saturday, Dec. 2. There will be activities all day, but evening events run from 5:30 to 8 p.m. For a full list of activities, visit christmasinbethlehemnh.org or
call 575-9077. Christmas in Bethlehem is at 2155 Main St.