Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in the world, with more than 2 billion followers. It has been 121 years since the issue of the first Chirstmas Stamp
The stamp is the 1898 Canada two-cent with the Mercator map. (Gerhardus Mercator was the most notable geographer of his time, and his world map of 1569 won lasting fame.) Most often called the ‘Map’ stamp or the Imperial Penny Postage issue, the stamp also gets credit for being the first ever Christmas stamp.
At the Universal Postal Union conference in Washington, in 1897, British Empire delegates, especially Canada’s Postmaster General Honorable (later Sir) William Mulock, lobbied to get an overseas penny postage rate among Empire nations. He lost that battle, but in July 1898, he was in Britain with a new proposal and much determination.
The decision was not exactly what Mulock wanted, but a resolution at the July 1898 conference allowed Empire countries to opt into an Imperial Penny Postage rate if they chose to do so. Canada made the move to be effective on Christmas day 1898. That, however, did not cause the two-cent to be the first Christmas stamp.
At the time, stamp designs for the colonial countries had to be approved by Queen Victoria. The story goes that a post office official in discussing the new Canadian stamp for the Imperial Penny Postage rate (two cents) with Her Majesty said the new stamp could serve as a tribute to the prince. The official was referring to the then-Prince of Wales whose birthday occurred on November 9, the original date selected to release the stamp.
Queen Victoria, who had her gruff moments, is said to have replied “Which prince?” in a tone that suggested she would not be pleased with a royal connection other than herself. The official quickly said “Why, madam, the Prince of Peace,” referring, of course, to the Christ child. As a result, the stamp when it was officially released on December 7, 1898, bore, not only Mercator’s map, but also the words “XMAS 1898”. It now ranks as the first Christmas stamp in the world, and it was not until 1964 that Canada commenced a regular run of Christmas stamps.
The map stamp was reissued as a stamp-on-a-stamp by Canada Post for its centennary last year. The same stamp commemorated the memory of Sir William Mulock.
Countries were slow to issue specifically-designed Christmas stamps. The next nation with Christmas stamps was Austria in 1937 with two stamps often referred as Christmas Greeting Stamps. The stamps feature a rose and zodiac signs. Brazil issued four semi-charity stamps in 1939 depicting the three Kings and the star, an angel and child, a southern cross and child, and mother and child.
On 1 December 1941 Hungary released a semi-postal stamp picturing a soldier and a Christmas leaf. The surtax on the 20+30 Filler value was intended to pay for “soldiers’ Christmas”. The first stamps to depict the Nativity were a set of three released by Hungary issue of 1943. The country didn’t follow up with another holiday issue until 1988.
In 1944 Germany released a non-valued stamp which was to be used to send Christmas packages to soldiers on the front lines and from there back again. Also that year, the German garrison at Rhodes overprinted local stamps with the inscription “Weichnachten” (Christmas).
It would be 10 years before Cuba issued its two-stamp set of Poinsettia and Bells. On Dec. 1, 1951, Cuba printed two stamps that actually promoted Christmas. The stamps, 1 and 2 centavos, depicted a poinsettia and the word ”Navidades,” Spanish for ”Christmas season.” Three-fourths of the proceeds from the stamps went to the Communications Ministry employees`pension fund.
That year also saw the first appearance of Saint Nicholas on a stamp issued by France on which he is shown in an eighteenth-century print by Jean-Charles Didier bringing the three murdered children back to life. Haiti followed in 1954 with two stamps – Fort Nativity and Star of Bethlehem. As the 1950s progressed, Luxembourg and Spain produced Christmas stamps in 1955 while Liechtenstein, Korea and Australia started what has become a fashion with Christmas issues in 1957. Australia was the first nation to begin issuing Christmas stamps on an annual basis.
The U.S. issued its first Christmas stamp in 1962. The first stamps showed Christmas wreaths and trees, but then the designs became more religious symbols, largely as a result of lobbying by a Waterbury, Conn., railroad worker. After protests about the separation of Church and State in the late 1960s, the Post Office Department began issuing both “traditional” [religious] and “contemporary” [non-religious] Christmas stamps. The religious stamp, in almost every year since the Post Office Department was reorganized as the government-owned corporation U.S. Postal Service, has portrayed a painting of the Madonna and Child.
The cross connection of Christmas; Royal Mail and India
Early in November 2005 the UK Royal Mail produced its annual set of commemorative Christmas stamps, themed on a classic Christmas subject, but with a modern, multicultural twist.
The various stamps were designed around images of the Madonna and Child drawn from European, Haitian, Italian, Indian, Native American and Aboriginal artworks. Royal Mail stated the images were ‘culturally diverse yet all equally significant’, and the designer of the set, Irene von Treskow, stated that ‘the challenge was to go beyond the predictable’.
The unpredictability of this set of stamps extended to its reception. The Indian reference in the set was to a Mughal-style painting, dating from about 1620 and by an unknown artist, on the 68-pence stamp depicted the holy family with St Anne and an Angel.
The family is made up of a darkhaired man and woman with tilaka markings on their foreheads—identifiable in a contemporary context as signifiers of Hindu-ness—cradling a blond-haired baby Jesus.
Several Hindu organisations complained vigorously to the Royal Mail that the stamp was insensitive to the feelings of the Hindu community in Britain; additionally, as 68 pence was the price of a standard letter to India, it was argued that the stamp might inflame a politically sensitive situation by being read there as an attempt to convert Indians to Christianity.
The Royal Mail initially refused to act, perhaps confident in its multicultural credentials as displayed on the stamps. Rather rapidly, however, it changed its strategy, withdrawing the stamp from open sale within a week of its issue (although it was still available on request), apologising for any unintentional offence and pledging that it would not reproduce the stamp after its first print run was exhausted. This followed a short but concerted campaign by the Hindu community.
Gaffs around Christmas Stamps
Over time there have been a number of errors, freaks and oddities relating to Christmas stamps.
Here are a few interesting design :
The subject matter of this 1974 Australian Christmas aerogramme is rather inopportune. The image is based on the Doomsday Angel from Durer’s woodcut The Whore of Babylon.
David Gentleman’s 1973 UK Christmas design has King Wenceslas gathering wood in a totally treeless area.
This 1982 UK Christmas stamp proclaims “While shepherds watched…..” however, a closer inspection shows the shepherds totally ignoring their flocks.
Did you know ?
In 1843, three years after the appearance of the first postage stamp-the 1-penny black of Britain-the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London sent Christmas greeting cards to friends.
The cards were designed by an artist friend of the director and featured three panels: The right and left panels depicted scenes of feeding the hungry and clothing the needy, and the center panel showed a family participating in a holiday toast.
A four-line message printed across the center panel read ”A Merry Christmas/and/A Happy New Year/To You.”
This is considered the first Christmas greeting card.