The very first Christmas stamp was issued by Canada in 1898. It showed a Mercator projection of the world with the British Empire coloured red beneath the words “Xmas 1898”, and beneath that the legend “We hold a vaster Empire than has been.”
Prince of Peace
There is some controversy around this issue as philatelic folklore has it that it was not intended to be a Christmas stamp but to publisize the introduction of the Imperial Penny Post on Christmas day 1898. Another snippet of legend claims that the stamp was issued to commemorate a winter official visit of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward, later King Edward VII. It appears there was little love lost between the resolutely upright Queen Victoria and the playboy prince.
When presented with the stamp for approval, the Queen is reputed to have asked why there was a need for this special stamp. The reply from the Canadian Post Master General was “To celebrate the visit of the Prince”. Victoria snapped “Which prince?” The quick-thinking PMG immediately answered “The Prince of Peace, ma’am”.
He ordered a slight redesign by engraving the words “Xmas 1898” underneath a map of the world showing the British Empire of the day.
Austria Christmas Stamps
There was an interval of nearly 40 years before the next Christmas stamp issued especially for the Christmas season by Austria in 1937. So perhaps the accolade of the first Christmas themed stamp should go Austrian issue showing a rose and the signs of the zodiac. From this point on the rate of Christmas stamp issues expanded slowly at first but in the manner of these things the pace of issues soon increased.
One year later Brazil issued four stamps for Christmas and included a small charity surcharge. The next issuing country was Hungary in the midst of the Second World War, these again were surcharge with the excess going to “Soldier’s of the War”. Hungary’s stamps were the first with an overtly religious theme showing the nativity.
Cuba Christmas Stamps
There was another gap until the next Christmas stamps in 1951 when Cuba issued a series showing poinsettias, a traditional Christmas plant. From this point it seems that the floodgates had opened and many more Christian countries issued stamps to celebrate the Season of Good Will.
The Rush Begins
Between 1954 and 1957 Haiti, Luxembourg, Spain, Australia, Lichtenstein and even non-Christian Korea issued sets of stamps with a Christmas theme. Now the majority of postal administrations in Christian nations issue Christmas themed stamps.
Islamic countries do not recognise Christmas and do not issue stamps with a Christmas theme; however, the Palestine Postal Administration has issued Christmas stamps since the mid 1990s. This is possibly because they claim the ostensible birthplace of Christ: Jerusalem as their capital.
Like most things associated with Christmas the design and printing of Christmas stamps is almost a year long process that starts in eight or nine months before the release of the stamps for general use. Designs of course will have been submitted earlier than this but plate etching, trials and the printing of proofs start earlier.
The stamps come in a variety of formats, singles, booklets, strips, self adhesives and traditionally gummed ones.
The UK’s Royal Mail alternates secular stamps with religious themes but in 2008 Royal Mail issued both secular and religious themes. Stamps showing the Virgin Mary cradling a swaddled Jesus alongside stamps depicting Pantomime characters.
So from a small beginning in 1898 the Christmas stamp has become a popular and indispensable adornment to the Christmas festivities.