The history of Christmas stamps is an interesting one as there is quite a bit of disagreement of what was the actual first stamp to commemorate the holiday. It really depends on what your definition of a Christmas stamp is. Does the mere words “Christmas” (or similar term) make it a true Yuletide emission? Or is it the pictorial theme of something representing our concept of this festive time of year? Perhaps a true Christmas stamp is the one designed specifically for carrying greetings cards or holiday packages. As we will see, there are several contenders in each of these categories.
Canada released a single two-cent stamp on 7 December 1898 bearing the text “Xmas 1898.” While considered by some to have been the world’s first Christmas stamp, it wasn’t issued to honor the holiday but rather the inauguration of the Imperial Penny Post. The inscription was added to mark the effective date of the new postal rates. An often-repeated story says that when a post office official presented the new Canadian stamp to Queen Victoria, he suggested that it could serve as a tribute to the prince. The official was referring to the then Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VII upon Victoria’s death three years later) whose birthday was 9 November, the date originally selected for the release of the stamp. Queen Victoria is said to have replied, “Which prince?” in a tone that made clear she would not be pleased with a royal connection other than herself. The official quickly replied “the Prince of Peace,” referring to the Christ child.
On 12 December 1937, Austria released two varieties picturing a rose and the signs of the Zodiac. Called “Christmas Greetings” stamps in some philatelic works indicating they were intended to be used on Christmas and New Years cards, there was no inscription to indicate any special use. However, the cachet on the official Austrian Post first day covers state that the stamps were released to be used on “birthday congratulatory letters.”
Two years later, Brazil released four semi-postal stamps with designs featuring the three kings and a star, an angel and child, the Southern Cross and a child, and a mother and child. However, it’s purpose of release was not for Christmas.
On 1 December 1941 Hungary released a semi-postal stamp picturing a soldier and a Christmas leaf. The surtax on the 20+30Filler 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).
Austria issued a stamp in 1948 to commemorating the 130th anniversary of the first presentation of the most famous Christmas carol of all – Silent Night. It was sung for the first time in the tiny hamlet of Obernhof in 1818. According to legend, the church organ had broken down and the local priest asked his friend Franz Gruber to compose a tune for a short song, that he had written. Franz Gruber adapted the tune for guitar and “Silent Night” was born. Some consider this as Austria’s first Christmas stamp.
The next Christmas-themed stamp didn’t appear until Cuba issued designs with poinsettias and bells in 1951. 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.
In 1822 the Rev. Clement C. Moore wrote a light-hearted Christmas poem for his children, a copy of which a family friend, without authorization, offered for publication in the local paper. “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (or “The Night Before Christmas,” as it became known in the twentieth century) helped popularize a distinctly American version of “Santa Claus”, helped along by illustrations by Thomas Nast through the nineteenth century and the commercial drawings by Haddon Sundbloom who in 1931 began a thirty-five year career illustrating a jolly Santa Claus enjoying a Coca Cola beverage at Christmas time.
By the 1950’s, this American image of Santa Claus was well-known throughout the world. It was not the United States, however, that was the first to honor this iconic Christmas symbol with a postage stamp. Cuba issued the first stamp celebrating Santa Claus in 1954. Released in two values (2 centavos and 4 centavos), the stamp showed Santa’s face with the words “Navidad 1954–55” across the lower portion of his full beard. Celebrating Christmas in the American fashion had already become common in Cuba, which also celebrated the traditional Feast of the Three Kings on January 6. Cuban children then received presents on both holidays, the little presents on Christmas and the big ones on the Epiphany (or 12th day of Christmas). After Castro declared Cuba a Marxist state in 1961, the celebration of Christmas was discouraged and in 1969 it was officially abolished. Cuban children were required to ask another bearded man for presents on his “feast day,” July 26, who represented not the promise of salvation but of desolation. Finally, in 1997, after the pope’s visit to Cuba, this Christian nation was allowed to celebrate again the birth of its Savior.
The United States did not get around to issuing a Santa Claus stamp until 1972 and he has remained an irregular visitor to the annual Christmas issue ever since.
Other early Christmas stamps include issues by Haiti in 1954, Luxembourg and Spain in 1955, and Australia, Korea and Liechtenstein in 1957. Australia was the first nation to begin issuing Christmas stamps on an annual basis.
The United States finally issued its first holiday stamp on 1 November 1962 in a dedication ceremony held at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Anticipating a huge demand for the new Christmas stamp, the U.S. Post Office Department had 350 million printed — the largest number produced for a special stamp until that time. The red and green 4-cent stamps featured a wreath, two candles, and the words “Christmas 1962.” The initial supply sold out quickly and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began working around-the-clock to print more. By the end of 1962, 1 billion stamps had been printed and distributed.
The decision to print a Christmas stamp generated some controversy, especially from groups concerned about maintaining the separation of church and state. Legal actions to bar the stamps were not successful. In recent years, the U.S. Postal Service has released stamps marking other religious holidays including Hanukkah (starting in 1996), Kwanzaa (1997) and Eid (2001).
Today, more than 160 postal administrations around the world issue Christmas stamps, many on an annual basis. The largest holdout are the Islamic nations, although the Palestinian Authority has issued holiday stamps since 1995.
There is such a huge variety of images on the many Christmas stamps issued that it is an endlessly enjoyable topic to specialize in, keeping the spirit of the holiday alive throughout the year as you add more items to your collection. Once you include first day covers, maximum cards, holiday-themed cancellations, and even Christmas seals, you will soon find that the possibilities are endless.