How The First Christmas Stamp Came To Be

Michael O. Nowlan - July 14, 1999
 

There are now thousands of Christmas stamps from around the world, but the origin of the first Christmas stamp continues to be a mere curiosity. Nonetheless, the story is still intriguing 100 years after the stamp's issue. 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 referred to in the Stanley Gibbons catalogue 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. Hungary gets next in line with a Soldier's Christmas semi-postal depicting a soldier and emblem (1941).

It would be 10 years before Cuba issued its two-stamp set of Poinsettia and Bells. 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.

The United States got on the roll in 1962 with its four-cent Wreath and Candles stamp, a tradition with the U.S. post office that has not been broken since. Today, the USPS issues several Christmas stamps each season. The Christmas stamp has a rather unusual beginning, but it is a story worth relating because it was the start to one of what has become a very popular topical interest today. There is a Christmas Philatelic Club, a Christmas Stamps of the World handbook published by the American Topical Association, and countless other efforts to promote the sale and collection of stamps that relate to the biggest celebration of the year.

Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for Canadian Stamp News, Gibbons International Stamp News, and other philatelic publications.

Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.



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