The holiday season is a busy time for the postal service, with masses of cards and packages being exchanged near and far. Every year, the USPS issues new holiday-themed postage stamps for the billions of holiday cards, letters, and postcards sent by Americans. Along with the new Christmas stamps this year, they are keeping a few old favorites.
When Christmas stamps were first issued in 1962, they became an annual tradition, with the option of “traditional” and “contemporary” stamps becoming available in 1970. Traditional stamps generally depict religious artwork, whereas modern ones feature secular scenes.
With internet communication, social media, and increased shipping costs, there has been a steady decrease in physically posted Christmas cards over the past several years. Yet sending Christmas cards to distant relatives and acquaintances is still a modest tradition and kind gesture that enables loved ones and friends who live far away to keep in touch in a special way to show they care.
Including a Christmas stamp on your card is a charming touch. Ideally, Christmas cards should be sent during the first week of December; however, since Christmas Day is technically the first day of the Christmas season, sending and receiving Christmas cards within 12 days of Christmas is also acceptable.
Early calls for Christmas stamps
In October 1939, the National Association of Postmasters passed a resolution at its annual convention calling for a special Christmas stamp release. As a result, given the possibility that the war in Europe may ultimately “involve the whole of the Christian world,” the postmasters desired that the stamp convey a message of “peace and good will.”
The “inadvertent” effect of preventing the shipping of Christmas cards at third-class postal rates was recognized, but described as “insignificant.” While Christmas Seals were a popular addition to Christmas mail, many consumers expressed a desire for postage stamps that were specifically themed for the Christmas season.
Before the United States Postal Service issued Christmas stamps, some consumers sent holiday greetings to friends and family using Christmas stamp substitutes. Some sent Christmas wishes utilizing a mix of red and green stamps. Others utilized stamps that had holiday-themed designs, such as the 1960 issue celebrating the Fifth World Forestry Conference, which depicted what seemed to be a large Christmas tree, and the 1988 Olympic Winter Games stamp, which depicted a snowflake.
First Christmas stamp
To meet “heavy public demand,” Postmaster General J. Edward Day announced in May 1962 at the COMPEX stamp exhibition in Chicago that the USPS would issue a unique Christmas stamp. On Nov. 1, 1962, in Pittsburgh, during the annual meeting of the National Association of Postmasters, a design featuring a wreath, two candles, and the words “Christmas 1962” was distributed.
Day said it was the most sought-after stamp ever printed and the first in a series of yearly Christmas stamps. The Department originally ordered 500 million stamps, the most significant quantity ever created for a commemorative stamp. But the stamp was in high demand. Thousands of Post Offices sold out in hours, some within minutes.
By the end of November, the Department had increased the printing order to 650 million, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was struggling to keep up. By Dec. 15, over 862 million stamps had been manufactured and issued. The postmaster general’s special assistant, James Kelleher, termed it “the best-selling special stamp ever.”
The following year’s Christmas stamp, picturing the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, shattered sales records again. The Department had 1,291,250,000 additional stamps made to avoid running out of inventory. Sales were high again, with several postmasters reporting 50 percent increases.
Despite their widespread appeal, Christmas-themed stamps did not come without their share of controversy. Some individuals said they were too religious and blurring the line between religion and state, while others felt that the stamp designs were not sufficiently religious. As a means of minimizing controversy, the Post Office Department produced Christmas stamps solely with nonreligious motifs, such as festive greenery, during the first few years after the stamps were introduced.
Several critics said that by eliminating the “reason for the season,” the Department of Homeland Security was commercializing the holiday. The first Christmas stamps to show Madonna and Child, 1966 and 1967, caused even more debate. To avoid controversy, the postmaster general refused to issue the stamp in 1966, stating, “The likeness of the Madonna is a religious symbol commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church; and that, therefore, for the Government to issue such a postage stamp violates the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
To satisfy the opposing parties, starting in 1970, both conventional and modern Christmas stamps were printed each year. The traditional stamp generally featured a renowned Madonna and Child artwork, such as Raphael’s Niccolini-Cowper Madonna or Ignacio Chacon’s Madonna and Child with Bird. Toys, seasonal decorations, and Santa Claus have all been featured on contemporary Christmas stamps. In 2021, the Christmas stamp tradition continues with A Visit From St. Nick. The set has four stamp designs that feature Santa Claus bringing presents on Christmas Eve.
Stamps for other holidays
In the 1990s, the Postal Service issued stamps commemorating new holidays due to an increased focus on honoring the diversity of the American people. Lunar New Year stamps were first in 1992. The first Hanukkah stamp was published by the Postal Service of Israel in 1996 as part of the Holiday Celebrations stamp series. The first Kwanzaa stamp was released by the US Postal Service in 1997, to honor the celebration of family, community, and culture for African Americans. Since then, Eid, Cinco de Mayo, Diwali, and Day of the Dead have also been commemorated on stamps.