Most people have heard of the “Penny Black”, issued by Great Britain in 1840 as the world’s first postage stamp. However, we were not the first to issue a festive Christmas stamp. That distinction belongs to Austria with a 1937 commemorative stamp. Our first GB Christmas stamps appeared in 1966, the same year that England won football’s World Cup and a young Tom Jones was a hit on Top of the Pops. The boldly designed stamps were the winning entries from a schools’ competition announced by the Postmaster General, Tony Benn. The designs, chosen from around 5,000 entries, were King of the Orient (3d stamp) and Snowman (1/6d). Both child artists were just 6 years old! Not everyone thought getting children to design stamps was a good idea and it was not repeated until 1981 when five stamps by children aged 5 – 16 were issued following a “Blue Peter” competition.
An ongoing debate about Christmas stamp designs has revolved around the wishes of Christians and others who wish to see an emphasis on the birth of Jesus and those who prefer the images of holly, festive food, presents and a jolly red-faced Father Christmas. The official policy has been to have a balance, some years with a nativity theme, other years with secular subjects. After the children’s designs of 1966, the next year’s issue reproduced classic paintings of the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Madonna and Child. One of the problems with such paintings is, of course, size. Stamps rarely exceed 4 x 3 cms, hardly suitable for clearly showing a broad canvas dominating a picture gallery wall. And today’s 1st and 2nd class Christmas stamps are now half the normal size.
The first overtly non-religious stamps were the 1968 trio showing children playing with their Christmas presents – we know that because there is a vertical “Happy Christmas” greeting included in the design. The next secular issue came 12 years later with beautifully drawn Christmas decorations but, even then, Christian symbols like the star and crown were evident in some of the designs. Pantomime characters, a Dickensian Christmas and, more bizarrely, Wallace and Gromit have featured on other secular issues.
In the 1970s there was a succession of Nativity-based stamps. The 1971 issue (the first to show decimal currency) reproduced stained glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral, beginning a theme of showcasing the splendours of some of our cathedrals and churches. In 1974 medieval roof bosses from York Minster, Worcester Cathedral and churches in Norfolk and Devon featured. Stained glass windows from churches in southern England and south Wales appeared again in 1992.
Carol singing straddles both Christian and secular themes. Six stamps based on Good King Wenceslas appeared in 1973 and, 4 years later, another six stamps were issues interpreting the Twelve Days of Christmas. Move on another 5 years and the first lines of five popular carols were colourfully illustrated. One unique subject was celebrated with a set of Christmas stamps only 5 years ago: the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Some of you may recall the stamps which carried images inspired by the accounts of the Nativity in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Each stamp helpfully referred to the verse in which its image appears.
By the time you read this, you may be familiar with this year’s set of Christmas stamps. They feature beautifully designed snowy landscapes of sculpted white paper. However, it is possible to purchase what are called “religious” stamps from larger post offices. Whatever your preference, have a happy and meaningful Christmas!