Are you starting to think about Christmas cards? While it might seem a little early to do that, the U.S. Postal Service issued its 2015 Christmas stamps in October. Unlike most previous years, there is no religious Christmas stamp — such as last year’s Magi stamp. This year, we can choose from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and geometric snowflakes.
The first religious U.S. Christmas stamp was issued in 1966: “Madonna and Child” by Hans Memling. (It was issued for two consecutive years.)
Even though Christmas has been celebrated since the 4th century, Christmas stamps — anywhere in the world — date back less than 100 years.
Among stamp collectors, there has been controversy about who issued the first Christmas stamp. Many would claim that honor for Canada. In 1898, Canada issued a stamp that showed a map of Canada and held the caption “XMAS 1898.” However, it turns out that the date indicated its issue time — in December of 1898 — rather than the holiday. The stamp was originally meant to be issued in November that year, to honor the Prince of Wales’ birthday (Nov. 9). However, that did not amuse Queen Victoria and the prince who was honored by that Canadian stamp quickly changed to the Prince of Peace — which meant adding “XMAS 1898” and issuing it around Christmastime.
Several other stamps — Austria in 1937, Brazil in 1939 and Hungary in 1941 — variously claim the title of first Christmas stamp. However, most collectors cite Hungary’s 1943 Nativity scene, issued during World War II, as the first religious Christmas stamp issued in the world.
Since then, countless Christmas stamps have been printed. The Vatican, which has been issuing postage stamps since 1929, also issues Christmas stamps. Its earliest holiday stamp dates back to the 1950s.
Postage stamps themselves do not have a long history, even though mail — mostly by courier or sent along with various travelers — has been with us throughout most of human history. The first regular postage stamp was issued in London in 1840 — the famous “penny black” — depicting Queen Victoria in profile on a black background. (Before that time, recipients — not the mailers — of letters paid the postage upon its arrival.)
Because of the uncertainty of when mail would arrive — because of the uncertainty of all travel — early letters sent among common people (not kings or other government leaders, who had the special couriers) could take a long time.
This leads to a tradition that takes us back to St. Anthony of Padua (d. 1231). Anthony is a well-loved saint and is known as the patron of lost articles. In 1729, a Spanish merchant named Antonio Dante went to Lima, Peru, to set up business. His wife, back in Spain, sent him many letters, but never heard from him. She became more and more worried and lower and lower on funds.
Finally, one day in July, she wrote a letter, took it to the church of St. Francis in the local town (Oviedo). She spent a long time praying before a statue of St. Anthony and then placed the letter in the statue’s hand. According to tradition, she said this prayer: “St. Anthony, I pray to thee; let this letter reach him and obtain for me a speedy reply.”
The next day, she returned only to see the letter still in the statue’s hand. Upset, she began crying out loud, which attracted the attention of the priest or sacristan (the story varies). He told her that he had seen her letter and tried to remove it from the statue, but it would not budge. He then asked her to take it down.
When Senora Dante did so, the letter moved easily and gold coins fell out from under it as well. To her further amazement, she saw that it was not her own letter that she had retrieved, but a letter from her husband.
In his letter, her husband wrote that he had been worried about not hearing from her sooner. He had received her letter from the hands of a Franciscan priest, who promised to deliver his reply and any money he wished to send to her.
The letter still exists at the Franciscan Monastery in Oviedo and it is dated July 23, 1729.
Since that time, the pious tradition of writing S.A.G. on packages and letters — meaning “St. Anthony, guide” — has become common for those praying for a safe and proper delivery of their missives. For many years, stickers with “S.A.G” printed on them were offered by various Franciscan groups. There are some examples to be found on the Internet. For now, you might just want to print “S.A.G.” on your Christmas cards this year.
As for U.S. religious Christmas stamps, you will still be able to buy them this year. After several articles criticizing the lack of a new religious Christmas stamp appeared in late summer and early fall, the U.S. Postal Service responded.
Mark Saunders, spokesman for USPS on postage stamps matters, wrote on Sept. 10 to Tucker Carlson, founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller, an online news and opinion site based in Washington D.C. The Daily Caller had published an article critical of the lack of new stamps. Saunders pointed out that USPS still has plenty of religious stamps from previous years that it will be selling this year. These include: the Madonna of the Candelabra Christmas stamp (2011), the Virgin and Child stamp by Gossaert (2013), and the Holy Family “forever” stamp (2012).
“We have more than a half billion religious-themed holiday stamps in inventory and based on prior year’s purchases, that’s more than twice sold during a typical Holiday season,” Saunders wrote.
The Postal Service also issued a “Neon Celebrate!” stamp on Sept. 9, which can be used for “various happy occasions.” It will also be issuing its Lunar New Year stamp (the Year of the Monkey) in January.
Other religious stamps have also been issued by the USPS over the years:
- a Hanukkah stamp was first issued in 1996;
- the Eid Muslim stamp (translated from Arabic as “blessed holiday”) was first issued in 2001; and
- the first Kwanzaa stamp (considered more a cultural than a religious stamp) was issued in 1997.
Sources: linns.com; stampnews.com; Catholic News Service; Vatican post office at vatican.va; University of Dayton Library at udayton.edu; christmasphilatelicclub.org; postalmuseum.si.edu; miraclesofthesaints.com; dailycaller.com; christianitytoday.com.