A History of American Holiday Stamps

Posted on December 24, 2014
by Chris West

We’re all so used to holiday stamps that many people don’t realize they are a reasonably modern introduction. The first one dated from 1962—when people talked of Christmas, not ‘Holiday Season’.

The second one should have been special, being one of the first US stamps designed by a woman. Lily Spandorf was a renowned painter of Washington DC, and her 1963 seasonal stamp shows the White House Christmas tree, with 1600 Pennsylvania Ave in the background. The lights are on in the presidential residence: the first family is at home.  Sadly, of course, the stamp tells a much darker story. It was issued on November 1st. JFK was assassinated 22 days later. However, people still had to use this stamp to send Christmas cards. Over a billion had been printed and they had to be used up.

Controversy surrounded the Christmas issue from early on. Critics said that holiday stamps commemorating a religious festival violated the ‘Establishment’ clause of the First Amendment. Legal opinion was sought by the Postmaster General, which held that they did not. Still, that didn’t stop the debate.

The equation of ‘traditional’ with ‘religious’ does not please everyone, as they seem to imply that religion is a historical thing, with no relevance to the modern world. The USPS has to tread a careful path between people with strong views on both sides of the religious/secular debate

1965’s stamp, carefully selected to show an angel—a feature of many religions, not just Christianity—was criticized because some people said it was hard to tell the gender of the flying creature.Holiday Stamps

An easier way of avoiding purely religious overtones was to use classic art on the holiday stamps: the critics could be told the stamp was a celebration of culture. 1966’s featured a Madonna and Child by the 15th century Flemish artist Hans Memling. This proved so popular that the picture was reused in 1967. Other old master holiday stamps followed.

In 1970, two stamps were issued, one “traditional” and one “contemporary”, for which read one Christian and one secular. This solution is the one that continues to this day. The Christian ones continued the tradition of featuring paintings. The secular holiday stamps stopped mentioning Christmas and started saying ‘Seasons Greetings’ in 1981; now they normally don’t have words on at all.

In the 1990s, America began to think more about diversity, and during that decade, stamps were issued celebrating festivals of specific communities. The first of these was Chinese New Year. A stamp was issued celebrating the Year of the Dog, which began on Dec 30, 1992. For the next eleven years, stamps with similar designs, by Hawaiian artist Clarence Lee, celebrated the other Chinese zodiac creatures. Based on traditional paper-cuts, this set of 12 is a collectors’ favourite.

A seasonal stamp of the White House Christmas tree in 1963 by Lily Spandorf followed in 1966 by a more classic stamp featuring the art of Hans Memling.

1996 saw the introduction of a Hanukkah stamp. The following year, the first stamp appeared for Kwanzaa, the celebration of African heritage in the last week of the year. On September 1st 2001, the first stamp in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr came out. This last series has attracted negative comment from some people, who perhaps need to be reminded that Islam is the third largest faith in America.

Each of the above festivals now has annual holiday stamps to celebrate them (though there was no new Christmas issue in 2000, as the USPS had printed too many 1999 ones and still had enough left over).

There is currently a petition for the USPS to issue a stamp for the next Hindu festival of Diwali, in November 2015 (see www.diwalistamp.com ). A number of other nations already issue, or have issued, such a stamp, including Britain, Canada, Israel, Malaysia, Singapore, Trinidad, South Africa and Indonesia—as well as India, of course.

This year, along with the stamps celebrating the different faiths above, we have Rudolf the Red Nosed Holiday StampsReindeer and friends, plus a wreath in the Holiday Forever series.  For the traditional Christmas stamp we have the Magi making their way across the desert. If you hate Rudolf, there is also a set featuring ‘winter fun’.  Most users should be happy.

Other times of year are also celebrated on US Stamps. In 1973, Robert Indiana’s LOVE motif—the one with the sloping O—featured on a stamp for Valentine’s Day (the original had been on a Christmas card that Indiana designed for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964; sculptures based on the idea followed in 1970). After a brief hiatus, Valentine’s Day stamps became regular annual features of the postal calendar.

Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 2001—a long way behind Brazil and the tiny territory of Norfolk Island, who issued thanksgiving stamps in 1975 and 1976 respectively.

The controversies above show how stamps are powerful statements about how a nation sees itself. As a result, stamp selection was a cautious process, with the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee consisting of ten designers, educators and other eminent public figures sifting through the many proposed ideas and designs. However nowadays one can make one’s own stamps, courtesy of approved external online providers such as Stamps.com and Zazzle.com. Does this water down the message of what sits on the top right hand corner of an envelope? Maybe, but maybe it sends out a new message: nowadays, we can choose our own imagery. We live in the age of consumer choice, these new stamps tell us.

CHRIS WEST is a bestselling author who inherited a love of history from his father and an Edwardian “Lincoln” stamp album from his great-uncle as a child. His love for stamps was revived when he found that same dust-covered album in his attic as an adult, and resulted in A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps, published in 2013. He lives in Cambridgeshire. His latest book is A History of America in Thirty-six Postage Stamps.


Tags: , , , , , ,