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World's First Christmas Stamp

Updated on November 20, 2013

World's First Official Christmas Stamp

The very first stamp that was issued specifically for Christmas wasn't actually intended for that purpose. Becoming an official stamp of the season was Plan B. Plan B was devised on the fly with some quick thinking in order to smooth some of Queen Victoria's ruffled feathers. Apparently, she could be quite cranky.

Now, you might not think that a story about a stamp, the history of a stamp, could be interesting but this one is. Pour yourself a glass of eggnog and I'll tell you all about it.


First-Ever Postage Stamp

The Penny Black adhesive stamp was issued by Great Britain in 1840.
The Penny Black adhesive stamp was issued by Great Britain in 1840.

Oh, Canada!

Here in Canada, we launched the three penny Beaver in 1851. Figures, eh? It was designed by Sir Sanford Fleming who accomplished an impressive number of historically relevant things in his lifetime.

A World Without Postage Stamps

Prior to 1840, if you wanted to mail a letter or card, you'd hold your long skirts up off the dusty wooden floor or remove your top hat and approach the postmaster. He'd be standing there behind his little wicket, pot of ink and stick type pen at the ready to take your penny and hand stamp or write Paid on your envelope before depositing it into the mailbag. That would conclude your postal business. You could put your hat back on and leave without even having a gluey taste on your tongue. There were no postage stamps, they had not been invented yet.

It was sometime in 1840 that the first adhesive postage stamp - the Penny Black -was born. Great Britain issued the new wonder and it caught on in other countries quickly enough. Soon, most nations were coming up with stamps of their own. It would be almost sixty years however, before anybody in the world thought of producing a Christmas stamp.

Oopsy! Quick Change of Direction

In 1987, British Empire delegates assembled at the Universal Postal Union conference in Washington. They wanted to get an overseas penny postage rate among Empire nations. Heading up the lobbyists was Canada's Postmaster General, the Honorable William Mulock. The group was not successful in their quest, but they were determined and so, Mulock headed to Britain with a new proposal the following year.

Mulock had partial success at the British conference in July 1898. The decision handed down was that the Empire nations would be allowed opt-in to the Imperial penny postage rate. Mulock had been hoping to make it a standard across the board.

During the time era that all this was taking place, Canada still had to get their postage designs approved by the Queen. In 1898 that was Queen Victoria. While a postal official was presenting the stamp design for approval, he happened to mention that it would be a tribute to 'the Prince'. The fellow was referring to the Prince of Wales, whose birthday was on November 9th, which is when the Canadians intended to issue the stamp.

It has been recorded that Her Majesty replied with, "Which Prince?" in a tone that suggested she was very displeased. The postal official took her meaning to be that there should not be a royal connection other than to the Queen herself. Plan B was born in that moment.

I don't know what fate would have awaited the postal official if he had not altered his answer to that question but luckily, he didn't have to find out. In a quick flash of brilliance he replied, "Why Madam, the Prince of Peace."

The World's First Christmas Stamp

Canada released the first Christmas stamp in 1898.  Countries dependent on the Empire are indicated in red.
Canada released the first Christmas stamp in 1898. Countries dependent on the Empire are indicated in red.

The World's First Christmas Stamp is Born

Because of the near faux pas mentioned above, the postage tribute originally designed for the Prince of Wales was reassigned to honour the Christ Child. That is how it came to pass that on December 7th, 1898 Canada issued the world's first Christmas stamp.

When you think of a Christmas stamp, you probably envision something seasonal, say a tree, snow, maybe a religious scene. If so, you'll be sorely disappointed.

The two cent release was designed by William Mulock to show homage to the empire. In his time, Gerhardus Mercator was the most notable geographer and his famous world map of 1569 is what was used for the stamp's background. "WE HOLD A VASTER EMPIRE THAN HAS BEEN", was imprinted along the bottom. This slogan was noting the fact that Britain was the largest empire in the world. Ten million stamps were printed with blue oceans and another ten million had bluey-green oceans. The reason has remained a mystery. Countries that were part of the British Empire were indicated in red. Indeed, the only way to know that it was a Christmas stamp was the reference added after the fiasco with Queen Victoria. At the bottom of the stamp it read: XMAS 1898.

Today, philatelists refer to this historic postage as the 'Map' stamp or the Imperial Penny Postage issue, Some stamp experts argue whether this should actually have the title of First Christmas Stamp due to its birth being accidental rather than purposely designed and deigned.

That's the story of how the first Christmas stamp came to be. As a Canadian, I'm pretty proud of the fact that we are able to boast this 'first', regardless of how it happened.

Happy Holidays, Everyone! Don't forget to mail your Christmas cards on time.


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