At first glance, I was sure the U.S. Postal Service had gone woke with its holiday stamps.
Perusing the selection online, I found nothing resembling a manger, swaddling clothes or wise men traversing afar. Instead there’s a mother and child looking as if they stepped out of a Victorian Secret catalogue. They wear crowns studded with jewels and robes adorned with bows and lace collars. It’s not the sort of outfit you’d wear in a stable. It’s not the sort of outfit you’d put on a child at all, not if you loved him.
The image, it turns out, is from a painting in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Called “Our Lady of Guápulo,” it’s an 18th-century work by an unknown artist in Peru. But as grand as the painting may be, it does not announce “Christmas” as one might think a Christmas stamp should.
I wondered if this was intentional, another attempt to diminish the Christmas story, to rebrand a holy day as a holiday, to promote a generic “festive” season instead. Will there ever be a classical Nativity scene on a holiday stamp again, given that even churches are reimagining the creche in order to make political statements? I have a friend who has long bought a 12-month supply of Christmas stamps, in order to provide a quiet witness to her faith all year. Previous Christmas stamps were perfect for that, like the 2016 stamp, “The Holy Family,” and 2014’s “Christmas Magi.” This one, not so much.
But looking into past holiday stamps and learning about their history gave me something else to be thankful for this week: that we still have the opportunity to buy Christmas stamps at all.
Holiday stamps were first issued in 1962, more than 30 years after they were first proposed — not to spread a religious message, but to generate more profit for the U.S. Postal Service. According to a history of the stamps on the USPS website, some postmasters believed the availability of Christmas-themed stamps would induce people to mail holiday cards first class “rather than at the cheaper, third-class rate.”
They weren’t wrong. The first Christmas stamp — depicting two candles, a wreath and the words “Christmas 1962” — sold out in some locations within hours. (First-class postage then was 4 cents.) Despite its popularity, the stamp made History.com’s list of the 11 most controversial stamps, which said “it was attacked for crossing the line between church and state as well as for slighting other faiths. Some Christians objected to it, too, saying the government had no business intruding into their religion.”
A Christmas stamp three years later also made the “most controversial list” because of an image of the angel Gabriel that had been taken from a New England weathervane. (Critics objected to the angel’s feminine shape.)
You’d think the Post Office would have stopped there and gone back to stamps depicting water fowl and sports heroes, but it waded into even more controversial waters the next year when the first Madonna and Child stamp came out.
That stamp brought on a 1967 lawsuit by Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who argued that “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.” A federal judge threw the suit out, saying the plaintiffs had no standing.
Finally, in 1970, the Postal Service hit on a solution. It would issue one religious stamp for Christmas and another with a secular theme. That tradition continues today in the Santa-themed stamps issued this year, along with “otters in snow.” But there is still a religious-themed Christmas stamp available each year, even as the collection has expanded to include Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Eid and Diwali.
Sara Martin, a senior public relations representative for the USPS, told me that the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, makes the selection of new stamp designs based on the recommendations of a 13-member Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. And anyone can make a suggestion; the committee receives about 30,000 ideas each year from which 25 to 30 topics are chosen.
So the odds of my dream Christmas stamp — an artist’s rendition of the carol “The Friendly Beasts” — probably isn’t coming to a mailbox near you anytime soon. But for those of us who prefer a more traditional Christmas stamp than the one currently available, there are options available to us through the old-fashioned workings of capitalism.
Sellers on sites such as Amazon, Etsy and eBay offer “forever” Christmas stamps of years past. And you can also ask your local post office if they have any “forever” religious stamps left over from previous years.
In doing so, be thankful. During this time of creeping secularism, it’s a Christmas miracle that religious stamps are still available from our postal workers at all. God bless them, every one.
That said, it’s not a bad idea to stock up. The eBay supply can only last for so long.