UPDATE! I’ve added a couple of reader’s nominations to the bottom of the list! Read on…
It’s the 12th day of Christmas. The Christmas tree withers in the corner, unwatered for days. The batteries on the toys have expired. The gurgling remnants of Christmas lunch are in a fight to the death with New Year’s resolutions. So it’s the perfect time for me to give you my 12 Stamps of Christmas! After all, I am your true love.
As mail revenues continue to plummet, for the postal administrations of Christendom, Christmas offers one last chance to hear the bells jingling on their cash registers. (Do you know how many Christmas cards I got in the mail this year? None. That’s a first. It might be that I’ve been crossed off multiple lists. But I choose to blame The Pace of Change.)
So which countries brought their festive philatelic A-game in 2018? These are my favourites of the stamps that crossed my radar. (I didn’t audit every single Christmas issue from every country in the world. However I DID look up a few of the usual suspects, and it would pretty safe to say that many stamps fell short because they landed in the category of either Serviceable But Otherwise Unremarkable Religious Scenes or Designs So Minimalist They Turn ‘Ho Ho Ho’ Into ‘Ho Ho Hum’.)
I’ll count ’em down, starting with some honourable mentions. In most cases I’ve illustrated one or two stamps from a set; for more, you might like to keep an eye on my Instagram page where I’ll drip-feed them out.
No pictures for the honorable mentions, though. Let that be motivation for them to try harder.
Honorable mention: Gibraltar
A traditional and attractive oldey timey seven-part nativity-and-adoration set; sadly I couldn’t track down images good enough for this blog. But here’s a link.
Honourable mention: Vatican City
Drawing upon the words of Pope Francis calling for compassion towards the imprisoned, this year’s Christmas stamps were designed by Marcello D’Agata, a lifer from Milan’s Opera prison. A worthy initiative. If continued, it will keep senior clerics busy for years to come.
Honourable mention: Christmas Island
The appositely named Australian territory of Christmas Island has a popular long-running tradition of light-hearted depictions of Santa and local wildlife. More of the same this year (Santa and a red-footed booby on surfboards) but, speaking as a local, it’s all a bit samey for me. The take-out from this story is that there is a bird called the ‘red-footed booby.’
And now, the official winners! Little drummer boy: pa-rum-pum-pum-pum-roll, please…
12. SWITZERLANDThe results of a public vote, Switzerland’s Christmas stamps depict scenes of a winter wonderland. In Martin Mägli’s photos, captured just before nightfall, inviting golden light emanates from beautiful buildings across snow-covered fields. Here, Bottmingen Water Castle looks like the sort of palace from which Good King Wenceslaus might have gazed down upon the peasant, and makes me feel cold and hungry because we’re seeing it from the peasant’s viewpoint . I need to get back to gathering winter fuel before I freeze to my death.
11. IRELANDAnother public vote, and amid an issue depicting homecomings, happy times and midnight massgoers, two stamps gave me particular insight into Christmas in Ireland. Apparently the Irish all sit up to watch something called the Late Late Toy Show a few weeks before Christmas to get a sense of what the hot ticket items are. It’s reliably one of the biggest TV shows of the year. And when Christmas Day comes, they’re mad for Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts? Yes. Look again at that second stamp. It’s full of them. But for Christmas? Is this some joke they pull on visitors? This issue makes my top 12 because in a world full of Christmas tree and Santa stamps, they’ve gone for something clearly so meaningful to the locals, despite it leaving the rest of us scratching our heads.
10. CAYMAN ISLANDSA cute combination of Christmas hymns and beachy themes from the 1-per-cent’s favourite tax haven. My favourite is these serenading starfish, slightly ahead of the sand-people who look like South Park’s Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo.
9. NORWAYNorway went with a theme of Christmas workshops and this stamp, representing Christmas preparations at home. These designs look tactile, homespun and craft-y. And kudos to Santa for somehow managing to tie that sack of gifts onto a grumpy polar bear without getting mauled to death.
8. AUSTRIA and friendsSeveral countries cottoned on to this year being the 200th anniversary of the composition of the hymn ‘Stille Nacht’. or as English-speakers know it, ‘Silent Night’. Austria naturally led the charge with a depiction of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf, Salzburg, on the site of the Kirche St. Nikola where the hymn was first sung. A fittingly reverential design. All is calm. All is bright.
Stille Nacht has been translated into more than 300 languages and is now sung around the world, which explains why it also popped up elsewhere this Christmas. The Bahamas featured the first four lines of the hymn alongside images of notable Bahamian churches. And the four phases of the moon, for some reason.Brazil featured the hymn in a very ecclesiastical-looking church-window style miniature sheet a little too big for me to feature here, but you can see it and read all about it in Portuguese here.The stamps themselves feature the Silent Night Chapel and, shown here, the writer Fr Joseph Mohr and composer Franz Gruber with the score seen in the background. Trivial fact: the hymn was translated into Portguese as ‘Noite Feliz’ – ‘Happy Night’. Based on observations of my Brazilian friends, I’m guessing that’s because they don’t have a word for ‘silent’.
7. ALDERNEYAlderney’s stamps featured scenes from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, gorgeously illustrated by Andrew Robinson. Works a treat for me, because I love stamp issues that tell a narrative story (I swear there used to be more of them when I was a kid. Just me?), and I love both Dickens in general and this story in particular.
This issue is probably lost on you if you don’t know the book, which is exactly why nearby Guernsey’s equally lavishly illustrated tribute to The Nutcracker And The Mouse King (the basis for The Nutcracker ballet) didn’t make my list. Just not one I’ve got around to, I’m afraid, even though I pretty much go to sleep on Christmas Eve humming the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Christmas can be ruthless, can’t it?
6. UNITED KINGDOMHow could any collector not love this issue from the Royal Mail, featuring British people heading out through the snow to post their Christmas mail in the nation’s iconic red postboxes? I was also very glad to see the stamp paying tribute to the poor old postal worker who gets to spend her Christmas shifting everyone else’s mail. Lost me a bit with the stylistic choice not to show detail on the faces. Surely the human face is the perfect palette upon which to paint the joy of the season? But I can also see that the postie stamp might have thrown a spanner in the works. It would be too unrealistic to show an employee looking joyous while working late shift shoveling other people’s mail in the freezing cold. Then again, the reality of this issue is already in question – several stamps show people under 20 gleefully utilizing postboxes like they know what snail mail is.
5. ESTONIA, ICELAND & GREENLANDThe common theme here is that these stamps stink. GOOD stink. This Estonian Christmas tree stamp is imbued with the scent of tangerine (a fruit the Estonians like to chuck into Christmas stockings). There’s a miniature sheet that smells like cinnamon too.
Greenland also plumped for a cinnamon-scented stamp depicting a tray full of biscuits. They are then seen decorating a Christmas tree on a stamp that smells like pine.Meanwhile Iceland baked us some traditional cookies and gave them a gingerbread perfume…There are probably more scented Christmas stamps out there – I’ve already covered the scented stamp as sales gimmick. Estonia got top billing here only because I went there two years ago and absolutely loved it. The location of that tangerine-scented Christmas tree looks suspiciously like the beautiful medieval town square of the capital, Tallinn. It was a wonderful place to spend those long midsummer nights. I suspect it could only be more magical covered with snow and dominated by a giant Christmas tree.
4. SWEDENI’ve always worn my love of vintage design on my sleeve and that ain’t gunna change anytime soon. Sweden’s Christmas stamps introduced me to the work of Swedish artist Jenny Nyström (1854-1946), whose illustrations in books, postcards and magazine covers are synonymous with the season in Sweden. Swedish readers, feel free to correct me, but it seems that a goat used to bring presents on Christmas Eve; later, mythical gnome-like farm creatures called tomtar took on this role, eventually taking on some of Santa’s imagery and becoming the festive figure Jultomten. If you know what I’m talking about, then chances are it’s a Nyström figure you’re picturing. A beautiful tribute to a seminal artist.
3. USAI might be forced to hand my Punk credentials at the door on this one, but hear me out. This Christmas, the USA issued stamps featuring images of Santa Claus used in advertising campaigns for Coca-Cola. Here are two of them. The notion that Coke ‘invented’ the image of modern Santa (“He’s red and white! Like a Coke can!”) is something of an urban myth.
But Coke did undoubtedly strap Santa to its sleigh and plaster his face in front of a generation of Americans, which is why Haddon Sundblom’s beautiful illustrations have become such iconic images. Crass capitalism? Sure. A master commercial artist pulling off one of the greatest achievements in ad history? Absolutely, and I for one don’t mind seeing his work honoured in a most appropriate setting. (There’s also a miniature sheet showing a full poster in which the Coke bottle can be seen in all its glory, if you want to ruin the magic of Christmas.)
2. SRI LANKAA surprise entry perhaps, a welcome relief from the cold, and one of the few nativity stamps to make the list. I struggled to find any info on this issue in English beyond the straightlaced Sri Lankan Department of Posts webpage, but I’ve loved these since I laid eyes on them. I’m guessing they’re influenced by regional artistic traditions – can any Sri Lankan readers confirm? (I know there’s at least one…) I want to say it’s wonderful to see such a familiar scene rendered so differently, with such eye-catching colours and textures, but… I second guess myself. Is it really that ‘different’? Or do I just live in a first-world, Anglo-centric bubble where I am not exposed to art from other cultures? Maybe this stuff is run-of-the-mill in Sri Lanka. Just one of many questions that 2018 taught me to ask. By the way, there’s also a majestic miniature sheet which I couldn’t do justice to here. Kudos to designers Ushani Wijesinghe, Himashi Nimesha Kariyawasam and L. D. Gayani Tharushika
To be honest, Sri Lanka very nearly took out the top position. But that was until I learned…
…that Jersey had chosen to put Christmas jumpers on its stamps.
Now I don’t know when Christmas jumpers became a thing – I suspect Bridget Jones had something to do with it – but they’re a thing now, regularly being trotted out at parties held by people desperate for something to talk about. A corny, fun-but-a-bit-tedious, not- sure-if-we’re-being-ironic-or-lame modern tradition, and now: IMMORTALISED ON STAMPS.
Illustrated by Simon Henshaw, the stamps depict eight jumpers, neatly folded and die-cut, running the full gamut of snowflakes, reindeer, kings, Santa suit and – my very favourite, and the stamp that sealed the win – plum pudding. Bonus points for commitment, too: designer Sarah Hardman reportedly saying “We had an unusually hot summer and working in Christmas jumpers through May and June was rather clammy.” (Could’ve been worse; could’ve been working for the Sri Lankan Department of Posts.) The Jersey Post PR claims local postal staff wear them at Christmas time to raise money for charity, so tbere’s even a smattering of local relevance.
With this issue, Jersey Post earns respect from me for somehow managing to find a new way to reheat these old chestnuts and present them in a new, endearing, vibrant and engaging way.
Really, the only way the 12 Stamps of Christmas could have ended any more perfectly is if just one of those stamps depicted a partridge in a pear treeeeeeee.
Whaddya reckon? Agree/disagree? Did I miss anything? Nominate your favourites in the comments below and I’ll dig them up and chuck them here as a P.S.!
UPDATE: And now… the P.S.!
Just like Santa promised, here are a couple of extras that readers nominated as their favourite stamps.
Luxembourg’s designs just missed out on my list (probably would have made #13, to be honest, for their sheer WTFness). They were clearly a hit with readers. Finnbadger from Envelope 100 nominated them below while Scott from the We Love Folklore blog tweeted “Here’s a hipster Santa!”. I suspect they’re better appreciated in person, because designer Celine Mazzilli incorporated tiny, Christmassy details into her designs that reward the careful viewer. And the self-adhesive stamps are printed on transparent foil so that the pattern of the envelope will show through them in places. (For the record, their official names are Mr Winter Joy and Mrs Ice Crystal.)
Also nominated in the comments on this page (by John, whose Irish Stamp Collecting page I highly recommend) is Ireland’s Elf on the Shelf issue. A commercial tie-in – something I generally steer clear of in stamp issues – but if you know how much these shelf-bound elves have become a Christmas tradition in certain parts of the world, then you can understand the appeal. John’s experience below demonstrates eloquently the delight that astute use of these stamps would bring to young children (and dare I hope… potential collectors?). I’ll allow it. Just this once.
Thanks for your comments and feedback! As any blogger can tell you, it’s always nice to know that someone actually reads this stuff.
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