December 25 is celebrated in most parts of the world, as Christmas Day (from the Old English Crīstesmæsse, meaning “Christ’s Mass”). This is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed most commonly as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people. Even in Thailand — a predominately Buddhist where I have lived for the past 12 years — the holiday is generally celebrated by the foreign community, tourists, and Thais alike for its “fun factor” in the run-up to the New Year. The observances in 2016, however, are muted due to the nation continuing to mourn the recent death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, Christmas is prepared for by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an Octave. The traditional Christmas narrative, the Nativity of Jesus, delineated in the New Testament says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in accordance with messianic prophecies; when Joseph and Mary arrived in the city, the inn had no room and so they were offered a stable where the Christ Child was soon born, with angels proclaiming this news to shepherds who then disseminated the message furthermore.
Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world’s nations, is celebrated religiously by the vast majority of Christians, as well as culturally by a number of non-Christian people, and is an integral part of the holiday season, while some Christian groups reject the celebration. In several countries, celebrating Christmas Eve on December 24 has the main focus rather than December 25, with gift-giving and sharing a traditional meal with the family.
Although the month and date of Jesus’ birth are unknown, by the early-to-mid fourth century the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date which was later adopted in the East. Today, most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world. However, some Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on the December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany. This is not a disagreement over the date of Christmas as such, but rather a preference of which calendar should be used to determine the day that is December 25. In the Council of Tours of 567, the Church, with its desire to be universal, “declared the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany to be one unified festal cycle”, thus giving significance to both the Western and Eastern dates of Christmas. Moreover, for Christians, the belief that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than the exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.
Although it is not known why December 25 became a date of celebration, there are several factors that may have influenced the choice. December 25 was the date the Romans marked as the winter solstice, and Jesus was identified with the Sun based on an Old Testament verse. The date is exactly nine months following Annunciation, when the conception of Jesus is celebrated. Finally, the Romans had a series of pagan festivals near the end of the year, so Christmas may have been scheduled at this time to appropriate, or compete with, one or more of these festivals.
The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore. Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. The economic impact of Christmas has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world.
“Christmas” is a shortened form of “Christ’s mass”. It is derived from the Middle English Cristemasse, which is from Old English Crīstesmæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038 followed by the word Cristes-messe in 1131. Crīst is from Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), a translation of Hebrew Māšîaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ), “Messiah”, meaning “anointed”; and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist. Xmas is an abbreviation of Christmas found particularly in print, based on the initial letter chi (Χ) in Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), “Christ”, though numerous style guides discourage its use.
In addition to “Christmas”, the holiday has been known by various other names throughout its history. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the feast as “midwinter”, or, more rarely, as Nātiuiteð (from Latin nātīvitās which translates to “nativity”, meaning “birth”. In Old English, Gēola (Yule) referred to the period corresponding to December and January, which was eventually equated with Christian Christmas. “Noel” (or “Nowel”) entered English in the late fourteenth century and is from the Old French noël or naël, itself ultimately from the Latin nātālis (diēs), “birth (day)”.
The canonical gospels of Luke and Matthew both describe Jesus as being born in Bethlehem in Judea, to a virgin mother. In the Gospel of Luke account, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus is born there and laid in a manger. It says that angels proclaimed him a savior for all people, and shepherds came to adore him. In the Matthew account, magi follow a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the king of the Jews. King Herod orders the massacre of all the boys less than two years old in Bethlehem, but the family flees to Egypt and later settles in Nazareth.
The earliest known Christian festivals were attempts to celebrate Jewish holidays, especially Passover, according to the local calendar. Modern scholars refer to such holidays as “Quartodecmials” because Passover is dated as 14 Nisan on the Jewish calendar. All the major events of the life of Jesus were celebrated in this festival, including his conception, birth, and passion. In the Greek-speaking areas of the Roman Empire, the Macedonian calendar was used. In these areas, the Quartodecimal was celebrated on April 6. In Latin-speaking areas, the Quartodecimal was March 25. The significance of the Quartodecimal declined after 165, when Pope Soter moved celebration of the Resurrection to a Sunday, thereby creating Easter. This put celebration of the passion on Good Friday, and thus moved it away from the Quartodecimal.
The Christian ecclesiastical calendar contains many remnants of pre-Christian festivals. Although the dating as December 25 predates pagan influence, the later development of Christmas as a festival includes elements of the Roman feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra as described in the Roman cult of Mithraism.
December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. Jesus chose to be born on the shortest day of the year for symbolic reasons, according to an early sermon by Augustine: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
An anonymous work known as De Pascha Computus (243) linked the idea that creation began at the spring equinox, on March 25, with the conception or birth (the word nascor can mean either) of Jesus on March 28, the day of the creation of the sun in the Genesis account. One translation reads: “O the splendid and divine providence of the Lord, that on that day, the very day, on which the sun was made, the 28 March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born. For this reason Malachi the prophet, speaking about him to the people, fittingly said, ‘Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings.'”
In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the solstice.
In modern times, March 25 is celebrated as Annunciation. This holiday was created in the seventh century and was assigned to a date that is nine months before Christmas, in addition to being the traditional date of the equinox. It is unrelated to the Quartodecimal, which had been forgotten by this time. Early Christians celebrated the life of Jesus on a date considered equivalent to 14 Nisan (Passover) on the local calendar. Because Passover was held on the 14th of the month, this feast is referred to as the Quartodecimal. All the major events of Christ’s life, especially the passion, were celebrated on this date. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions Passover, presumably celebrated according to the local calendar in Corinth. Tertullian (d. 220), who lived in Latin-speaking North Africa, gives the date of celebration as March 25. In the East, which used the Macedonian calendar, the date of celebration was April 6. The date of the passion was moved to Good Friday in 165 when Pope Soter created Easter by reassigning the Resurrection to a Sunday. According to the Calculation hypothesis, celebration of the quartodecimal continued in some areas and the feast became associated with Incarnation. While Christmas was nine months after March 25, Epiphany (January 6) was nine months after April 6. Both Christmas and Epiphany have been widely celebrated as Christ’s date of birth. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Epiphany.
Many popular customs associated with Christmas developed independently of the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, with certain elements having origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations who were later converted to Christianity. These elements, including the Yule log from Yule and gift giving from Saturnalia, became syncretized into Christmas over the centuries. The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has also continually evolved since the holiday’s inception, ranging from a sometimes raucous, drunken, carnival-like state in the Middle Ages, to a tamer family-oriented and children-centered theme introduced in a nineteenth-century transformation. Additionally, the celebration of Christmas was banned on more than one occasion within certain Protestant groups, such as the Puritans, due to concerns that it was too pagan or unbiblical. Jehovah’s Witnesses also reject the celebration of Christmas.
Prior to and through the early Christian centuries, winter festivals — especially those centered on the winter solstice — were the most popular of the year in many European pagan cultures. Reasons included the fact that less agricultural work needed to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached. Many modern Christmas customs have been directly influenced by such festivals, including gift-giving and merrymaking from the Roman Saturnalia, greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year, and Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts. The Egyptian deity Horus, son to goddess Isis, was celebrated at the winter solstice. Horus was often depicted being fed by his mother, which also influenced the symbolism of the Virgin Mary with baby Christ.
The pre-Christian Germanic peoples — including the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse — celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period, yielding modern English yule, today used as a synonym for Christmas. In Germanic language-speaking areas, numerous elements of modern Christmas folk custom and iconography stem from Yule, including the Yule log, Yule boar, and the Yule goat. Often leading a ghostly procession through the sky (the Wild Hunt), the long-bearded god Odin is referred to as “the Yule one” and “Yule father” in Old Norse texts, whereas the rest of the gods are referred to as “Yule beings”.
In eastern Europe also, old pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations, an example being the Koleda, which was incorporated into the Christmas carol.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in western Christianity focused on the visit of the magi. But the medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the “forty days of St. Martin” (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent. In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent. Around the twelfth century, these traditions transferred again to the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 5); a time that appears in the liturgical calendars as Christmastide or Twelve Holy Days.
The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.
By the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. The Yule boar was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Caroling also became popular, and was originally a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers that provided the chorus. Various writers of the time condemned caroling as lewd, indicating that the unruly traditions of Saturnalia and Yule may have continued in this form. “Misrule”—drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling — was also an important aspect of the festival. In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and there was special Christmas ale.
Christmas during the Middle Ages was a public festival that incorporated ivy, holly, and other evergreens. Christmas gift-giving during the Middle Ages was usually between people with legal relationships, such as tenant and landlord. The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, and card playing escalated in England, and by the seventeenth century the Christmas season featured lavish dinners, elaborate masques, and pageants. In 1607, King James I insisted that a play be acted on Christmas night and that the court indulge in games. It was during the Reformation in sixteenth seventeenth-century Europe that many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, and the date of giving gifts changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve.
Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, continued to celebrate Christmas. In 1629, the Anglican poet John Milton penned On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, a poem that has since been read by many during Christmastide. Donald Heinz, a professor at California State University, states that Martin Luther “inaugurated a period in which Germany would produce a unique culture of Christmas, much copied in North America.” Among the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church, Christmas was celebrated as one of the principal evangelical feasts.
However, in seventeenth century England, some groups such as the Puritans, strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast”. In contrast, the established Anglican Church “pressed for a more elaborate observance of feasts, penitential seasons, and saints’ days. The calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party.” The Catholic Church also responded, promoting the festival in a more religiously oriented form. King Charles I of England directed his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter to keep up their old-style Christmas generosity. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.
Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The book, The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652), argued against the Puritans, and makes note of Old English Christmas traditions, dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with “plow-boys” and “maidservants”, old Father Christmas and carol singing.
The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many Calvinist clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration. As such, in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the observance of Christmas, and though James VI commanded its celebration in 1618, attendance at church was scant. The Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, claiming that the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days”. It was not until 1958 that Christmas again became a Scottish public holiday.
Following the Restoration of Charles II, Poor Robin’s Almanack contained the lines: “Now thanks to God for Charles return, / Whose absence made old Christmas mourn. / For then we scarcely did it know, / Whether it Christmas were or no.” The diary of James Woodforde, from the latter half of the eighteenth century, details the observance of Christmas and celebrations associated with the season over a number of years.
In Colonial America, the Pilgrims of New England shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. The Plymouth Pilgrims put their loathing for the day into practice in 1620 when they spent their first Christmas Day in the New World working — thus demonstrating their complete contempt for the day. Non-Puritans in New England deplored the loss of the holidays enjoyed by the laboring classes in England. Christmas observance was outlawed in Boston in 1659. The ban by the Puritans was revoked in 1681 by English governor Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.
At the same time, Christian residents of Virginia and New York observed the holiday freely. Pennsylvania German Settlers, preeminently the Moravian settlers of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz in Pennsylvania and the Wachovia Settlements in North Carolina, were enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas. The Moravians in Bethlehem had the first Christmas trees in America as well as the first Nativity Scenes. Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom. George Washington attacked Hessian (German) mercenaries on the day after Christmas during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, Christmas being much more popular in Germany than in America at this time.
With the atheistic Cult of Reason in power during the era of Revolutionary France, Christian Christmas religious services were banned and the three kings cake was forcibly renamed the “equality cake” under anticlerical government policies.
In the early nineteenth century, writers imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote the novel A Christmas Carol that helped revive the “spirit” of Christmas and seasonal merriment. Its instant popularity played a major role in portraying Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion.
Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, linking “worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation.” Superimposing his humanitarian vision of the holiday, in what has been termed “Carol Philosophy”, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit. A prominent phrase from the tale, “Merry Christmas”, was popularized following the appearance of the story. This coincided with the appearance of the Oxford Movement and the growth of Anglo-Catholicism, which led a revival in traditional rituals and religious observances.
The term Scrooge became a synonym for miser, with “Bah! Humbug!” dismissive of the festive spirit. In 1843, the first commercial Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole. The revival of the Christmas Carol began with William Sandys’s Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), with the first appearance in print of “The First Noel”, “I Saw Three Ships”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, popularized in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced in the early nineteenth century following the personal union with the Kingdom of Hanover by Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III. In 1832, the future Queen Victoria wrote about her delight at having a Christmas tree, hung with lights, ornaments, and presents placed round it. After her marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, by 1841 the custom became more widespread throughout Britain. An image of the British royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle created a sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. A modified version of this image was published in the United States in 1850. By the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.
In America, interest in Christmas had been revived in the 1820s by several short stories by Washington Irving which appear in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and “Old Christmas”. Irving’s stories depicted harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying in Aston Hall, Birmingham, England, that had largely been abandoned, and he used the tract Vindication of Christmas (1652) of Old English Christmas traditions, that he had transcribed into his journal as a format for his stories.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (popularly known by its first line: Twas the Night Before Christmas). The poem helped popularize the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. This also started the cultural conflict between the holiday’s spiritual significance and its associated commercialism that some see as corrupting the holiday. In her 1850 book The First Christmas in New England, Harriet Beecher Stowe includes a character who complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree.
While the celebration of Christmas was not yet customary in some regions in the United States, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow detected “a transition state about Christmas here in New England” in 1856. “The old puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.” In Reading, Pennsylvania, a newspaper remarked in 1861, “Even our presbyterian friends who have hitherto steadfastly ignored Christmas — threw open their church doors and assembled in force to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior’s birth.”
The First Congregational Church of Rockford, Illinois, “although of genuine Puritan stock”, was ‘preparing for a grand Christmas jubilee’, a news correspondent reported in 1864. By 1860, fourteen states including several from New England had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. In 1875, Louis Prang introduced the Christmas card to Americans. He has been called the “father of the American Christmas card”. On June 26, 1870, Christmas was formally declared a United States federal holiday.
Up to the 1950s, in the UK, many Christmas customs were restricted to the upper classes and better-off families. The mass of the population had not adopted many of the Christmas rituals that later became general. The Christmas tree was rare. Christmas dinner might be beef — certainly not turkey. In their stockings children might get an apple, orange and sweets. Full celebration of a family Christmas with all the trimmings only became widespread with increased prosperity from the 1950s. National papers were published on Christmas Day until 1912. Post was still delivered on Christmas Day until 1961. League football matches continued in Scotland until the 1970s while in England they ceased at the end of the 1950s.
Under the state atheism of the Soviet Union, after its foundation in 1917, Christmas celebrations — along with other Christian holidays — were prohibited in public. During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the League of Militant Atheists encouraged school pupils to campaign against Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, as well as other Christian holidays, including Easter; the League established an antireligious holiday to be the 31st of each month as a replacement. At the height of this persecution, in 1929, on Christmas Day, children in Moscow were encouraged to spit on crucifixes as a protest against the holiday. It was not until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the persecution ended and Orthodox Christmas became a state holiday again for the first time in Russia after seven decades.
European History Professor Joseph Perry wrote that likewise, in Nazi Germany, “because Nazi ideologues saw organized religion as an enemy of the totalitarian state, propagandists sought to deemphasize — or eliminate altogether — the Christian aspects of the holiday” and that “Propagandists tirelessly promoted numerous Nazified Christmas songs, which replaced Christian themes with the regime’s racial ideologies.”
As Christmas celebrations began to be held around the world even outside traditional Christian cultures in the twentieth century, some Muslim-majority countries have banned the practice of Christmas, claiming it undermines Islam.
Countries in which Christmas is not a formal public holiday include Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bhutan, Cambodia, China (excepting Hong Kong and Macao), Comoros, Iran, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Laos, Libya, Maldives, Mauritania, Mongolia, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen. Christmas celebrations around the world can vary markedly in form, reflecting differing cultural and national traditions.
Among countries with a strong Christian tradition, a variety of Christmas celebrations have developed that incorporate regional and local cultures. For Christians, participating in a religious service plays an important part in the recognition of the season. Christmas, along with Easter, is the period of highest annual church attendance. In Catholic countries, people hold religious processions or parades in the days preceding Christmas. In other countries, secular processions or parades featuring Santa Claus and other seasonal figures are often held. Family reunions and the exchange of gifts are a widespread feature of the season. Gift giving takes place on Christmas Day in most countries. Others practice gift giving on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, and January 6, Epiphany.
It is a matter of some debate as to which is the first Christmas stamp. The Canadian map stamp of 1898 bears an inscription XMAS 1898, but it was actually issued to mark the inauguration of the Imperial Penny Postage rate. The Christmas connection has long been reported to have been the result of quick thinking; William Mulock was proposing that it be issued on November 9, to “honor the Prince” (meaning the Prince of Wales), but when Queen Victoria asked “what Prince?” in a displeased manner, Mulock realized the danger, and answered “Why, madam, the Prince of Peace.”
In 1935, British Forces troops stationed in Egypt were issued with a Christmas stamp for their mail home. For many years these were not included in the Stanley Gibbons catalogues, as they classified them as a “seal” rather than a postage stamp, but they have been properly included since the mid-1960s as they prepaid postage and so, despite the inscription “Letter stamp”, are normal stamps, and should therefore be counted as the first stamp issued expressly to mark Christmas. Like the slightly earlier Silver Jubilee overprints on the “sphinx” stamp, the Christmas stamps were issued in booklet form in panes of 20.
In 1937, Austria issued two “Christmas greeting stamps” featuring a rose and zodiac signs. In 1939, Brazil issued four semi-postal stamps with designs featuring the three kings and a star, an angel and child, the Southern Cross and a child, and a mother and child. In 1941 Hungary also issued a semi-postal whose additional fees were to pay for “soldiers’ Christmas”. The first stamps to depict the Nativity were the Hungary issue of 1943. These were all one-time issues, more like commemorative stamps than regular issues.
The next Christmas stamps did not appear until 1951, when Cuba issued designs with poinsettias and bells, followed by Haiti (1954), Luxembourg and Spain (1955), then Australia, Korea, and Liechtenstein (1957). In cases such as Australia, the issuance marked the first of what became an annual tradition. Many more nations took up the practice during the 1960s, including the United States (1962) and United Kingdom (1966).
By the 1990s, approximately 160 postal administrations were issuing Christmas stamps, mostly on an annual basis. Islamic countries constitute the largest group of non-participants, although the Palestinian Authority has issued Christmas stamps since 1995.
Although some tropical islands produce large-format Christmas stamps primarily intended for sale to stamp collectors, for the rest of the world, Christmas stamps are “working stamps” that will be used in large numbers to send greeting cards and postcards. Accordingly, the stamps tend to be normal-sized, and offered in one or a few denominations, for instance to cover differing domestic and international rates.
The choice of designs is highly variable, ranging from an overtly religious image of the Nativity, to secular images of Christmas trees, wreaths, Santa Claus, and so forth. A country may maintain a unified theme for several years, then change it drastically, in some cases seemingly to follow “fashion moves” by other countries. For instance, during the 1970s many countries issued Christmas stamps featuring children’s drawings, with the young artist identified by name and age.
The choice of secular or religious designs is frequently a bone of contention in some countries; church leaders often see secular designs as diluting the meaning of the holiday, while postal officials fear that overly religious designs could lead their secular or minority-religious customers to avoid the stamps, leaving millions unsold, and even expose the postal administration to charges that they are violating laws prohibiting the promotion of a particular religion.
In the United States, annual discord over “secular” versus “religious” designs was eventually resolved by the Postal Service issuing some of each per year; typically a group of four to six related secular designs, plus a religious design (usually depicting the Madonna and Child). To avoid difficulties attendant upon contracting for original designs with a religious theme, the latter have typically been adapted from Old Master paintings hanging in U.S. galleries, thus qualifying as depictions of art. In 2012, 2014, and 2016, however, religious-themed stamps were issued featuring original designs depicting the flight into Egypt, the journey of the Magi, and the Nativity of Jesus, respectively. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail resolves the difficulty by issuing “religious” and “secular” themed designs in alternate years.
The usual usage of Christmas stamps is to quickly apply them to a stack of Christmas cards to go out. In the age of email, Christmas stamps may represent some individuals’ largest remaining use of stamps in a year, and it is not unusual to see “leftovers” appear on regular mail during the first months of the new year. In Australia and the Netherlands, Christmas stamps are sold at a discount, but can be used after Christmas with additional stamps to make up the correct rate.
Christmas is a popular theme for topical collecting. Because of the quantities printed, almost all Christmas stamps are easy to come by and of negligible cost. Collecting challenges would therefore be to get covers with apropos postal markings, such as a postmark on Christmas Day (not all post offices get the day off), or from a particular location (such as Christmas Island; Christmas, Florida; North Pole, Alaska; North Pole, New York; or Santa Claus, Indiana), or bearing a specific Christmas theme or slogan.
The Christmas Philatelic Club was formed in 1969 by Christmas stamp collectors and issues a quarterly journal, the Yule Log. A number of collectors treat Christmas collecting as a subcategory of religion on stamps.
I have many favorite Christmas stamps and find new striking designs each year. But Scott #1128 issued by the Principality of Monaco on November 8, 1978, remains in my top 5 favorite stamps. There’s just something about the design of the girl surrounded by toys and holding an envelope and a pair of shoes that appeals to my holiday spirit. The nice multicolored engraving (and Monaco never ceases to disappoint in that department) is eye-catching and whimsical. I particularly like the cat and mouse in the lower left-hand corner. The 1-franc stamp is perforated 12½x13.