Australia Post itself admits that the iconic “Surfing Santa” stamp (Scott #669), released on October 31, 1977, might just be Australia’s most controversial stamp. The design is one of my favorites as I live on a tropical island where snowy images on stamps leave me, well, a bit cold. I see it as a sort of precursor to the wonderfully whimsical holiday issues released by Australian territory Christmas Island over the past few years. However, in 1977, Roger Roberts’ humorous portrayal of Santa Claus riding a surfboard generated a great deal of controversy.
The controversy didn’t center around the cartoonish drawing — a set of stamps released in March 1973 for Australia’s conversion to the metric system had pictured cartoon figures and were highly criticized at the time (Scott #541-544) — but in this case, the complaints were generated simply by the irreverent nature of Santa surfing!
Until 1975, all of the country’s Christmas stamps had featured religious themes usually depicting the Nativity. A secular stamp was added to the Christmas release in 1976 — a 45-cent graphic illustration of some holly, a toy koala, a Christmas tree, a bauble, and a partridge (Scott #650). This seemed to be well-received.
When artist Roger Roberts of Adelaide was commissioned for the 1977 stamp design, he was given no specific instructions regarding the subject matter other than to take a secular approach. Prior to the first day of issue, the leading Anglican and Catholic authorities in Melbourne were consulted and had no objection to the design. Public opinion surveys were also carried out to evaluate Australia Post’s new television commercials and these included the Surfing Santa design. Out of 1,000 respondents, only two percent disliked this concept on religious grounds and relatively few disliked it for other reasons.
Scott #669 was released on October 31, 1977, with a denomination of 15 cents which was the concessional greeting card postage rate. A 45-cent design depicting the Virgin Mary and Christ Child was also released covering the air mail letter rate to most overseas countries (Scott #670). Both stamps were printed using the photogravure process; Surfing Santa was perforated 14×14½ while the religious stamp had perforations of 13½x13.
Soon after its release, the critics emerged. There was a considerable amount of criticism published in the letter columns of daily newspapers. Numerous letters were also sent directly to Australia Post, many complainants stating that the postal service didn’t treat Christmas seriously. The controversy was greater than for any previous Australian stamp and the Christmas stamps issued for 1978 were confined solely to religious subjects (Scott #688-690).
On November 1, 2007, a set was issued to commemorate 50 years of Australian Christmas stamps. One of the designs included was the now-iconic Surfing Santa in several different formats, all denominated 45 cents: perforated 14×14½ in a booklet (Scott #2758), self-adhesive booklet stamp with syncopated serpentine die cuts at a gauge of 11¼ (Scott #2763), and a self-adhesive version with serpentine die cuts of 11½x11¼ sold in sheets of 20 with a personalized photo and straight edge at the right (Scott #2768). The Australia Post bulletin mentions that the Surfing Santa reissue was available in a mini-sheet of 10 self-adhesive stamps with “screen and flexo varnish feature — our first!” but the Scott catalogue doesn’t seem to mention this (Scott #2763a is listed “with varnish block over stamp vignette”). Surfing Santa was completely without controversy the second time around.