National Stamp Collecting Month: Cinderellas, Seals, Fantasies & the Craziness of Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival

Republica Phuketia - MPLP #Ph31 (2018)
Republica Phuketia – MPLP #Ph31 (2018)

Stamp collectors collect (or accumulate) all manner of postally-related objects, not all of which were intended for the delivery of mail. Long considered “album weeds”, cinderella stamps saw their peak popularity in the 1930s and 1940s and remain an interesting sideline to philately. The term is a very broad one, covering all manner of items intended to have the appearance of a stamp but not intended for actual postal use. Amongst these are such items as charity labels such as Christmas and Easter seals, advertising labels (usually called poster stamps), commemorative stickers, propaganda labels, fantasy stamps, stamps from non-recognized issuing entities (and, thus aren’t listed in major catalogues), and many others.

Many local stamps performed a genuine postal function where the national post was lacking and so are not considered to be cinderellas but those created by hobbyists for their own amusement are. The lines can often be blurry between these and artistamps or fantasy stamps.

Revenue stamps are sometimes considered cinderellas, but as they are normally issued by an official government agency, they tend to be classed separately from other cinderella stamps. Some telegraph, railway and other stamps may also be issued by government agencies but still fall under the cinderella umbrella as not being for postal purposes.

Although this souvenir sheet was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., and distributed by the United States Post Office Department to people visiting its Philatelic Truck as it crisscrossed the nation from May 1939 to December 1941, it is still considered a cinderella due to the fact that it wasn't intended to postal purposes.
Although this souvenir sheet was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., and distributed by the United States Post Office Department to people visiting its Philatelic Truck as it crisscrossed the nation from May 1939 to December 1941, it is still considered a cinderella due to the fact that it wasn’t intended to postal purposes.

The term “cinderella stamp” was chosen by the first Cinderella Stamp Club in 1959 as a reference to the mistreated and underappreciated fairy tale character. Cinderellas which have accidentally passed as true postage and appear cancelled on covers are particularly prized among collectors. While some philatelists shun these stamps because they are inauthentic, a fair number of cinderellas are created specifically for the stamp-collecting community.

The design of cinderella items generally follows the principles of postage stamp design, but they may lack a country name, often replaced by the organization or cause being promoted, or a denomination. Sometimes a fictitious country or denomination may be present. While many cinderella stamps are common, others were privately produced in limited numbers, are little-known, and can be quite rare. Cinderella stamps are not normally listed in the main stamp-collecting catalogues; if they are, it is usually in a separate appendix within the publication, and so they are sometimes called back of the book stamps.

The 1920s and 1930s saw a great proliferation in cinderella-stamps, most carrying advertising imagery or being used as souvenirs for exhibitions. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair inspired many Art Deco style stamps, featuring images of exposition buildings or the fair’s spinning Saturn logo, although none were valid as postage. The American Poster Stamp Association (APSA) even issued its own decorative cinderella stamps during the 1950s.

A particularly interesting set of patriotic cinderellas dates from 1861, designed by the Union government to show support for the American Civil War. Two of the most sought after commemorative cinderella stamps were printed by a Viennese stamp dealer to celebrate an exploratory voyage to the North Pole from 1872 to 1874. These triangle-shaped designs featured an image of a glacial landscape surrounded by a specific island name (either Cap Pest or Cap Wien), and the date.

German propaganda stamp promoting National Socialism
German propaganda stamp promoting National Socialism

While it is common to find patriotic sentiments on official stamps, the term propaganda stamp is usually used to mean unofficial stamps produced to promote a particular ideology, or to create confusion within an enemy state. Stamps with encouraging slogans have been attached to letters for prisoners of war, or troops serving abroad. Sometimes stamps are issued by breakaway governments, governments in exile or micronations in order to give themselves greater legitimacy; however, these stamps usually have no postal validity and are therefore cinderella items. For example, the Indian National Army (Azad Hind) produced ten stamps as part of their campaign.

From 1951 to 1966, UNESCO issued a series of 41 “gift stamps”. Considered to be cinderellas, they were produced to raise money for the organization. The series is unusual in being an international cooperative effort. Most are readily available from specialized dealers.

Illustrator and anarchist Clifford Harper, whose family had an occupational history in the postal service, designed stamps “for post-revolutionary post” bearing the image of anarchist figures such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (“property is theft”), Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman and Emiliano Zapata. Colin Ward, along with Harper, published a book in 1997 called Stamps: Designs For Anarchist Postage Stamps, containing an essay by Ward on the subject of anarchists and postage stamps. Fund-raising stamps with anti-state messages have appeared within labor unions such as the ones printed by the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, and the Industrial Workers of the World.

Christmas seals — labels placed on mail during the holiday season to raise funds and awareness for charitable programs — have become extremely popular worldwide. They have become particularly associated with lung diseases such as tuberculosis, and with child welfare. Christmas seals are regarded as a form of cinderella stamp in contrast with Christmas stamps used for postage.

Is it a fake or is it a cinderella? This overprint was never applied to any stamp on Jersey during the German occupation of 1940-1945 but one encounters it applied to contemporary Great Britain stamps. Here, it is on a facsimile of an unused design for the State of Jersey.
Is it a fake or is it a cinderella? This overprint was never applied to any stamp on Jersey during the German occupation of 1940-1945 but one encounters it applied to contemporary Great Britain stamps. Here, it is on a facsimile of an unused design for the State of Jersey. Imperforate pair

At the beginning of the 1900s tuberculosis was a greatly feared disease, and its harmful effects on children seemed particularly cruel. In 1904, Einar Holbøll, a Danish postal clerk developed the idea of adding an extra charitable stamp on mailed holiday greetings during Christmas. The money raised could be used to help children sick with tuberculosis. The plan was approved by the Postmaster and the King of Denmark (Christian IX). In 1904 the world’s first Christmas seal was issued, bearing the likeness of the Danish Queen (Louise of Hesse-Kassel) and the word Julen (Christmas). Over 4 million were sold in the first year at DKK 0.02 per seal.

During the first six years, enough funds were raised to build the Christmas Seal Sanatorium in Kolding, which was opened in 1911. The same year the sanatorium was transferred to the administration of the Danish National Association to Combat Tuberculosis as it was considered a waste of resources to have two organizations working towards the same purpose. The Danish Christmas Seal Committee — today known as Julemærkefonden (the Christmas Seal Fund) – decided at that time to put all future collected funds to use in building and operating convalescent homes for children.

Soon after Denmark issued the first Christmas seal, Sweden and Iceland followed. Seals then spread throughout Scandinavia and every major country in Europe, and are still popular today. Christmas seals have been issued by hundreds of different societies, nationally, and locally in Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia. The majority of all TB seals since then were issued at Christmas time and included the international symbol against TB, the double barred Cross of Lorraine.

Christmas seals were introduced to the United States by Emily Bissell in 1907, after she had read about the 1904 Danish Christmas seal in an article by Danish-born Jacob Riis, a muckraking journalist and photographer. Bissell hoped to raise money for a sanitarium on the Brandywine Creek in Delaware. Bissell went on to design a Delaware local Christmas seal in 1908. Local Christmas seals have existed alongside national issues in the U.S. since 1907, and are catalogued by the Christmas Seal & Charity Stamp Society.

German Christmas charity seals
German Christmas charity seals

By 1908, Bissell’s idea grew to a national program administered by the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (NASPT) and the American National Red Cross. The seals were sold in post office lobbies, initially in Delaware at 1 cent each. Net proceeds from the sales would be divided equally between the two organizations. By 1920, the Red Cross withdrew from the arrangement and sales were conducted exclusively by the NASPT, then known as the National Tuberculosis Association (NTA). Various promotional schemes were tried: in 1954 the small town of Saranac Lake, New York (home of the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium) won a nationwide competition selling Christmas seals, the reward for which was hosting the world premiere of the Paul Newman film The Silver Chalice; the cast participated in a parade in the town’s annual winter carnival.

After World War II with the development of the antibiotic streptomycin TB became a curable disease, although it would be decades before it could be considered under control in developed countries. To reflect the expanding scope of the organization’s goals, the name was changed to the National Tuberculosis and Respiratory Disease Association in the late 1960s. The NTRDA became the American Lung Association in 1973, though the 1974 seals continue to show the NTRDA inscription on the sheet margin.

In 1987, the American Lung Association acquired a trademark for the term “Christmas Seals” to protect their right to be the sole U.S. national fundraising Association to issue them. Of course, this trademark would not apply to Christmas seals issued outside the United States or local and regional Christmas seals, used in the U.S. by many organizations since 1907 when the Kensington Dispensary in Philadelphia PA issued their own local Christmas seal. Today, Christmas seals benefit the American Lung Association and other lung related issues. Tuberculosis was declining, but recently has been on the rise. TB is still one of the most common major infectious diseases in the world.

Newspaper cartoon of a man affixing Christmas seals on a package while his wife brings more packages to him. A drawing of a local Christmas seal from Los Angeles, California, is at lower right. The original 1909 caption with this cartoon from the Los Angeles Herald of December 16, 1909, was
Newspaper cartoon of a man affixing Christmas seals on a package while his wife brings more packages to him. A drawing of a local Christmas seal from Los Angeles, California, is at lower right. The original 1909 caption with this cartoon from the Los Angeles Herald of December 16, 1909, was “Help Fight the White Plague.”

There are nearly one hundred different lung associations worldwide that issue Christmas seals. Many different countries issue their own Christmas seals, as well as cities, states and territories. Green’s Catalog, the bible of U.S. and worldwide TB Christmas seal collecting would distinguish them as national versus local Christmas seals. Many tuberculosis seal issuing societies are members of the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, which holds a Christmas seal contest for best design among their Organizational and Constituent seal issuing members at their annual World Conference on Lung Health.

Between 1937 and 1943, the Danish Nazi Party (DNSAP) issued a variety of seals featuring the Nazi swastika. These scarce seals contain Christmas themes like holly, but no known connection to the fight against tuberculosis, and for this reason, they are not listed in Green’s Catalog. History has shown that most dictatorial regimes suspend Christmas seals from being issued. This happened in Korea under the Japanese occupation, China under the communists, and Argentina under Eva Peron.

Many other charitable funds were issued at Christmas time, often with Christmas themes, by religious organizations, civic and fraternal societies, patriotic organizations, sororities, etc., but since they were not issued to fight tuberculosis, they lack the double barred cross of Lorraine, the international symbol for the fight against tuberculosis, proposed in 1902 at the International Conference on Tuberculosis in Berlin Germany, and strictly speaking do not qualify as Christmas seals.

Charity seals distributed by Deutsche Welthungerhilfe to campaign against hunger. The German inscription translates to
Charity seals distributed by Deutsche Welthungerhilfe to campaign against hunger. The German inscription translates to “Please help us in the fight against hunger because your donation falls on fertile ground!”

Similar to Christmas seals are the Easter seals issued to raise funds by the Easterseals charity in the United States and by the Canadian Easter Seals charities. Easterseals Services assist people with physical disabilities, mental disabilities, and special needs. Parents can find support for a child who has a diagnosis at birth and there are services for people who have a disability due to disease, injury, or aging. Professionals at Easterseals help people overcome barriers, achieve independence, and reach their goals. Beginning in 1934, colorful adhesive seals, the size of postage stamps, were sold around Easter; purchasers stuck these on mailed envelopes to demonstrate their support for the organization. Because of the program’s success, the organization changed its name from “the National Society for Crippled Children” to “Easter Seals.” They have since changed their name to “Easterseals.”

The poster stamp was an advertising label, a little larger than most regular postage stamps of the time, that originated in the mid-19th century and quickly became a collecting craze, growing in popularity until World War One and then declining by World War Two until they were almost forgotten except by collectors of cinderella stamps. The unofficial nature of poster stamps has led to debate about exactly what is and is not a poster stamp. One definition has been “labels without postage stamp values, not good for postal service; advertising labels or charity labels.” Poster stamps were revived in 2017 by The Portland Stamp Company.

Poster stamp bearing the coat of arms of one of two towns called Joachimsthal then within the German Empire, one near Berlin and the other in the Bohemian Forest and currently known as Jáchymov in the northern Czech Republic. The latter town is best known for its minting of large silver coins called Joachimsthalers (which was the source of the later German thaler and English dollar) and for being the location where Marie Curie discovered the element radium. Today, it is most visited for its spas. This was actually the first poster stamp I ever owned, starting a lifelong collection of items with a form of my surname inscribed on them.
Poster stamp bearing the coat of arms of one of two towns called Joachimsthal then within the German Empire, one near Berlin and the other in the Bohemian Forest and currently known as Jáchymov in the northern Czech Republic. The latter town is best known for its minting of large silver coins called Joachimsthalers (which was the source of the later German thaler and English dollar) and for being the location where Marie Curie discovered the element radium. Today, it is most visited for its spas. This was actually the first poster stamp I ever owned, starting a lifelong collection of items with a form of my surname inscribed on them.

The first poster stamps were inspired by the invention of the postage stamp. A perforated label was produced in England in 1864 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and in Italy a label was produced in 1860 to celebrate Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily during the campaign to unify Italy. Commercial interests soon realized the publicity potential of the stamps and they were quickly adopted for the promotion of every type of product and cause. Poster stamps were also widely used by both sides during World War One as political propaganda. As late as the 1930s they were still being used to promote political and other causes. In 1937, Irene Harand published a series of anti-Nazi poster stamps portraying the contributions made by Jews to civilization over the centuries, and adhesive labels of all kinds that are not postage stamps continue to be produced today to promote particular causes or events.

There were many poster stamps printed in conjunction with philatelic exhibitions during the 1930s and 1940s. A number of these had designs that rivalled those officially released to commemorate the same event.

In 2017, two designers of Plazm magazine launched The Portland Stamp Company to revive the poster stamp tradition using vintage perforation equipment. Their revival stamps were featured in the monthly subscription service Mail More Love, pictured in Oprah magazine.

Cinderella label promoting the first presidential campaign of American Philatelic Society member Franklin D. Roosevelt, circa 1932. Following his election, the next twelve years saw the
Cinderella label promoting the first presidential campaign of American Philatelic Society member Franklin D. Roosevelt, circa 1932. Following his election, the next twelve years saw the “golden age” of stamp awareness amongst the general population of the United States.

I think many modern cinderellas created by collectors fall under the general term of artistamps, although most are termed local post stamps. Artistamp is a portmanteau of the words “artist” and “stamp” and is defined as “a postage stamp-like art form used to depict or commemorate any subject its creator chooses.” Artistamps are a form of cinderella stamp in that they are not valid for postage but they differ from forgeries or bogus Illegal stamps in that typically the creator has no intent to defraud postal authorities or stamp collectors.

Artistamp creators often include their work on legitimate mail, alongside valid postage stamps, in order to decorate the envelope with their art. In many countries this practice is legal, provided the artistamp is not passed off as or likely to be mistaken for a genuine postage stamp. When so combined (and sometimes, less strictly speaking, even when not so) the artistamp may be considered part of the mail art genre.

Irony, satire, humor, eroticism and subversion of governmental authority are frequent characteristics of artistamps. Artists may leverage the expectation of official endorsement that necessarily inheres in governmentally-issued postage for the purpose of shocking or subverting viewers’ expectations, with such actions typically representing a specific political and artistic motive. Other practitioners are content to depict more homey subjects like kittens and family members. Some artists use the form to create fantasy stamps for their own postal administrations or countries – in many cases thereby developing or complementing an imaginary governmental system.

Many “traditional” local post stamps actually were used to convey mail within a limited geographical area, typically a city or a single transportation route. Historically, some local posts have been operated by governments, while others, known as private local posts have been for-profit companies. There have been a number of these over the years and I’ve covered a few of them on A Stamp A Day. My favorites of these are Lundy Island and Hawai’i Post.

Today, many stamp collectors operate what are called “hobbyists’ local posts,” issuing their own postal “stamps” for other collectors but rarely carrying any mail. These cover a wide range of events or personal interests, of subjects that are not normally issued by their own countries’ postal services. I created my own local post in 2013, called Muang Phuket Local Post and created self-adhesive labels that I affixed to the lower left corner of envelopes or postcards I mailed out. I had made a total of 23 different stamp designs by August 2015. Following only one “release” in 2017, recently I’ve had a burst of “inspiration” and a new series, now under the name “Republica Phuketia”, will soon be unleashed. More on those a bit later…

Fantasy stamp for the Republic of Texas, with a denomination based upon rate regulations established in 1836.
Fantasy stamp for the Republic of Texas, with a denomination based upon rate regulations established in 1836.

In some cases, modern day local posts have issued stamp subjects before their own country issued the same subject. The Free State Local Post issued an Audie Murphy stamp long before the U.S. Postal Service issued one of the same subject. The Ascension AAF Local Post, located on the island of Ascension in the South Atlantic Ocean, in 1972 commemorated the anniversary of the first aircraft to land at Ascension Island. This same subject was commemorated by the Ascension Island postal system in 1982.

The hobbyist local posts are, effectively, “home-brewed” postal systems, and the typical hobbyist carries little, if any, mail. Some do carry mail over a short distance for themselves or a few people. Personally, I felt that I was conveying the post as I had to travel using local transportation (in Phuket, that could be a tuk tuk, a local type of bus known as a porthong, or a motorbike taxi) in order to reach a mail box and thus created appropriate postal markings.

Muang Phuket Local Post - MPLP #21-26 (2015) on first day cover; 6 of 11 stamps in a set marking ASEAN Day, August 8, 2018. Conveyed my MPLP to Phuket Philatelic Museum, postmarked Phuket on August 8, 2018, where it entered the mailstream. This particular cover took ten days to arrive at my home, less than 2 miles from the post office!
Muang Phuket Local Post – MPLP #21-26 (2015) on first day cover; 6 of 11 stamps in a set marking ASEAN Day, August 8, 2018. Conveyed my MPLP to Phuket Philatelic Museum, postmarked Phuket on August 8, 2018, where it entered the mailstream. This particular cover took ten days to arrive at my home, less than 2 miles from the post office!

A close cousin to hobbyist local post stamps would be fantasy stamps, generally bearing the names of non-existent countries and self-proclaimed micronations, the Principality of Sealand off the east coast of Great Britain is perhaps the best known of these. There is a lot of cross-over between these, local posts, and artistamps and the terms are often used interchangeably.

I should also mention that illegal stamps also fall under the category of cinderellas. These are postage stamp-like labels issued in the names of existing independent countries or territories used to defraud postal administrations, stamp collectors, and the general public. Often, but not always, a member nation of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) will have asked the UPU to issue of an “International Bureau Circular” advising others of the illegal stamps. According to the UPU, the market is estimated to be at least $500 million per year.

Many illegal stamps are issued in the names of countries or territories from Africa or the former Soviet Union, or smaller island nations from around the world. Older illegal issues (from the 1970s) were often in the names of Arab states. Most illegal stamps are not listed in the major stamp catalogues, though some may have been included in error or because their status is unclear or because the criteria for entry differ from those used by the UPU to recognize valid stamp issues. These are also known as bogus stamps and are different from counterfeits or fakes.

Of course, just as “regular” organized stamp collecting and philately, there are a number of organizations for collectors of cinderella stamps, seals, and even local post stamps to join. The oldest of these is the Cinderella Stamp Club, founded in London on June 5, 1959. This is, according to the banner on their publications and website, “an association of philatelists, amateur and professional, whose interests lie in local stamps, telegraph stamps, railway stamps, revenue stamps, fiscals, forgeries, bogus and phantom issues, Christmas, Red Cross, TB and other charity seals, registration labels, advertisement and poster stamps and many other items — all of which are the so-called ‘Cinderellas of Philately’.” There is also the Cinderella Stamp Club of Australasia, formed in 1984. In researching this article, I came across an online forum dedicated to cinderella stamps. The Local Post Collectors’ Society was established in 1972, and coordinates communication among hobbyists who have created their own local posts.

Republica Phuketia - MPLP #PH31a (2018) full sheet of 15
Republica Phuketia – MPLP #PH31a (2018) full sheet of 15

Today’s featured stamp is definitely a cinderella as it’s my own creation and has yet to be “officially released”. The first commemorative of the newly-established Republica Phuketia, it is one of a set of eight stamps marking the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival (เทศกาลกินเจ, thetsakan kin che) — the local version of a Taoist celebration usually called the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The nine-day festival begins on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and is celebrated in Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia by the local Chinese communities.  In Thailand, the Vegetarian Festival is celebrated throughout the entire country, but the festivities are at their height here in Phuket, where about 35% of the population is Thai Chinese. It attracts massive crowds of spectators because of many of the unusual religious rituals that are performed.

This year, the festival’s main events took place between the raising of tall bamboo poles (allowing the nine emperor gods to descend from the heavens) at 5:00 pm the afternoon of October 6 until the last of the massive fireworks were expelled around 3 or 4 in the morning of October 18. That final night, the fireworks began sporadically around 7:00 pm but were non-stop from all directions from around 9:30 until the wee hours of the morning. These are very loud and powerful (unregulated) Chinese fireworks and people throw them at the religious deities, at each other, everywhere. After a point, the smoke is so thick one cannot see or breathe but will see flashes of light then groups of white-clothed faithful running out of the darkness. Huge piles of the red paper from spent fireworks cover the streets and sidewalks to ankle-depth and spontaneously burst into flame until the street crews clear it up in time for morning rush hour. My hearing is still affected!

I’d hoped to have these stamps in-hand in time to produce covers during the festival but they were delayed for some time in the mail (the printer/perforator is in Berlin). Mail delivery is one thing that is usually shut down in the center of Phuket Town during the Vegetarian Festival as the drivers are afraid to go through the daily processions (like miniature versions of the scenario I described above). These occur during the mornings and the evenings as there are usually heavy thunderstorms during the middle of each day (it is the middle of the monsoon season, after all). I often had difficulty getting to work (leaving very early in an effort to beat the street processions and usually getting trapped in buses; sometimes, spectators will throw fireworks into the bus windows!). My students were often late to classes as well.

Cover bearing the last Muang Phuket Local Post stamp (MPLP #27), "cancelled" on the last day before the name change to Republica Phuketia, with provisional Phuketia "overprint" and change in value (Phuketia #Ph28), "cancelled" on the first day of Phuketian postal service. Conveyed across the entire postal route via the local form of motorized rickshaw known as a tuk-tuk.
Cover bearing the last Muang Phuket Local Post stamp (MPLP #27), “cancelled” on the last day before the name change to Republica Phuketia, with provisional Phuketia “overprint” and change in value (Phuketia #Ph28), “cancelled” on the first day of Phuketian postal service. Conveyed across the entire postal route via the local form of motorized rickshaw known as a tuk-tuk.

In the same print-order as the Phuket Vegetarian issue, there were sheets of my provisional “overprints” with today, October 27, constituting the first conveyance of covers bearing these (I’d “postmarked” a few covers at work and then brought them home by tuk-tuk). November will see releases of various definitives in a number of denominations with another commemorative issue in early December and a souvenir sheet around Christmastime. At least that is the plan at the moment.

This first set will be released on October 31, 2018. I will prepare a limited number of covers with single stamps affixed to the lower left corner and a Thailand postage stamp in the upper right. Thus far, I have only made one Phuketia postal marking, modeled after German circular date stamps.  I will formally announce the “release” of these cinderellas (local post/fantasy, whatever you want to call them) within the next day or two on my other stamp blog, Philatelic Pursuits, picturing all of the stamps in the set. The actual “postal service” is now called posta phuketia and the “issuing entity” is Republica Phuketia. The “official language” is sort of a hybrid of American English, Thinglish (the pidgin English spoken by many Thai people in Phuket when they begin learning English), Latin and Spanish. The currency is the Phuketian eth (the Latin lower-case ð) which is made up of 100 farang (from the Thai farang which denotes a non-Asian white foreigner).

Phuketia MPLP #Ph31 is one of a set of eight stamps commemorating (albeit slightly belatedly) the 2018 Phuket Vegetarian Festival (MPLP #Ph29-36). There are three horizontally-oriented stamps (#Ph29-31) printed in sheets of 15, perofrated 13¼ x 13½, .and five vertically-oriented stamps (#Ph32-36) printed in sheets of 15, perforated 13½ x 13¼. They are denominated at 20 farang each. The stamps were designed by myself, Mark Joseph Jochim, using photographs taken by myself during the 2015 Phuket Vegetarian Festival and were printed by yoursetamps in Germany using high-resolution laser printing technology. MPLP #Ph31 portrays a street procession by the Jui Tui shrine in Old Town Phuket. The bare-chested men are accompanying an explosive-laden deity on a sedan chair and have just endured a barrage of fireworks hurled at them. While not visible on the finished stamp, I did edit my original photo a bit so that the fantasy stamp also shows the fantasy Phuketia post office!

Jui Tui shrine street procession eastward on Thalang Road before turing south on Phuket Road in Old Phuket Town, Muang Phuket, Thailand. Original photograph taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 19, 2015, slightly edit to bring out the building sign details in the upper left :-)
Jui Tui shrine street procession eastward on Thalang Road before turing south on Phuket Road in Old Phuket Town, Muang Phuket, Thailand. Original photograph taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 19, 2015, slightly edit to bring out the building sign details in the upper left 🙂

During these street processions, in accordance with long-held traditions, many religious devotees will perform ritualized mutilation upon themselves and one another while under a trance-like state, including but not limited to: impaling through cheeks, arms, face, legs, back etc., with everything from as small as syringes to as large as is agreed upon between all members (I’ve seen motorboat propeller shafts still attached to the engines and large remote-control helicopters with the blades impaling cheeks); partial skinning (the skin is not removed, just cut and flipped over); slashing of limbs, chest, stomach and especially tongue with swords, axes and knives; bloodletting; removal of tissue (normally limited to cysts) and intentionally wrapping or standing near fire crackers as they are lit ((impossible to avoid for devotees and bystanders alike!).

This is all done without anesthetic, always inside or near the temples surrounded by other devotees with only iodine, petroleum jelly and surgical gloves as precautionary measures. Despite this scenario, many of the people performing the rituals are also the people who will care for many of the people in their recovery. To this effect few people ever need to have prolonged medical treatment, and although in the weeks after the festival many people will be seen covered in bandages, scarring is uncommon, stitching, even on individual devotees who impale their cheeks, is rare, and return to daily activity for the devotees occurs shortly after the completion of the ritual, frequently before the festival ends unless performed on the last days, much sooner than before the bandages themselves are removed.

The purpose of this practice is a mixture of veneration for their gods and ancestors, to display their devotion to their beliefs and the trance itself, which has a profound impact upon demeanor for days or weeks after, frequently with devotees appearing exceptionally calm and focused in their day-to-day activities after the festival is completed.

The Thai characters เจ as often shown on stickers or flags to indicate that food is vegetarian. The characters have been stylized to be more reminiscent of Chinese writing.
The Thai characters เจ as often shown on stickers or flags to indicate that food is vegetarian. The characters have been stylized to be more reminiscent of Chinese writing.

During the duration of the festival, devotees and most spectators dress all in white and ghin jeh (กินเจ), which has come to be translated as abstinence from eating meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products. Vendors and proprietors of restaurants indicate that jeh food is for sale at their establishments by putting a yellow flag out with the word เจ (jeh) written on it in red. However, technically, only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple (in Thailand, called sarnjao ศาลเจ้า or um อ๊ำ) is jeh, as it must undergo a series of rituals before it can be given that name. Personally, what infuriates me is that, starting perhaps a week before the festival, most restaurants and convenience stores such as 7-Eleven will go completely jeh without even offering the option of anything else. I don’t mind going without meat, etc. for a short period but I do have to make long treks during October if I want something other than jeh food!

As mentioned above, masong (ม้าทรง) are the devotees who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Ma (ม้า) is the word for horse in Thai, and the name masong refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as a vehicle, as one rides a horse. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become masong. At the temple they undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced. The masong tradition doesn’t exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.

Pierce and impaled masang at the 2015 Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 16, 2015.
Impaled masong at the 2015 Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 16, 2015.
During the Vegetarian Festival, devotees carry sedan chairs bearing various statues of gods and other deities. These are loaded with explosives (heavy-duty Chinese fireworks). Spectators throw lit firecrackers at the procession, attempting to set off the fireworks in the deities. The white clothing quickly becomes covered in soot! Photo taken at Phuket Vegetarian Festival by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 16, 2015.
Pierced masong photographed during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival by Mark Joseph Jochim, October 18, 2015.
Pierced masong photographed during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival by Mark Joseph Jochim, October 18, 2015.
While I have become more or less accustomed to most of the
While I have become more or less accustomed to most of the “craziness” of the religious rituals during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, I am still terrified of the axe-wielding masong. During the processions, they will walk along the roads throughout Phuket Town cutting away at their tongues or cheeks with the axes. However, usually at major intersections where the crowds are usually the densest, they will suddenly stop walking and start wildly swinging the axes all over the place, making contact with their backs and occasionally other axe-wielding spirit mediums. If I see them approaching in a procession, I tend to start backing up as I imagine the axe hitting me as they are not aiming (they are supposedly In a trance!). During the festival, you must always be aware of EVERYTHING all around you or you will find yourself in frightening situations such as this! Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 16, 2018.

The festivities in Phuket include street processions of masong wearing elaborate costumes who pierce their cheeks and tongues with all manner of things, including swords, banners, machine guns, table lamps, and flowers. While the face is the most common area pierced, some also pierce their arms with pins and fishhooks. Teams of people accompany the masong to keep their wounds clean and to help support the heavier piercings. It is believed that while they are possessed the masong will not feel any pain. They can also be seen shaking their heads back and forth continually, and usually do not seem to “see” their surroundings. During the festival, most of the Chinese temples and shrines have firewalking and bladed-ladder climbing. While large crowds of people gather to watch, the entranced masong distribute blessed candy and pieces of orange cloth with Chinese characters printed on them called yan (ยันต์) for good luck.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival has been an annual event since the 1830s.

Province of Phuket, District of Phuketia flag
Province of Phuket, District of Phuketia flag (2017-2018)
Republica Phuketia flag (2018)
Republica Phuketia flag (2018)
Republica Phuketia emblem (2018)
Republica Phuketia emblem (2018)

2 thoughts on “National Stamp Collecting Month: Cinderellas, Seals, Fantasies & the Craziness of Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival

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