On today’s date in 1898, Canada became the first country to reference Christmas on a stamp with the release of a two-cent issue celebrating the British Empire’s unprecedented vastness.
With pro-imperialist sentiments, the stamp, which uses the term “XMAS,” was originally designed to promote the inauguration of imperial penny postage throughout the British Empire. It was issued with two ocean colours – blue and lavender (Scott #85 and #86) – on Dec. 7 (although it was originally slated for release on Nov. 9 before being postponed, hastily redesigned and officially issued).
With British officials seeking postal reform since the introduction of adhesive stamps in 1840, a motion to introduce “imperial penny postage” was introduced in the British House of Commons in 1885, according to Douglas and Mary Patrick’s 1964 book, Canada’s Postage Stamps.
Thirteen years later, an Imperial Conference on postage rates was held in London, England, On the proposal of the Canadian representative William Mulock, who was also his country’s postmaster general, the imperial penny post was adopted by Great Britain, Canada and Newfoundland plus Cape Colony and Natal, then British colonies located in southern Africa. Other regions belonging to the British Empire were also invited to participate in the scheme with the Queen’s approval.
“At first a proposal suggested fixing a uniform rate for the whole of the British Empire, but no rate acceptable to all the governments concerned could be settled upon,” write the Patricks. “As chief Canadian proponent of the actual adoption of Imperial Penny Postage, the Canadian Postmaster General decided to stimulate interest in the event by issuing a special postage stamp covering the new rate and emphasizing the vast extent of the British Empire.”
Envisioning a stamp showing Canada at the centre of the vastness of the British Empire, Mulock settled on a design by Warren Green, then president of the American Bank Note Company in Ottawa.
“In October 1898, Mr. Green called at Mr. Mulock’s office,” write the Patricks, “and a memorandum in his handwriting still existing in the files of the Canadian Bank Note Company, reads:
‘This is a rough idea for the new stamp. Mr. Mulock had a number of designs for this and naturally a great many conflicting ideas. The only way I could get anything definite was to sit right down with a pencil and a brush and work right alongside of him until he got something that approached his idea.’
“The stamp was not meant to be a limited issue; it was intended to supplement the regular stamps for prepayment principally of overseas British correspondence, although the stamps were available for any other postal use.”
The design uses the Mercator projection and shows the various regions of the British Empire in red. It reads “XMAS 1898” at the bottom, just above the phrase, “WE HOLD A VASTER EMPIRE THAN HAS BEEN.”
The phrase comes from a poem by Welsh poet Sir William Morris, who wrote “A Song of Empire” for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (published as the Jubilee Ode in June 1897).
“We hold a vaster Empire than has been!
Nigh half the race of man is subject to our Queen!
Nigh half the wide, wide earth is ours in fee!
And where her rule comes all are free.
And therefore ’tis, O Queen, that we,
Knit fast in bonds of temperate liberty,
Rejoice to-day, and make our solemn Jubilee.”
SECOND CHRISTMAS STAMP
The second stamp with a Christmas reference was issued 37 years later, in 1935, when British troops were given 1934 stamps overprinted with “Xmas 1935 – 3 Milliemes” to use on mail to their homes.