History of Christmas stamps

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The Postal Service has helped celebrate Christmas with festive, seasonal stamps since 1962 when it issued its first Christmas stamp. Although customers had been asking for Christmas stamps for years, the first designs sparked controversy.

A collage of USPS Christmas stamps from the past.

The first “Christmas stamps” were Christmas Seals

The first “Christmas stamps” in the United States weren’t postage stamps at all, but Christmas Seals — stamp look-alikes with no postage value, sold by charities to raise money. At first, Christmas Seals were commonly called “Christmas stamps.” A postal clerk in Denmark, Einar Holboell, came up with the idea of Christmas Seals while sorting Christmas cards for delivery in December 1903. At the time, money was desperately needed to build a hospital for children with tuberculosis (TB), a major, global public health threat. Why not ask people to buy a small sticker to decorate their holiday cards, to raise money for this charitable cause?

Holboell’s idea took root and was a huge success in Denmark. In 1907, an American Red Cross volunteer in Delaware, Emily Bissell, adopted the idea to raise money for a TB sanatorium in her state. In less than a month, more than $3,000 was raised, 10 times the fundraising goal. The next year, the Red Cross sold Christmas Seals nationwide, raising funds and awareness to fight TB. Postal officials reminded patrons not to place the Christmas “seals or stickers” on the address side of envelopes, to minimize confusion, but this advice was often not heeded. Christmas Seals are still sold today, now by the American Lung Association, helping make progress towards defeating asthma, lung cancer, influenza, tobacco use, air pollution, and other lung diseases, including COVID-19.

The early desire for Christmas-themed postage stamps

While Christmas Seals were a popular addition to Christmas mail, many customers wanted special Christmas-themed postage stamps. But despite repeated requests, for many years the Post Office Department balked, believing the cost of issuing stamps for use in only one season of the year would outweigh the benefits. Postal officials also feared many people would object to a stamp issued for a religious holiday, and worried that Christmas stamps would cut into the sales of Christmas Seals.

Although headquarters officials hesitated, postmasters were early advocates. In the 1930s and 1940s, at least two postmasters suggested the release of Christmas stamps — Joseph Conrad of Scranton, PA, and Leopold Morris of Victoria, TX. Both men pointed out that Christmas stamps would raise postage revenue and would also help more cards get delivered each Christmas, because more customers would choose to mail their cards as First-Class Mail, rather than at the cheaper, third-class rate. At the time, many people mailed Christmas cards in unsealed envelopes with no personal messages written on them, so the cards would qualify for third-class postage rates, which were 1 or 1½ cents cheaper. Unlike First-Class Mail, third-class mail was not returned or forwarded if it could not be delivered. In 1950, Morris estimated that 75 percent of Christmas cards were mailed at third-class rates and that thousands were destroyed each season because they were undeliverable. (In January 1968, the minimum postage rates for both third-class single-piece mail and First-Class Mail were raised to the same amount — 6 cents — nullifying the incentive for customers to mail greeting cards as third-class mail.)

In October 1939, the National Association of Postmasters passed a resolution at its annual convention calling for the release of a special Christmas stamp. Noting that the war in Europe might eventually “involve the entire Christian world,” the postmasters wanted the stamp to carry a message of “peace and goodwill.” They also noted the “incidental” benefit of discouraging the mailing of Christmas cards at third-class postage rates.

Christmas stamp stand-ins

Before the Post Office Department issued Christmas stamps, some customers mailed their holiday cards with Christmas stamp stand-ins. Some used a combination of red and green stamps to send holiday greetings. Others used stamps with holiday-like designs, like the 1960 stamp commemorating the Fifth World Forestry Conference, picturing what looked like a giant Christmas tree, and the Olympic Winter Games stamp, featuring a snowflake.

Old envelope we an 4 cent Fifth World Forestry Congress stamp.
Before 1962, some customers used stamps with holiday-like designs, like the 1960 Fifth World Forestry Congress stamp used to mail this Christmas card in 1960.

The first Christmas stamp, issued in 1962, sets sales record

In May 1962, Postmaster General J. Edward Day announced at the COMPEX stamp show in Chicago that the Post Office Department would issue a special stamp for Christmas “in response to heavy public demand.” He stated that the Department had been receiving nearly 1,000 requests annually for such a stamp. An article in the Oct. 11, 1962, issue of the Postal Bulletin explained that the stamp would serve a dual purpose: “It will make available an issue that is seasonably decorative and at the same time provide preferred handling for greeting cards.”

The first Christmas stamp — featuring a wreath, two candles, and the words “Christmas 1962” — was issued in Pittsburgh, at the annual convention of the National Association of Postmasters, on Nov. 1, 1962. At the dedication ceremony, Day stated it was the most-demanded stamp of any ever issued and that it would be the first in a series of annual Christmas stamps.

Anticipating a huge demand for the new stamp, the Department initially ordered 500 million printed — the largest number produced for a special stamp until that time. But demand for the stamp exceeded expectations. Thousands of Post Offices sold out, some within hours of placing them on sale. By the end of November, the Department upped the printing order to 650 million, and printers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began working around the clock to try to keep up with demand. By the time the presses stopped on Dec. 15, nearly 862 million of the stamps had been printed and distributed. James Kelleher, the special assistant to the postmaster general, called it “far and away from the best-selling special stamp ever issued.”

Sales records were broken again the next year by the second Christmas stamp issued, featuring the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House. Determined not to run out of stamps, the Department ordered 1,291,250,000 of the stamps printed — a new record. Again, sales were strong, with many postmasters reporting a 50 percent increase from the previous year.

Vintage USPS Christmas stamps.
Pictured stamp release years — Top: 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968; Bottom: 1963, 1964, 1966, 1969. Images not at scale; 1967 and 1968 images courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Christmas stamp controversies

Despite their popularity, Christmas-themed stamps were not without controversy. Some people thought they were too religious, blurring the separation between church and state. Some thought the stamp designs weren’t religious enough. In an attempt to minimize controversy, for the first few years, the Post Office Department issued Christmas stamps with only nonreligious designs, featuring holiday greenery. Critics complained that by omitting the “reason for the season” the Department was commercializing Christmas.

The first decade was the toughest. A New York Times critic called the design of the 1962 stamp “artistically tedious.” That stamp, as well as the 1965 Christmas stamp, are listed in History.com’s article “The 11 Most Controversial Stamps in U.S. History.” The 1965 Christmas stamp featured the Angel Gabriel with such a feminine physique that some journalists quipped “he” should be called Gabrielle. Religious scholars were consulted, and opined that “angels are sexless.” Nevertheless, the media had a field day. The Chicago Tribune trumpeted “Stamp Bears Bosomy Gabriel.” (In response, a postal spokesman quipped: “Despite the potential controversy, we do not feel the Christmas stamp is a bust.”)

The design of the 1966 and 1967 Christmas stamps — the first to feature Madonna and Child — sparked even more controversy. In 1966, a representative of the American Jewish Congress urged the postmaster general not to issue the stamp. In 1967, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued Postmaster General Lawrence O’Brien, complaining that “the likeness of the Madonna is a religious symbol commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church; and that, therefore, for the Government to issue such a postage stamp violates the First Amendment to the Constitution.” A federal judge dismissed the complaint, finding that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue.

In November 1970, the Postal Service first issued dual Christmas stamps — a “traditional” stamp with a religious theme and a “contemporary” stamp with a secular theme. Both traditional and contemporary holiday stamps have been issued regularly since then, giving customers greater choice when mailing holiday greetings. The traditional stamp has usually featured a famous painting of the Madonna and Child; for example, the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna by Raphael, issued in 1983 (below, far left), and Ignacio Chacon’s Madonna and Child with Bird, featured in 2006 (below, far right). Popular subjects of contemporary Christmas stamps have included toys, holiday decorations, and Santa Claus.

In a few years — for example, in 1974 and 1995 — more than two Christmas stamps have been issued. In 2000, no new Christmas stamps were issued, due to a large surplus remaining from the previous year. For a complete list of Christmas stamps, see Christmas Holiday Stamps.

Four past USPS Madonna and Child stamps.
“Traditional” Christmas stamps with religious themes, like these Madonna and Child stamps, have been issued regularly since 1970 alongside stamps with secular subjects. Year of release, from left to right: 1983, 1984, 2004, 2006.

Philatelic firsts

Several Christmas stamps hold philatelic distinctions. The 1964 Christmas stamps were the first “se-tenant” U.S. postage stamps, featuring four different designs printed in blocks of four. The 1974 “Peace on Earth” stamps were the first self-adhesive postage stamps in the United States, issued experimentally to see if they could reduce the fraudulent unsticking and reuse of stamps (the experiment failed, and self-adhesive stamps wouldn’t reappear until the 1990s). And the 1975 Christmas stamps were the first non-denominated U.S. postage stamps, printed with no postage value noted because of an uncertain-but-imminent price increase.

Other holiday stamps

In the 1990s, an increasing emphasis on respecting the diversity of the American people led the Postal Service to issue stamps celebrating additional holidays. In 1992, the first Lunar New Year stamp was issued. In 1996, the Postal Service launched the Holiday Celebrations stamp series, kicking it off with the first Hanukkah stamp, issued jointly with Israel. In 1997, the Postal Service issued the first stamp commemorating Kwanzaa, the African American celebration of family, community, and culture. Since then, other holidays celebrated in stamps have included Eid, Cinco de Mayo, Diwali, and Day of the Dead.

In 2021, the Christmas stamp tradition continues with A Visit From St. Nick, with four stamp designs depicting Santa Claus delivering toys on Christmas Eve.

Postal products, services and solutions that simplify your season

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The holidays are joyful, exciting, and heart-warming. They are also crazy, chaotic, and stressful. We know! We’ve been helping holidays happen for a long time and we’ve learned some things along the way:

  • We’ve learned that even when we decorate for the holidays, not everyone wants to come into a Post Office during our busiest season of the year.
  • We’ve learned that people really like being able to conduct their postal business from the comfort of their living room sofa.
  • We’ve learned that going online, clicking a few buttons, and then having things delivered to your mailbox or door is about as convenient as it gets.
  • We’ve learned that going online to get postage and arranging for your gifts to be picked up eliminates most of the rushing around associated with the holidays.
  • We’ve learned that knowing what’s coming in the mail is helpful to just about everyone.

We’ve used this knowledge to create services and solutions to simplify your lives, especially during the hectic holiday season. Here are some services that allow you to remain in your jammies, sip on eggnog, and still get things done.

A selection of Priority Mail boxes from the Postal Store (usps.com/shop)
  • Order free boxes. Priority Mail and Priority Mail Express flat rate boxes are available at local Post Office locations and online at usps.com/freeboxes.
A selection of this year’s holiday postage stamps.
  • Order postage stamps. All holiday stamps are available online at usps.com.
  • Print labels with postage. With Click-N-Ship, you can create shipping labels and pay for postage online. Go to usps.com/ship. We are projecting nearly 500,000 customers will use Click-N-Ship on Dec. 14 to ship packages.
  • Get packages picked up. When the carrier delivers your mail, your outgoing packages can be picked up for FREE. Package Pickup is free regardless of the number of packages you’re sending. Pickups can be scheduled at usps.com/pickup.
A screen shot of the Informed Delivery screen on a mobile phone.
  • Know what’s getting delivered. With our Informed Delivery feature, you can receive text messages or email alerts when a package is coming, notifications when the package has been delivered and daily emails showing what mail will be delivered. Sign up for free services at informeddelivery.com. More than 42 million people have already signed up for the Informed Delivery feature.
  • Need a last-minute gift? At the Postal Store on usps.com, you can find more than boxes and stamps. There are greeting cards and note cards — some come with stamps! There are stamp keepsakes. There are post office tents for the little ones to play make-believe and vehicles for them to drive. There are tote bags, ornaments, framed art, toy cars, beach towels, clothes and so much more.
Featured USPS retail items for the holidays.
  • 24/7 Post Office. usps.com is always open! We are predicting that more than 100 million people will visit usps.com between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Shipping a gift to a deployed family member or friend this holiday?

The Postal Service is expecting more than 12.6 million pounds of mail for APO/FPO/DPO destinations this holiday season.

To send packages to loved ones serving abroad, the Postal Service offers a discount on its Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Box. The $21.15 price includes a $1.50 per box discount for mail sent to APO/FPO/DPO destinations worldwide. Postage, labels, and customs forms can be printed online anytime using Click-N-Ship at usps.com/ship.

Featured USPS retail items for the holidays.

The Postal Service has the products and solutions to help you have a less-stressed holiday season.

From our families to yours, we wish you a very happy holiday.

Private Post Offices Saving With “Usable” Postage

Private Post Offices Save With Usable Postage

Post offices around the country are increasing their profit margins by using “usable” postage. They aren’t suitable for resale because customers buying books and rolls want the postage to be in perfect brand-new condition. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t “usable” for postage!

We often get partial books and rolls of stamps. Or books or sheets that may be folded or slightly scuffed or bent. Even the slightest corner bend or fold is kicked out of our “New Condition” inventory and moved to “Usable Condition”, which we sell for less.

And since we sell usable postage for less than our new “resale condition” books and rolls, you can save even more by using them whenever you can.

Using Usable Postage Behind-The-Counter

Do you have customers who drop off letters or packages, pay for postage, and then you place their postage on their items behind the counter?

Instead of using brand new postage, you can use usable postage. We call this behind-the-counter usage. The customer isn’t buying a full book or roll of stamps, so you can use partial books or rolls that you paid less for – and in turn make more of a profit!

Using Personal Postage For Personal Use

If you’re using postage for personal or business use, and don’t care about having complete books and rolls, or the condition of the stamps as long as they’re good enough to go through the mail, consider using usable postage for deeper discounts on your shipping costs.

*We make sure that all of our usable postage is in condition good enough to be accepted through the USPS mail. If you have any issues sending mail with any of our usable postage, you can send them back to us for a full refund.

It’s Santa time. Here’s how it works.

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Letters are arriving at Santa’s workshop from all over the country. Postal elves are busy reading and prepping them so they can be posted on USPSOperationSanta.com.

We are so excited — USPS Operation Santa is now open for registration and identity verification!

An illustration of a man looking at his phone with various identity requirement images in clouds over his head.

Why do I need to get my identity verified?

The Postal Service takes the privacy and security of the children and families who write to USPS Operation Santa very seriously. Our verification process reflects this. We know many customers were unable to participate last year because they couldn’t get verified. To help address this problem, we started working earlier this year on an in-person verification solution. We are thrilled to offer this option to potential adopters who want to participate and have trouble getting their identities verified online.

There are now three ID verification options available:

  1. Customers enter their name, address, mobile phone number, and email address. If they cannot be verified, they move to the second option.
  2. Customers will be required to answer some basic multiple-choice questions. If they still cannot be verified, they will move to the third option.
  3. Customers will be instructed to go to a nearby Post Office location to have their identities validated in person. They will be provided a code in an email and will be instructed to bring an acceptable form of identification. They will also be given directions to the nearest participating Post Office location.

You are registered and verified. Now what?

On November 29, USPS Operation Santa opens for adoption. You can start reviewing letters and choose one to adopt. We have made several modifications to the website this year to improve the user experience.

Last year, letters were adopted very quickly! While adopters were reading letters, they disappeared without warning. Someone had just adopted the letter because they could review it at the same time. We know how frustrating that was. This year, when you choose a letter, it’s locked with you for up to five minutes. You will be told you have five minutes to adopt the letter or it will be put back in the system. There’s even a 2-minute warning to remind you.

We are also messaging users to refresh the site when reading letters. This helps ensure all available letters are displayed.

Advanced Notice!

One of the best improvements to the website is a countdown timer that informs potential adopters exactly when the next set of letters will be posted. No more guessing and having to check the website all day long. The timer will tell you exactly when new letters will be posted!

Letter to Santa with child’s drawing of Santa and a Christmas tree with gifts underneath.

Choosing the Perfect Letter

You want to choose a letter that touches your heart immediately but what if the only letter available is from a child wishing BIG!? Of course, you don’t need to fulfill their expensive requests. You can either adopt a letter that better suits your budget, or you can find an alternative way to make their holiday special. Whether they receive exactly what they asked for or not, just hearing back from Santa is a win for any child!

Ready to shop? Ready to ship?

You’ve picked the letter you want, what’s next? Go shopping! If you adopted a letter from a family or child who lives in a nearby state, your postage costs will be less than if you adopted a letter from across the country. The price of postage depends on various factors such as the shipping distance, the weight, and the length and girth of the package. Using Priority Flat Rate boxes is a good option to control shipping costs. Read our Shipping Guidelines for more information.

Picture of an open Priority box and hands putting gifts inside it.

Here’s a good tip to help keep your shipping costs down. Get a large Priority Mail Flat Rate box from your local Post Office and take it with you when you go shopping. Only purchase things that can fit in the box. Keep in mind, you can send up to six boxes to each letter writer. Consider a gift card in place of sending larger, heavier items. If you want to send just a gift card, it will need to be sent in a Priority Mail envelope, 4×6 or larger to accommodate the shipping label.

When you adopt a letter you will receive an email with instructions. The email will also have a QR code and an adoption packet. You will need to take the QR code and your adoption packet with you when you ship your gift to the Post Office.

Once your gift is shipped, you won’t receive any tracking information. The package is being sent anonymously and the letter writer’s address is private. However, you will receive notifications in your USPSOperationSanta.com profile that your package has shipped and is in transit.

We have updated the list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to make the experience easier for everyone involved. These FAQs can be found on the USPSOperationSanta.com website, or right here on usps.com/holidaynews.

Our goal is to have every letter sent to Santa’s workshop posted, adopted, and fulfilled. We hope everyone has a wonderful holiday this season.

Delivering mail from beginning to end


Ever wonder what happens to your mail and packages after you put them in the mailbox or drop them off at a Post Office?

Whether across town, or across the country, the route your mail travels is more involved than just “over the river, and through the woods.”

The United States Postal Service has nearly 34,000 Post Office locations and more than 300 processing and distribution facilities across the country. The extensive USPS network processes nearly 182 million pieces of First-Class Mail every day.

Once you place your packages, letters, or greeting cards in the mail — through your mailbox at home, a blue collection box, or a local Post Office — Postal Service employees will gather everything up and begin moving it through our network.

A visual infographic or the mail delivery process, as described in the text below.

After collection, the mail and packages are moved to processing facilities. At the processing facilities, the mail is separated into three categories — letters, flats, and packages. Once separated, machines are used to sort the mail by ZIP Code. Machines convert images of mailpieces into data by using cameras that take pictures to gather the destination address, tracking barcode (applied at the facility), and postage. This data is used to sort the mail, create tracking information and validate the postage amount.

Because packages come in a variety of shapes and sizes, they are processed on different equipment. Once separated from other mail, packages go through the Automated Package Processing System. This system moves packages along a series of conveyor belts and rollers. Cameras read the destination addresses, scan the barcodes to update tracking information, check for proper postage, and determine the size and weight of the packages. After scanning, the packages continue their journey along a conveyor and are automatically sorted into bins based on their final destinations.

After the mail and packages are sorted, they are moved to the loading dock and shipped through networks of processing and distribution facilities using our extensive fleet of vehicles, depending on the destination. The mail is ultimately sent to the local Post Office for delivery, based on the community’s ZIP Code.

Employees at the receiving Post Office then collect the mail and separate and sort it by carrier or Post Office boxes. Mail destined for PO Boxes is placed into the respective box. The carriers gather the remaining mail, take it to their delivery vehicles, and head out on the street to deliver.

In order to better handle the expected increase in volume during the season, the Postal Service is also making key network infrastructure investments ahead of the holidays to meet the evolving mailing and shipping needs of all our customers. This includes, but is not limited to, installing 112 new package sorters and more than 50 additional systems to help sort larger packages, and adding space to accommodate packages by leasing more than 75 peak season annex facilities — plus more than 40 annexes on multi-year leases.

This is just one part of our 10-year plan to achieve financial sustainability and service excellence.

So you see, it takes a lot of steps to get that special gift or card to friends and family for the holidays. Now you can impress people with your new knowledge at your holiday gatherings — be they in person or online!

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