The pantomime of Christmas stamps

You can see a collection of  short Christmas drama scripts at The Drama Store

It’s time to start writing Christmas cards and attaching this year’s Christmas stamps.  But over the past few years Christmas stamps have become another target of the politics of Christian outrage.

From jolly wheeze to battlefield

Back in 1966 when the first British Christmas postage stamps were issued at the instigation of the then Postmaster General, Tony Benn, it must have seemed like a jolly wheeze that would brighten up Christmas. No-one could have foreseen that forty years later Christians would turn the tradition into a religious battlefield.

The problem probably arose because for four consecutive years from 2001 to 2004 the stamps were solidly secular. A suspicion grew that Christian themes were being ignored to avoid offending those of other religions. It is hard to tell if this is true – I can’t find record of any official announcement to this effect and since there has always been a mixed bag of “religious” and “secular” themes in a fairly haphazard order it could just be that each year they chose the best designs presented to them. What is clear is that the right wing press and some Christians promoted this story and this resulted in an email protest movement that threatened to set the Royal Mail and the Christian establishment against each other. By 2005 no news report  on Christmas stamps was complete without a controversy angle.

The Madonna and child alternative

In 2007 the Royal Mail, apparently as a reaction to this, issued as usual a themed set of Christmas stamps (Angels, commemorating Charles Wesley and his most famous Carol “Hark The Herald Angels Sing) but also, as an experiment, a set of two “Madonna and Child” stamps as a clearly, undeniably Christian alternative (although if Charles Wesley and herald angels aren’t clearly Christian – well, I’m confused). These were initially greeted favourably so they have been re-released in the following two years. Unfortunately this led to other protest movements – including one complaining that the Royal Mail is trying to hide the Madonna and Child stamps under the counter and one complaining that the Royal Mail is trying to foist Christianity on a multi-cultural and largely secular world. Oh well, if you offend everyone you must be getting something right.

Blue Peter competition winners

ChristmasStamp1966Interestingly, those first Christmas stamps back in 1966 featured designs arrived at through a children’s competition. The winners (announced on the children’s TV programme “Blue Peter”) were ‘King Wenceslas’ by Tasveer Shemza (aged 6) and ‘Snowman’ by James Berry (aged 6). I remember the Wenceslas stamps well, they brightened my Christmas! No Christian protest was recorded. Since then the Christmas sets have been themed as shown in the table below.

A few thoughts on all this:

  • If we push for “Christian rights” we run the risk of backing ourselves into a Christian ghetto. Christ called us to transform the world, not to complain about it or protect our place in it.
  • Anyone suggesting that Charles Wesley or Angels or children’s nativity plays are “marginally Christian” has lost a sense of church history.
  • The Bible doesn’t support the idea that there is a line between religious and secular. All of life is God’s.
  • Anyone suggesting that this is high on the list of issues for Christians to campaign about has lost their sense of proportion.
  • At a time when many large organisations have virtually banned the word Christmas, the Royal mail could be seen as positively evangelistic.
  • A suggestion: rather than issuing the same “Christian alternative” each year (boring and anyway a farce when the main stamps are Christian) each year there could be the normal Christmas issue plus a re-issue of the previous year’s set. So long as the themes alternate (religious/secular) this should keep Christians and non-Christians happy each year.
  • Historically, most of these stamps whether “religious” or “secular” are quite nice and brighten up Christmas. Lets enjoy them!

Anyway, here are the themes year-by-year

Year “Religious” theme “Secular” theme
1966 King Wenceslas Snowman
1967 The birth of Christ (old masters)
1968 Children with toys
1969 Nativity story
1970 Nativity story medieval style
1971 Magi in Stained glass
1972 Angels with instruments
1973 Good King Wenceslas (song)
1974 Nativity story in painted church woodwork
1975 Angels with instruments (again)
1976 Nativity story (English Medieval Embroidery)
1977 Twelve Days of Christmas (song)
1978 Carol Singers
1979 Nativity story medieval style
1980 Victorian Christmas decorations
1981 Christmas through the eyes of a child (designed by children in Blue Peter competition)
1982 Christmas carols
1983 Christmas imagery
1984 Nativity story
1985 Pantomime characters
1986 Local Christmas folk customs
1987 The magic of Christmas for a child
1988 Nativity story in Christmas cards
1989 800th anniversary of Ely Cathedral
1990 Fun in the snow
1991 Nativity story depicted in Illustrated Manuscripts from the Bodleian Library, Oxford
1992 Nativity story in stained glass windows
1993 A Christmas Carol (book) 150th anniversary
1994 Children’s Nativity
1995 Robins at Christmas
1996 Nativity story
1997 Christmas crackers 150th anniversary
1998 Angels
1999 The Christians tale. Erm… pass. An odd assortment of moments from church history
2000 Spirit and Faith (Church Millennium projects)
2001 Robins at Christmas
2002 Evergreens
2003 Ice sculpture (Andy Goldsworthy)
2004 Father Christmas (Raymond  Briggs)
2005 Madonna and Child paintings from around the world
2006 Snow scenes
2007 Hark The Herald Angels Sing (Carol) – Charles Wesley Tercentenary+ Madonna and child
2008 Madonna and child Pantomime characters
2009 Pre-Raphaelite stained glass+ Madonna and child

(Table derived from looking at the collections at Collect GB Stamps)
Some themes were hard to discern and some were hard to classify as secular or Christian – Ely cathedral is hardly secular but pictures of its carvings hardly convey the meaning of Christmas either.