Christmas seals are not postage stamps. They are what is known in the hobby as cinderellas — items that look like postage stamps, but aren’t valid for postage. Christmas seals have a familiar look and interesting history, so they are used and collected much like Christmas stamps. In fact, the Christmas Seal & Charity Stamp Society (www.seal-society.org) is an affiliate of the American Philatelic Society.
Christmas seals are often placed on mail during the Christmas season. The sale of the stamps is raises money and awareness for various charitable programs. Initially they were associated with lung diseases such as tuberculosis, but now have grown internationally to include various aspects of child welfare.
In 1904, Danish postal clerk Einar Holbøll developed the idea of adding an extra charitable stamp or label on holiday Christmas mail. Holbøll’s idea eventually was approved by the Danish postmaster and the king of Denmark, and in 1904 the world’s first Christmas seal was issued, bearing the likeness of the Danish queen and the word “Julen,” the Danish word for Christmas. More than 4 million seals were sold in Denmark in the first year alone.
Soon after Denmark issued the first Christmas seal, the idea spread throughout every major country in Europe. Seals were first introduced in the United States by activist Emily Bissell in 1907, after she had read about the 1904 Danish program. Bissell went on to design the first Red Cross Christmas seal, which was sold in post office lobbies, initially in her home state of Delaware and then nationally, at a cost of one cent each. By 1908, Bissell’s idea grew into a national program, with money raised aimed to help stamp out lung disease, especially tuberculosis.
The Red Cross participated in the Christmas Seal program through 1918, raising more than $15 million to combat tuberculosis, one of the world’s deadliest killers at the time.
In 1919, the program was taken over by the National Tuberculosis Association. Its successor, the American Lung Association, continued the program and today remains the sponsor of U.S. Christmas seals.