The Nativity — The Manger

Not many nations — even those with a strong Christian base — put an image of the Nativity on their stamps much before the 1970s. As we saw in our Christmas Firsts blog, Hungary first put Nativity imagery on a stamp in 1943. (For argument’s sake, we’re calling the Nativity as depicting the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus in a manger-like setting.)

The 2016 stamp with a silhouette design was just the third U.S. stamp showing a manger scene.
The 2016 stamp with a silhouette design was just the third U.S. stamp showing a manger scene.

The United States has rarely put an image of a manger scene or Holy Family on a stamp, instead for a religious motif at Christmas opting for master artworks of the Madonna and Child, along with the occasional angel. The first full Madonna and Child stamp was in 1966, followed quickly by a second in 1967. Two more were issued in 1973 and 1975, and in 1978, the Postal Service started a run of 22 consecutive years showing a Madonna and Child master artwork. No Christmas stamps were issued in 2000, and although it’s been more sporadic, the Madonna and Child imagery has appeared on 10 more stamps.

In 1970, the religious U.S. stamp showed a manger scene, presenting Nativity (1523), by Lorenzo Lotto, and in 1971, the stamp showed a detail from Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1505) by Giorgione, followed in 1976 by Nativity (c. 1777), by John Singleton Copley. Not until this year, did another manger/Nativity scene show up on a U.S. Christmas stamp. Interestingly, this year also saw a new Madonna and Child stamp.

It’s interesting to see how other nations present the Madonna and Child, some in traditional forms, sometimes in modernized images, and some depicting the Holy Family in that country’s traditional stylings.

Christmas and Philatelic Connections From Austria

A 1949 stamp honors the composers of “Silent Night.”
A 1949 stamp honors the composers of “Silent Night.”

One of the best-loved Christmas songs of all time originated in 1818 in Austria.

Joseph Mohr, then assistant pastor at the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, had written a poem called “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”) several years earlier, and he asked the St. Nicholas choir director and organist, Franz Gruber, to compose music for the words, for two solo voices accompanied by a guitar and choir.

A 1968 stamp features the crèche at St. Nicholas in Oberndorf.
A 1968 stamp features the crèche at St. Nicholas in Oberndorf.

Legend has it that the music was composed in a short time because the church organ was not working and Christmas Eve was at hand. A more recent look at the history suggest that the song was unlikely composed in an afternoon or two, as the oft-repeated story says. No matter where the truth lies, “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) was sung for the first time for midnight mass on December 24, 1818 with Mohr, Gruber, and the choir.


The church was damaged several times, particularly by flooding and was torn down in 1913. A replica — the Silent Night Chapel with seating for no more than 20 — was built in its place and opened in 1937. A pink building next to the chapel is the vicarage in which Joseph Mohr lived while serving in Oberndorf between 1817 and 1819.

Continue reading “Christmas and Philatelic Connections From Austria”

Lily Spandorf and the 1963 Christmas Stamp

The 1963 Christmas stamp.
The 1963 Christmas stamp.

The temperature was in the low 40s and there was a light breeze and drizzle, but Lily Spandorf would not be deterred. A familiar visitor all around Washington, D.C., the Austrian-born free-lance artist was determined to make one of her on-the-spot watercolors. So she bundled up on the afternoon of December 17, 1962 and made her way to the White House where, during the Christmas Pageant of Peace, President John F. Kennedy would light the National Christmas Tree, a 72-foot-tall blue spruce imported from Colorado.

Lily Spandorf displays the original painting that inspired the 1963 Christmas stamp.
Lily Spandorf displays the original painting that inspired the 1963 Christmas stamp.

At 5:15 p.m., the president pushed the button and the tree, decorated with 5,000 multicolored lights and 4,000 ornaments, flickered to colorful holiday life. It would be the only time JFK would light the national tree.

As soon as the lights came on, Spandorf — who made her living with on-the-spot paintings around the city — went to work, creating a painting with people admiring the decorated tree and a partial view of the White House in the background.

A photo of the Lily Spandorf’s first adaptation of her original painting as requested by the Post Office Department.
A photo of the Lily Spandorf’s first adaptation of her original painting as requested by the Post Office Department.

A lot happened with that painting. It became the principal design for the United States’ second Christmas stamp, that for 1963. Postal officials at first asked for an adaptation. Spandorf eliminated the holiday onlookers and placed the tree even greater in the foreground. In the end, illustrator Norman Todhunter of Connecticut modified the design even more to include a view of the full White House and a more distant view of the tree. But Spandorf is still given credit as the main illustrator.

A proof copy of the front of the Christmas card from Colortone Press.
A proof copy of the front of the Christmas card from Colortone Press.

At about the same time the Post Office Department was creating the stamp, Colortone Press President A.J. Hackl, a longtime admirer of the artist’s, also became interested in the tree painting. He worked out a deal to use the painting as a Christmas card, the first time a stamp and card came from the same source.

The stamp was formally issued November 1 in Santa Claus, Indiana. Spandorf attended the ceremony. The holiday season carried a cloak of great sadness from Kennedy’s assassination. But apparently, the stamp helped folks cope somewhat as it sold a then-record 2 billion examples.

Lily Spandorf’s painting was adapted as a Christmas card, which the artist herself turned into first-day cover when she attended the first-day ceremony in Santa Claus, Indiana. She signed a card and sent one to philatelic journalist Belmont Faries.

Spandorf was born in 1915 in Vienna, Austria. Like many Jews, she fled eastern Europe before the start of World War II, immigrating to London. She made her way to New York City in 1950 and finally to the nation’s capital a few years later. Spandorf contributed artwork to many publications, including the Washington Post, National Geographic, and the Washington Evening Star. She died in 2000 at the age of 85. In recent years at least two retrospective exhibits of her artwork have been held.


Seashells Postcard Stamps in San Diego

The four new Seashells postcard rate stamps will debut nationwide January 28. The first-day postmark will read San Diego, California. The issue date was first announced in the December 22 Postal Bulletin and it is unknown if a ceremony will take place for the stamps.

Seashells postcard rate stamps.

The stamps will be issued in a pane of 20 and in a coil of 100.

Here is some additional information on the stamp issue from the U.S. Postal Service:

Four new postcard stamps celebrate the wonder of seashells. Each stamp depicts one iconic shell found in North American waters: the alphabet cone, the Pacific calico scallop, the zebra nerite, and the Queen conch, commonly known as the pink conch. The highly stylized stamp art expresses a lighthearted, artistic view of shells. The horizontal swaths of white and blue in the background suggest waves washing the shells onto a beach. Art director Greg Breeding designed the stamps. Sergio Baradat created the stamp art.

The Christmas Stamp That Combats Disease

The 2016 U.S. Christmas Seal.

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 ( is an affiliate of the American Philatelic Society.

Actor-singer Frank Sinatra promoted the 1963 U.S. Christmas seal. (Image courtesy of National Postal Museum).

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.

The world’s first Christmas seals were created in 1904 in Denmark. The Danish queen, Louise of Hesse-Kassel, is pictured.

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.

Continue reading “The Christmas Stamp That Combats Disease”