first christmas stamp 1962Americans send more than 2 billion greeting cards during the holidays, and many of them are adorned with special Christmas postage stamps issued by the US Postal Service just for the occasion. But holiday stamps haven’t always been around. The first Christmas stamp in the United States was released in 1962, the first Hanukkah stamp was released in 1996, and the first Kwanzaa stamp was released in 1997.

So how did this tradition get started? Canada is widely credited with issuing the first Christmas stamp. In December 1898, Canada issued a 2-cent stamp celebrating the introduction of imperial penny postage and inscribed with the words “XMAS 1898.” But it wasn’t really released to celebrate the holidays. Rather, the Xmas inscription came about quite accidentally. Postmaster William Mulock commented to Queen Victoria that the stamp should be released in November “to honor the Prince” (i.e., the Prince of Wales, who was born in November). But when he could see she was not at all pleased with the idea and asked which prince he was referring to, Mulock replied, “Why, the Prince of Peace, ma’am”. Hence, when the stamp was issued in December, it bore not only the image of a world map, but also the words “XMAS 1898” at the bottom.

A few other countries issued some type of Christmas stamp in the 1930s and ’40s (some without holiday images and some to raise money for a specific cause), but it wasn’t until 1943 that Hungary issued the first Christmas-themed stamp that was sold specifically as a holiday stamp to be used on seasonal mailings.

The United States didn’t issue its first Christmas stamp until 1962. It was a 4-cent stamp that featured a wreath, two candles, and the words “Christmas 1962”. Earlier stamps that had conveyed a holiday spirit had proved popular during the holidays in previous years, such as the 1958 Forest Conservation stamp showing a deer in a clearing in the woods and the 1960 stamp showing a stylized green tree resembling a fir, commemorating the 5th World Forest Congress. So the post office was anticipating a large interest in the first Christmas stamp. They ordered 350 million copies, the largest number ever produced up until that time for a special stamp. But it wasn’t enough. When the initial supply ran out, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had to work around the clock to meet the demand. By the end of the 1962 holiday season, one billion of the first Christmas stamps were sold.

The US Postal Service has issued new Christmas stamps every year since then, and now it’s also possible to create your own personalized USPS stamps for the holidays with online services that make it easy to use your own photos and images.