Well it's an even-numbered year, which means only one thing. The Post Office's Christmas stamps are on a secular theme, and a thousand and one blithering idiots with too much time on their hands and persecution complexes bigger than a very big mountain of very big things, will be whining and moaning that the Post Office, for some vague reason probably connected to Militant Secularism™, are trying to ban Christianity. Because that's what post offices do. Obviously.
This post began life as an attempt to put that straight by listing the basic theme of every set of Christmas stamps since 1966, when the tradition began. And that would have been as boring as hell. But along the way, it kind of grew into a collection of digressions loosely held together by a list of stamps. We have Joyce Grenfell in there, and a short discussion of the slang pertaining to British coinage, and many other brief but, I hope, interesting and amusing snippets of trivia, reminiscence and opinion.
And so let us begin with the year of my birth. For I, Gentle Reader, am but a few short months older than, though sadly not as well-preserved as, the British Post Office Christmas Postage Stamp…
1966: Children's drawings. King Of The Orient for thruppence, and Snowman for one and six. So that's one secular and one religious, a score draw. And reading the artist-bios, it's all so Just William; you can almost smell the iodine vapour wafting from the scabby knees.
1967: Classical paintings. Two versions of the adoration of the shepherds and a Madonna and child.
1968: Girl And Boy With Rocking Horse, Girl With Doll's House, and Boy With Train Set, all by Rosalind Dease. And inflation's creeping in—the cheapest is now fourpence!
1969: I have to say this is a rather ugly set, designed by Fritz Wegner. Herald Angel, The Three Shepherds and The Three Kings. I wonder if there'd been some minor political eyebrow-raising at the prices. The cheapest is still fourpence and the dearest's still one and six, but the middle one's come down from ninepence to fivepence.
1970: Rather good medieval style renditions, reminiscent of the border-art in, say, a psalter from the period, of Sheperds And Apparition Of The Angel, Mary, Joseph And Christ In The Manger and The Wise Men Bearing Gifts, by Sally Stiff.
1971: Well, they're obviously supposed to be stained glass windows, but to be honest, reduced to the scale of a stamp, they look more like bad drawings with random lines cutting through them. Ho-ho-ho-hum. And we've gone decimal, Gentle Reader! Dream Of The Wise Men cost two and a half pence, Adoration Of The Magi cost three pence, and Ride Of The Magi (Wagner rescored for sitar?) cost seven and a half. And lest my younger readers should fall into the fallacy of believing their elders to be vaguely sensible, I'll point out that we still had a coin with a value of half a shilling, two and a half pence, but that it was known, right up until they phased it out some time in the early 1980s, as a sixpence or a sixpenny bit.
Okay, digression time, 'cause I've had conversations with foreigners on British monetary terminology, so I know some find it puzzling and/or interesting…
In pre-decimal money, a shilling was twelve pence and there were twenty of them to a pound. After decimalisation, when a pound became one hundred pence, the five-pence coin, being a twentieth of the new pound, took the name shilling. That's why the old sixpence reduced in value to two and a half pence; it was half a shilling. The rest of the old money—tanners and thruppences and all the rest of it—went out of circulation.
You'll often hear single-digit numbers of pennies named with the words slurred together, so that four pence becomes fourpence; and the "e" of "pence" is hardly pronounced, so it sounds like "fourpnce." Two pence and three pence are a bit special, becoming tuppence and thruppence. Never "onepence" though. That's a penny or one pence. ("Pence," pronounced as a separate word, retains the proper pronunciation of the "e.") Alternatively, the abbreviation "p" for "penny" can be pronounced as a word, so " one pee, "four pee," twenty pee," etc. You'll never hear "One penny" or "X pennies" though; 'cause that would be sensible, and we can't have that! (Come to think of it, in one sense you might. If someone says they have, for instance, twenty pennies, they mean that they have twenty one-pence coins.)
You won't hear five pence referred to as a shilling very often these days, but an old slang term for one, "bob," still appears, though increasingly rarely, in "ten bob," "five bob" and "two bob," for fifty pence, twenty-five pence and ten pence respectively.
And a pound is often known as a quid. That's probably the strongest survivor from pre-decimal slang, and shows no sign of fading from use. And, like the bob, it's an irregular plural, taking no "s."
But back to the stamps…
1972: Sally Stiff returns, with some rather odd looking angels playing various instruments. Not the most memorable set of stamps, though the lute player does look rather as if he or she is about to break into a Chuck Berry-esque duck walk.
1973: The year we joined Europe sees a collection of six stamps on the theme of Good King Wenceslas, The Page And Peasant. My minimal bit of research (I looked it up on Wikipedia) doesn't shed much light on whether Wenceslas (who was a Duke, and never actually a king) was really the benefactor of the poor which this tale would have us believe he was, or whether such tales were merely the result, not the cause, of the cult of personality which grew up around him after his death. Still an' all, like the tale of the Good Samaritan, these things don't have to be factual in order to teach by example.
1974: Depictions of some medieval church carvings; Adoration Of The Magi (York Minster, c 1355), The Nativity (St Helens Church, Norwich, c 1480), Virgin And Child (Ottery St Mary Church, c 1350) and Virgin And Child (Worcester cathedral, c 1224). Being a west-country lad, I'll just add a small Yay! for Ottery's inclusion, and a link to one of Mark Steele's excellent "In Town" stand-up routines.
1975: More angels playing instruments, but rather more charmingly rendered than the previous set on this theme. And since I can't think of anything more to say on this one, let's pause for a couple of art-trivia items:
Did you know that the standard depiction of angels in Christian art derives from Greek depictions of Nike, and the Roman reinvention of same, Victory?
And have you ever noticed how damned ugly the baby Jesus looks, in so many renaissance depictions of the Madonna and child? It's not that the artists were bad; after all, the Marys and other figures are often almost photographically realistic. Nope, it's because they were faced with an idea almost impossible to depict; a babe with all the innocence and lack of experience of a new-born, who is also the oldest and wisest being in the universe.
And back to the stamps again…
1976: Most of us who are old enough probably remember '76 more for its prolonged drought than for its Christmas. On a personal note, I also remember the breaking of the drought particularly vividly. Since the wooden frame in my attic-bedroom's window-alcove, which was set into the slope of the roof, had shrunk in the months of extreme heat, the first night of quite torrential rain saw water flooding into my room almost as if a pipe had burst. Anyways, Christmas saw a set of four stamps depicting details of nativity-themed thirteenth and fourteenth century English embroideries. And also, checking on the prices, I see that in ten years the most expensive has gone from one and six to thirteen pence (roughly two shillings, sixpence-ha'penny).
1977: David Gentleman returns, to give us the Twelve Days Of Christmas in six stamps; the most expensive of which is now only ninepence, though the others are all sevenpence each. And as to the so-called hidden meanings in the song—the most common of which is that of a mnemonic for recusant Catholics—I shall refer you to snopes.com, with whom I agree completely; it's balderdash. If anyone's counting religious Vs secular editions, this one is definitely in the latter camp. Snopes do throw in a few interesting titbits along with their refutation though. For instance:
Some misinterpretations have crept into the English version over the years, though. For example, the fourth day's gift is four "colly birds" (or "collie birds"), not four "calling birds." (The word "colly" literally means "black as coal," and thus "colly birds" would be blackbirds.) The "five golden rings" refers not to five pieces of jewelry, but to five ring-necked birds (such as pheasants). When these errors are corrected, the pattern of the first seven gifts' all being types of birds is re-established.
1978: And now is the winter of our discontent! Faith Jaques gives us four twee but in a nice way versions of carol singers through the ages. At which point, I'll mention that my favouritest Christmas song is kinda twee and not terribly fashionable either. Yep, it's the Slade one. Because, while it's become twee with age and repetition, I love that it's an unashamed celebration of a normal family Christmas, but without all the mawkishness and jingly bells which normally accompany such songs. So, let's take a break and listen to, yes, you guessed it, Asmodeus…
1979: In which we are treated to some rather nicely done nativity scenes, courtesy of Fritz Wegner.
1980: And in continuation from the previous year, of the "I can think of nothing to say about this" theme, Jeffrey Matthews provides us with some workmanlike but unremarkable Christmas decorations.
1981: Courtesy of a Blue Peter competition, we have a set named Through The Eyes Of A Child, which is pretty much self explanatory; they're all designed by children of various ages. Talking of Blue Peter, though, their milk-bottle-tops for guide dogs collections reminded me of summat. Does anyone know for sure whether it's true or false that the famous world war two "saucepans for spitfires" collections (donated aluminium utensils were supposedly melted down for use in making aircraft parts) were basically just an exercise in morale-boosting? I've heard it claimed that the aluminium wasn't actually needed, but that the collections were thought a good way to make civilians feel like they were helping the war effort; but I've never actually come across confirmation or outright denial of this.
1982: The year I left school. Oh, what a day; straight from the schoolyard to Thatcher's Britain and the empty notice boards of the Job Centre, in the time it took the end-of-school bell to ring. Anyways, Martin Newton provides us with five scenes from Christmas carols. And on seeing them, I'm struggling to remember the last time I heard I Saw Three Ships. So here's Blackmore's Night:
1983: Tony Meeuwissen contributes some quite lovely scenes revolving around birds. And I notice that the cheapest, at twelve and a half pence, is a tad over a third as much again as the most expensive of the first Christmas stamps, back in 1966, while the dearest, at thirty-one pence is a bit over four times as much.
1984: More nativity scenes, this time from Yvonne Gilbert. Beautifully done though, and I like that the people look recognisably Middle-Eastern. This Mary and Joseph are not going to produce some blond, Nordic-looking Christ, that's for sure.
1985: Adrian George gives us some pantomime characters, in a style that definitely shouts "1980s." All pastels and slightly sketchy lines. These are not stamps, they are stampz!
1986: I'm not sure what to make of Lynda Gray's Folk Customs set of designs. They seem kinda Bayeux Tapestry-ish in the way the figures are posed and drawn, but the clothing depicted looks sort of Tudor. And it seems I'm not the only one who's noticed the price creeping upwards. It looks as if a late addition was made to the set:
The 12p stamp was issued on 2nd December 1986 by the Post Office to help reduce the cost of Christmas postings. A separate FDC was issued. It is the same design as the 13p but with gold lettering.
1987: Award winning children's author and illustrator Michael Foreman gives some highlights of a child's Christmas: decorating the tree, waiting for Santa, sleeping, and reading and playing with presents. There's a kind of "Every Roald Dahl book you've ever read" feel to them, and while there's nowt wrong with that per se, I always found Ronald Searle's depictions of Geoffrey Willans' St Custards prep school more stimulating.
1988: Lynn Trickett's rendition of the Christmas story from the annunciation through to the nativity. Nicely portrayed, and kinda mind-wrenching, in that the scenes are shown on Christmas cards, which would themselves, one assumes, have been mailed using the stamps containing the pictures of the cards which would have… etc. Which reminds me of my favourite acronym, because it's similarly circular. The GNU operating system is so called because Gnu's Not Unix.
1989: Another set from David Gentleman, this one some rather dull portrayals of various bits of Ely Cathedral, which had its eight hundredth birthday that year. And there's a penny surcharge for charity on four out of the five.
1990: Some Ladybird-book-esque winter scenes from John Gorham. Building A Snowman, Fetching The Christmas Tree, Carol Singing, Tobogganing and Ice-Skating. And oddly enough, given the number of religious people who complain about secular themes not being Christmassy enough, this is the first set since 1966's snowman which has contained secular images which aren't specifically to do with Christmas, whereas the religiously themed sets have several times depicted things, like Ely Cathedral or angels playing music, which seem to bear little relation to the specific holiday.
1991: The usual nativity story, this time ending with the flight to Egypt, and all taken from illustrated manuscripts from the Bodleian library. Looking for something more to say about this, I stumbled on the film The Golden Compass, which used the library as a location, and which Bill Donohue's call for a boycott of, on grounds of its anti-religious theme (much watered-down compared to the book it's based on, Northern Lights), led to author Philip Pullman coming out with a lovely understated condemnation of such narrow-mindedness:
Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers? Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world.
1992: And the nativity story again, this time courtesy of the stained glass windows of various churches.
1993: A rather fun set, this one, from Quentin Blake, depicting scenes from Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which was having its hundred and fiftieth anniversary. And on that note, and on the unlikely chance that any future film-makers might read this: For gawd's sake, the Scrooge story has been done and redone in every possible genre, in every possible setting and some science-fiction/fantasy settings which are almost certainly impossible. Give it a bloody rest and find a new plot. Gor-bless us, one an' all.
1994: Some scenes from a children's nativity play, by Yvonne Gilbert. In honour of which, I took the time to rip Joyce Grenfell's charming Nativity Play from vinyl and stick it on YouTube…
1995: Ken Lilly's quite pretty collection of robins on various perches. I particularly like the one sat in the slot of a pillar box (that's post box, for those of a foreign disposition).
1996: The same scenes as usual from the nativity story. About which I'm running out of things to say. This time in a rather uninspiring design from Laura Steddart.
1997: To celebrate the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Christmas cracker, John Gorham depicts Santa in several activities involving said brightly covered bad-joke dispensers. According to fireco.uk, "Every year at least 3 people are reported with broken arms due to pulling Christmas crackers." Other related facts they list are that "In 2007, 12 people received burns when trying on their new Christmas jumpers with a cigarette in their mouth," and "Over the last 10 years, 27 people have injured themselves testing batteries on their tongue." The most common festive-season injuries and deaths though are caused by the obvious suspects: drink, electricity (mostly while testing faulty lights or, would you believe it, watering the tree while the lights are on), food poisoning and fire. (Bloody candles. I hate candles—and especially when the people using them are also using alcohol, waving wrapping paper and new clothes around, and wearing paper hats. It's like the introductory, "Here's Joe, doing everything wrong," part of a fire safety video.)
1998: A set, by Irene von Treskow, of angels doing various things. Things which include praying. Why would angels need to pray?
1999: A set of four entitled The Christians' Tale. Presumably only Protestants can be Christians, since the King James Bible plays a starring role. And they must be uneducated, too, since that's quite possibly the least accurate translation of the various books ever committed to paper. Ho-hum.
2000: Wahay! Jet-packs for all! What'dya mean we never got 'em? Most of the commemorative sets over the year were part of a Millennium Projects schema, and I assume, given the lack of a set labelled specifically "Christmas," that the Spirit And Faith series, published in November, are supposed to perform that function. It's a rag-bag of religiously themed subjects, and doesn't exactly get my blood pumping.
2001: My god, it's full of stars! They missed a great opportunity for a set on the theme of the star of Bethlehem here, in my opinion. Or someone could have commissioned a set from the makers of The Simpsons, for an extended pun on "Odyssey," tying the obvious Clarke reference in with the more classical Homer. Instead, we got some admittedly good-fun cartoon robins from A. Robins and H. Brown.
2002: Rose Design provides us with, perhaps aptly given their name, some quite pretty Christmassy plantlife. And speaking of mistletoe, did you know of the custom that it should remain hanging in the house all year? Nor did I. According to The Fount Of All Knowledge™:
Mistletoe is commonly used as a Christmas decoration, though such use was rarely alluded to until the 18th century. According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas. It may remain hanging throughout the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it is replaced the following Christmas Eve. The tradition has spread throughout the English-speaking world, but is largely unknown in the rest of Europe. (The similar native species Phoradendron leucarpum is used in North America in lieu of the European Viscum album.)
2003: Some pretty pictures of ice, from Dick Davis. I'm sure there's comedy potential in "Ice Hole" and "Ice Ball," but I shall leave that as an exercise for the reader. Writing this on the day when Donald Trump announced his intention to combat what he dismisses as "politicised science" by stripping NASA's Earth science budget, reducing or removing their ability to perform vital climate-change monitoring, somehow the topic of ice, especially of that which sits at the poles of our planet, is one I'd rather not think about for now. And Ouch! We've gone from sixty-eight pence for the most expensive stamp the year before to one pound twelve.
2004: Raymond Briggs shows us some of Santa's weather-related activities. And talking of weather, I recently became aware that when we outside the USA mention sleet, we're not talking of the same thing that people in the US are when they mention it. To us, sleet is a mixture of rain and snow, while to them it's ice pellets. Which, judging by the description given on Wikipedia, we in the UK call hail, at least colloquially.
2005: I noticed in passing that during that year, they issued a set on British motorbikes. And for the BSA example, they chose the Rocket 3, not the Gold Star. Not the Gold Star! Heathens and infidels, the bloody lot of 'em. Anyways, the Christmas stamps are a bunch of versions of the Madonna and child, of varying ethnicities and locations around the world. And from this year onwards, the stamps alternate strictly; religious in odd-numbered years, and secular in the even numbers.
2006: A tree, Santa, a reindeer and a snowman. Umm. What more can I say…?
2007: More angels playing instruments, quite beautifully portrayed this time, and a couple of Madonna-and-childs which look like miniatures of actual paintings, but there's no details given.
2008: Characters from pantomimes. Plus the same two Madonnas as the previous year. We're well into the current period of heightened Christian faux-persecution (notably, this is the year that Andrea Williams set up Christian Concern For Our Nation, later to be known as Christian Concern), so I suspect there'd been complaints about previous secular sets and accusations that the Post Office was trying to "ban Christianity." Thus the Madonnas would have been included as a placatory gesture.
2009: Details of various stained glass windows featuring figures from the nativity. Stained glass is glorious stuff, no doubt about it; but, to my mind, where it really shines (pun unintended) is when it's used to portray abstract geometrical shapes. Which is why the most beautiful religious examples tend to be Islamic, not Christian. Check out, for instance, this simply stunning view of the Pink Mosque:
Whether you think that's a glory unto Allah or simply glorious is up to you, but a glory of one kind or the other it certainly is.
2010: Christmas With Wallace And Gromit. Which is about what you'd expect it to be.
2011: I offer the description given at the link, since I ran out of stuff to say about the nativity scenes way back:
The 2011 Christmas stamps feature scenes inspired by the Nativity. The Madonna and Child appear on the 1st Class stamp and Joseph being visited by the Angel on the 2nd Class stamp.
The seven stamps are inspired by verses from the Gospels of Mathew and Luke and recognise that 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
2012: Axel Scheffer, illustrator of The Gruffalo, provides some fairly generic Christmas images. Including a tree with candles on. 'cause nothing says Christmas like highly resinous foliage and naked flames in intimate proximity. Still an' all they're a bright and cheerful set of images.
2013: Yet more depictions of the Madonna and child, this time using renditions of various paintings. I realise the religious Christmas provides a fairly limited scope, but surely someone could think of something to give a little variety. Depictions of some of the celebrations in the lesser-known sects and churches, maybe. Or, at the risk of blowing the minds of way too many Christians, a depiction of the Islamic story of Jesus's birth. (Which has some parallels to the Syriac Infancy Gospel, so it's not entirely unchristian, even if it's non-canonical.)
2014: More people doing Christmassy and generally wintery things in the snow. And it's just occurred to me that in all my half-century, I wouldn't even need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of times I've actually seen a white Christmas. In fact, I can recall several when I was young when it was just about warm enough to go and play in the park in just a shirt. Yay! for climate change; when the ice cap melts and the Gulf Stream gets interrupted, we'll have winters like they have in Calgary (which is, if you didn't know, on the same latitude as London). Brrrr!
2016: And this year's are also quite lovely, though in a completely different style, not only to last year's, but to any previous year, combining a quite child-like central figure with an intricate paper-modelling frame-effect. And I think it's quite fitting that the fiftieth anniversary of the Christmas postage stamp should fall on an even-numbered, "secular," year. It shows how far we've come. The days when a person was assumed, by default, to be a Christian; when, if you had stated that you weren't religious, you'd have been answered with "Well, we'll just put you down as Church of England then," are long gone.
And this should have proved, if nothing else, that the biannually recycled myth that the Post Office, contrary to evidence and common sense, is attempting to banish Christianity from the face of the land, is a load of old tosh. And if anyone tells you they are trying to, just send 'em a link to this page. Or sigh and kick 'em in the nuts. Or both. The choice is yours.
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