Because I'm a big fan of postage stamps, I always look forward to what will come out at Christmas.
Continuing a long tradition of Madonna and Child stamps, the postal service's religious choice this year is "Our Lady of Guápulo." The secular alternative is a sheet of four designs — A Christmas tree, ornament, stocking and reindeer — in red, green and white.
The story behind this year's Madonna stamp is more interesting than some.
According to the postal service news release, the image is based on a painting created in the 18th century by an unknown artist in Cuzco, Peru, the former capital of the Inca Empire. Historians characterize the artists at this time as members of the "Cuzco school."
That is, between the 16th and 18th centuries, European painters worked with indigenous artists in and around Cuzco to train them in the styles and forms that dominated European countries at the end of the Renaissance period and during the Baroque era.
In today's world — which, hopefully, has more respect for indigenous art AND indigenous spiritual beliefs — this is a little disconcerting.
Be that as it may, the figure of “Our Lady of Guápulo” originated as a sculpture, commissioned in Quito, Ecuador, in 1584, based on a statue in Spain. It got the name Guápulo because it was transferred to a chapel in a village by that name in 1587.
Reimagined by many artists since then, the Guápulo Madonna is often portrayed dressed in an ornate, pyramidal robe fastened with a rosary, holding a flowered scepter in one hand and the Christ Child in the other.
HOLIDAY DELIGHTS: In its news release about the secular stamps, the postal service explains the origins of the four traditions pictured.
Indoor Christmas trees, it says, are a custom brought to this country by German immigrants.
Early on, decorations included candles and homemade ornaments, but in the 1890s, Woolworth’s five-and-dime stores began to import handblown ornaments. By the mid-20th century, Americans were buying hundreds of thousands of ornaments each Christmas.
The origin of hanging stockings is trickier, but according to legend, St. Nicholas heard of a widower who could not pay his daughters’ dowries. St. Nick dropped gold coins down the man’s chimney, and they landed in the girls’ stockings hung by the fireplace to dry, according to the postal service.
And then the news release goes on to explain about reindeer, and here is where I beg to differ with the postal service.
"Although there is no certainty about how reindeer came to be associated with the holiday, it could be that their natural habitat in northernmost Europe and North America fits perfectly with the story of Santa’s secret North Pole workshop," the news release says.
Nonsense, I say.
It was Clement Clarke Moore's poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," first published in 1823, that popularized the notion that Santa travels on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.
Before that time, Santa didn't have a mode of transportation and he didn't fly through the sky on Christmas Eve, sliding down chimneys with gifts, according to the 1996 book "The Battle for Christmas," by Stephen Nissenbaum.
Because of the reindeer, Santa's home subsequently became, by extension, the North Pole.
WHEN DID THIS ALL BEGIN? The postal service issued its first Christmas stamp in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 1, 1962. Customers had requested such a stamp for years.
The green and red four-cent stamps featured a wreath, two candles, and the words "Christmas 1962".
Anticipating a huge demand, the service ordered 350 million printed — the largest number produced for a special stamp until that time.
The initial supply sold out quickly and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began working around-the-clock to print more. By the end of 1962, one billion of the stamps had been printed and distributed.
Although the decision to print a Christmas stamp generated some controversy, especially from groups concerned about maintaining the separation of church and state, legal actions to bar the stamps were not successful.
Since then, there has been a huge selection of scenes, with an emphasis on Madonna and Child and Santa.
One of many Santas was based on a drawing by a second-grade student from Queens, New York, who won a nationwide student stamp design contest. Others pictured Santa in a chimney, checking his list and playing drums.
Children doing winter activities has been another theme: children sledding building a snowman, sledding, skating and trimming a tree.
Other choices: wreaths, holly, toys, poinsettias, an 1840 weather vane with an angel with trumpet on the top, Currier and Ives paintings, a puppy and kitten, Washington at Valley Forge, snowflakes, holiday cookies, holiday knits, nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, Rudolph, Charlie Brown and Christmas carols.
WINTER SCENES: Although these aren't listed as holiday stamps, per se, I very much like these 10 snowy scenes. There are a deer, rabbit, blue jay, northern cardinal, owl, team of horses, two barns and two forest scenes, all pictured with snow.
KWANZAA: The 2020 stamp depicts the profile of a reflective woman with a kinara, or candleholder, with seven lit candles.
Kwanzaa takes place over seven days annually from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.
It was created in 1966, drawing on a variety of African traditions, deriving its name from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.”
HANUKKAH: Also called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is a family-centered Jewish celebration that includes the ceremonial lighting of the hanukiah, the nine-branched menorah used during the holiday.
The story of Hanukkah — “dedication” in Hebrew — tells of reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by a conquering army. Worshippers prepared to rededicate the holy space but discovered that only one small jar of consecrated oil remained, enough to last one day. Rather than wait for more oil to arrive, they lit the Temple menorah, which burned for eight days.
This miracle of the oil is celebrated during Hanukkah.
This year, Hanukkah begins on the evening of Dec. 10.
AND NOW: Especially in this time of limited interaction because of the pandemic and bitter political division, I encourage everyone to reach out — safely — in any way they can to others during Christmas.
I'm sure that a hand-written card with a pretty stamp on the envelope would be welcome by most everyone.