The idea of sending special cards to mark Ireland’s saint’s day goes back to the nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century there were many commercial firms involved in their production, both in Britain and Ireland and in the United States. Much of the now traditional imagery associated with Ireland and the Irish dates from that time.
For well over a hundred years, there has been in the public mind a particularly close association between the Post Office and Christmas time. Christmas cards, letters from abroad, turkeys, geese and parcels of every description are happily linked with the image of a heavily-laden but cheerful postman. Despite great changes in technology in recent years, the link between Christmas and the Post Office survives and Santa Claus himself still depends on An Post to bring him the many thousands of letters written by children throughout the country.
How did all this begin though? The connection with the Post Office goes back at least to the invention of Christmas cards and to Henry Cole who is credited with introducing them. Cole had worked with the postal reformer, Rowland Hill, on the introduction of universal penny postage and the famous Penny Black stamp. In 1843 he arranged for the design and printing of one thousand hand –coloured cards which he sold at the high price of 6d – about 3 cents in today’s currency but a lot of money at the time and well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. Slowly, however, the idea of sending a special greeting card at Christmas caught the imagination and by 1881 the Post Office thought it wise to issue its first “Post early for Christmas” message in order to cope with the additional mail volumes. Some more recent examples from An Post’s Museum & Archive collections are on display here.
Early Christmas cards generally show Santa dressed in green in anticipation of the spring-time that would put an end to winter’s grip. His red costume originated later in the United States and spread back to Europe. Scenes of festivity and traditional Biblical motifs formed the most popular themes on cards but, with the increasing importance of the Post Office at Christmas time, card manufacturers would sometimes incorporate a postal image – a snow-covered pillar box for instance or children awaiting the arrival of the postman.
In days when letters were still the main form of communication between people, it was expected that postal staff would provide normal services on Christmas day. Occasionally, there was generosity on the part of the Post Office as an employer: eighty-odd years ago the Postmaster General conceded that an “official Christmas breakfast” might be funded out of official funds for staff engaged on the 4am duties on Christmas day. This concession, however, was experimental and was not repeated the following year! It was normal for local delivery staff to remain on duty until the final incoming mails had been received, even if they were late, and staff might not get home to their families until the evening. Pressure from staff eventually brought change and, for the first time, there was no Christmas day delivery in 1937.
As mail volumes grew, it became necessary to take on extra staff at Christmas and, in difficult economic times, applications for those Post Office jobs far exceeded the number of positions available. An Post still takes on extra staff at Christmas in order to cope with the nearly 100 million additional items that pass through the postal system over the Christmas period.
It is hard to be quite sure which country came up with the idea of issuing a special Christmas stamp: Canada issued a stamp in 1898 bearing the words Xmas 1898 but the wording was incidental to the main theme. British forces in Egypt used a special Christmas label in the mid 1930s and the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp for use on Christmas mail in 1937. Here in Ireland, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs issued our first Christmas stamp in 1971 and the practice has continued ever since. Designs have generally been based on traditional nativity scenes as portrayed in famous paintings, manuscripts and similar works of art but other aspects of Christmas also feature. In selecting designs, the Post Office has cast its net wide with modern artists like Richard King and P. J. Lynch rubbing shoulders with young children and classical masters like Giorgione and Bellini. As a collecting theme, Christmas stamps offer scope for an attractive and interesting display.
Today, Christmas remains the busiest time of the year for An Post. Modern automated equipment now does most of the sorting work and trucks and vans have long replaced the horse and cart but delivery still depends on the commitment and dedication of Post Office staff throughout the land. While e-mail, text and social media are an integral part of contemporary life, for warmth and the cosy glow of an authentic Christmas, there’s nothing quite like the post!
An Post Museum & Archive
We attended the very well organised Finlandia stamp exhibition in Tampere earlier in the year which focused particularly on the centenary of Finnish independence. Sinn Fein’s propaganda labels, used here in the years before the 1916 rebellion, probably drew inspiration from a similar scheme drawn up by the Finns to highlight the desire for independence from Russia.
The Celtic Cross motif used here later, of course, became better known as part of Ireland’s first definitive issue.
Issued by La Poste and kindly sent to me by a Breton friend, this stamp marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany (Anna Vreizh), a wealthy and much pursued heiress who was twice queen consort of France. As the summer starts, many Irish people will take the boat to Cherbourg or Roscoff to enjoy their holidays in Brittany and sample the particular delights, history and traditions of that lovely part of France.
The annual Festival Interceltique, which takes place in Lorient in August, draws together some 700,000 people who wish to share the music, languages and customs of a heritage that unites the celtic peoples of western Europe. They might spare a thought for Anne of Brittany who, in choosing amongst her various political suitors, sought to preserve the independence of her native Brittany.