Stamp of disapproval

"Slagging off the Christmas stamps" is a timeless tradition, handed down through the generations. This year the Archbishop of York saw the images of snowman, reindeer, Santa Claus and Christmas tree as an example of the "systematic erosion" of the majority faith by an "aggressive secularism". "Christ is dumped from Christmas stamps," said the Daily Express. Others protested that Santa appeared to be using the chimney as a toilet bowl.

This annual lament began 40 years ago. A new postmaster general, Tony Benn, had grown bored by the normal stamps with the Queen's head, and changed the rules to allow for commemorative issues "reflecting our national cultural and scientific heritage and achievements". Benn was motivated both by republican sympathies (though he had to settle for a little gold head of the Queen on all pictorial stamps) and a boyish zeal for stamp design. He even decreed that the Post Office sponsor a fellowship in minuscule art at the Royal College of Art.

When the first two Christmas stamps went on sale on 1 December 1966, hundreds of philatelists queued at midnight at the all-night post office in Trafalgar Square to buy them. They discovered that the stamps were paintings of a snowman and King Wenceslas drawn by two six-year-old children. "It is unbelievable that anyone, let alone the Postmaster General, should have dared to sanction these travesties," complained one contributor to the Times letters page. Another agreed that the stamps were a "disgrace," adding magnanimously that "the six-year-olds are not to blame".

The Post Office licked its wounds, and returned in 1967 with some inoffensive religious paintings. But it came out fighting again in 1968, issuing designs of children's toys, painted by Rosalind Dease, a self-confessed atheist. Another Times letter-writer thought that appointing a non-Christian to design Christmas stamps was like the Conservative Party "handing over the design and production of its publicity material to the staff at the Morning Star".

Why such anger? We are a nation of stamp obsessives. You might think that philately would have gone the way of other boys' hobbies such as building tree houses or collecting marbles. Yet, according to the Royal Mail, 2.4 million Britons each year buy stamps to collect or give as presents.

In the 1960s, our stamp fixation fed into post-imperial anxieties that British stamps would be travelling the world promoting (or denigrating) our way of life to former colonies. Today, the Christmas stamp controversy slots into debates about multiculturalism and "political correctness". Its companion stories are tales about local councils banning Christmas lights or renaming the season "winterval".

Jan Moir in the Telegraph complained: "Despite the Royal Mail's dodgy claim that it alternates each year between religious and secular designs, the PC smog is almost suffocating, while the whiff of appeasement hangs in the air."

Yet there is nothing dodgy about the claim. Of the Christmas stamp sets issued since 1966, 22 have been religious and 19 secular. Each year it is assumed that the Royal Mail has suddenly been afflicted with godlessness. Christmas may or may not be under threat from belligerent secularists. But we won't find the proof in a stamp with a snowman on it.

Joe Moran's "Queuing for Beginners" will be published by Profile Books in May 2007

This article first appeared in the 18 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year Special 2006