US Stamps

New U.S. Lunar New Year series begins Jan. 11 with Year of the Rat forever stamp

Dec 23, 2019, 9 AM

By Charles Snee

The United States Postal Service will launch its third series of Lunar New Year commemorative stamps Jan. 11 when it issues a nondenominated (55¢) forever stamp celebrating the Year of the Rat.

An official first-day ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. PST at the Lunar New Year Festival in downtown Monterey Park, Calif. The festival is to be held on Garvey Avenue, between Garfield and Alhambra avenues.

Registration for the ceremony, which is free and open to the public, is not required. Luke Grossmann, senior vice president of finance and strategy for the USPS, will serve as the dedicating official.

Veteran USPS art director Antonio Alcala designed the stamp, which features a three-dimensional ceremonial mask by Camille Chew.

Various symbols associated with Lunar New Year celebrations are featured in Chew’s rat mask.

According to the Postal Service, the mask “calls to mind the elaborately decorated masks used in the dragon dance, a hallmark of Lunar New Year parades.”

Blue, shown in various shades on the mask, is said to be a lucky color for people born during the Year of the Rat, which begins this year on Jan. 25 and concludes Feb. 11, 2021.

“The yellow motif atop the rat’s head, similar to a crown, highlights the importance of the animal’s position as the first of the 12 zodiac animal signs associated with the lunar calendar. A pop of red [below each ear of the rat], another lucky color, ties the design to other common celebratory decorations,” the Postal Service said.

Patterns based on Asian textiles are visible on the mask. The circle in the middle of the rat’s head symbolizes the new moon that heralds the beginning of Lunar New Year. Specifically, Lunar New Year starts on the second new moon following the winter solstice in December.

“Lunar New Year” and “Forever USA” are printed in red and yellow, respectively, below the mask.

The Postal Service ordered a print run of 24 million stamps (1.2 million panes of 20) from Banknote Corporation of America, one of two contract printers for the USPS.

A combination of offset printing and gold foil stamping was used to print the Year of the Rat stamp.

Lunar New Year traditionally announces the beginning of spring. As such, those celebrating in the United States mark the occasion by tidying up their streets and homes and hanging decorations.

For almost three decades, the Postal Service has issued stamps to recognize Lunar New Year, which is known as the Spring Festival in China and Tet in Vietnam. The colorful stamps, with their rich symbolism, are intensely popular among collectors of Asian descent.

The first series of U.S. Lunar New Year stamps began with a 29¢ stamp issued Dec. 30, 1992, to ring in the Year of the Rooster (Scott 2720).

That issue marked the U.S. stamp debut of designer Clarence Lee, a Chinese-American graphic artist based in Honolulu, Hawaii. Lee went on to design the remaining 11 stamps in the series, which concluded with the 37¢ Year of the Monkey stamp issued Jan. 13, 2004 (Scott 3832).

Almost one year later, on Jan. 6, 2005, Lee’s 12 Lunar New Year stamp designs were issued in a double-sided pane of 24 37¢ stamps (Scott 3895), with each design appearing twice in the pane. The designs were utilized once more in a pane of 12 39¢ stamps issued Jan. 29, 2006 (3997).

A new 12-year lunar calendar cycle began with the Year of the Rat in 2008. Because of this, the Postal Service chose not to issue a Lunar New Year stamp in 2007.

For its second Lunar New Year series that began in 2008, the USPS teamed up with Kam Mak from Brooklyn, N.Y., who provided the illustrations for Ethel Kessler’s designs.

Unlike the first 12 stamps designed by Lee, which focus on animals, the second series gives prominence to the different ways people celebrate Lunar New Year.

Mak’s painting of a cluster of red lanterns appears on the first stamp in the second Lunar New Year series, a 41¢ commemorative (Scott 4221) issued Jan. 9, 2008, in San Francisco, Calif.

In a subtle tribute to the first Lunar New Year series, each stamp in the second series features a small reproduction of Lee’s cut-paper artwork of the animal associated with that year of the lunar calendar.

On the 2008 41¢ Year of the Rat stamp, the cut-paper rat appears in the top left corner, just above the kanji character for “rat” or “mouse.”

For the 2020 Year of the Rat stamp, two official first-day postmarks will be available from the Postal Service. Both the black and digital color postmark feature Chew’s ceremonial rat mask.

On the black postmark, the mask is rendered in simplified form, without most of the intricate design details. The color postmark depicts the mask as it appears on the stamp.

Requests for the 2020 Year of the Rat first-day cancels must be postmarked by May 11.

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