World Stamps

Britain’s Royal Mail celebrates caroling tradition on Christmas stamps

Nov 2, 2023, 7 AM
On Nov. 2, Great Britain’s Royal Mail issued Christmas stamps with designs inspired by carols and caroling. Each stamp includes a lyric from a popular Christmas carol.

By David Hartwig

Five stamps in a Nov. 2 issue from Great Britain’s Royal Mail celebrate Christmas with designs inspired by carols and caroling.

“One of the great joys of the carolling tradition in the UK is that it has been open to many different musical and cultural influences,” Royal Mail said. “From the riches of British and European folk song to stirring hymns and village ‘wassail’ songs, many of our best-loved and most popular Christmas carols have a rich and varied history.”

The Christmas set includes four nondenominated stamps: second-class for standard mail (currently 75 pence), second-class for large mail (£1.55), first-class for standard mail (£1.25) and first-class for large mail (£1.95). The other stamp in the set is denominated £2.20 (the international standard rate).

Royal Mail defines standard-size mail as letters not exceeding 24 centimeters in length, 16.5 centimeters in width and 0.5 centimeters in thickness. Large letters can be up to 35.3 centimeters in length, 25 centimeters in width and 2.5 centimeters thick. There is a 100-gram weight limit for letters sent with any of the five stamps.

These are Great Britain’s first Christmas stamps to feature the silhouette of King Charles III. Each stamp has a barcode printed in one of the dominant colors of the stamp and separated by a simulated wavy-line die cut. The barcode can be scanned with a smartphone.

The stamps feature illustrations by Tom Duxbury, who specializes in the medium of block printing. Each design contains a lyric from one of five popular Christmas carols.

The second-class stamp for standard mail shows an angel and presents a lyric from O Holy Night. Royal Mail said that two men from France wrote the words and music for this carol, and an American minister provided the words for the English version.

Royal Mail added that Canadian engineer Reginald Fessenden included O Holy Night in the first-ever radio broadcast when he tested his new communication device on Dec. 24, 1906.

The design of the second-class stamp for large mail contains a lyric from O Little Town of Bethlehem written in a starry sky over a village. Phillips Brooks, an American preacher who also delivered a eulogy after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, published the words to this carol in 1891.

Like several other familiar carols, the tune of O Little Town of Bethlehem differs from England to the United States, according to Royal Mail.

Mary holds the infant Jesus in the design of the first-class stamp for standard mail, with a lyric from Silent Night to her left. Joseph Mohr, a priest of a church in the mountains of Austria, wrote the text of this carol, and the teacher and organist Franz Gruber composed the melody. The two first performed the song in 1818.

“The manuscript makes it clear that this was, originally, very much in the style of Tyrolean folk song: for two voices in simple harmony, with accompaniment not for organ but for guitar — a popular combination in the folk music of the region both at the time and since,” Royal Mail said.

The first-class stamp for large mail features lyrics from Away in a Manger in a design of the sleeping baby Jesus. No one knows who wrote the carol, according to Royal Mail, and the tune changes between England and the United States. British singers use a tune by William J. Kirkpatrick, and Americans use one by James Ramsey Murray.

A lyric from We Three Kings appears on the £2.20 stamp with a design showing the Magi (also known as the three kings or the three wise men) following a star seeking “he that is born King of the Jews.” After arriving at Jerusalem, they traveled to ...

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