“A Vaster Empire Than Has Been”

The world’s first Christmas postage stamp was issued in Canada in 1898. It depicts the Mercator map with the territory of the British Empire in red. It is dated “XMAS 1898.” Along the bottom reads the motto, “We Hold a Vaster Empire Than Has Been.” Pictured above is a specimen from my small collection.

An apocryphal anecdote concerns the origin of the design. Michael O. Nowlan writes,

At the time, stamp designs for the colonial countries had to be approved by Queen Victoria. The story goes that a post office official in discussing the new Canadian stamp for the Imperial Penny Postage rate (two cents) with Her Majesty said the new stamp could serve as a tribute to the prince. The official was referring to the then-Prince of Wales whose birthday occurred on November 9, the original date selected to release the stamp.

Queen Victoria, who had her gruff moments, is said to have replied “Which prince?” in a tone that suggested she would not be pleased with a royal connection other than herself. The official quickly said “Why, madam, the Prince of Peace,” referring, of course, to the Christ child. As a result, the stamp when it was officially released on December 7, 1898, bore, not only Mercator’s map, but also the words “XMAS 1898”.

In fact the Prince of Wales had already appeared on postage stamps from Newfoundland and New Brunswick beginning in 1860 and continuing in circulation at least until the late 1880s. I think the anecdote (much repeated in philatelic circles) is a post-hoc explanation for why the Christmas message appears on a stamp that does not otherwise relate to the holiday. But Christmas postage designs as we know them today only appeared much later in the mid-twentieth century.


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