The first Christmas postage stamp depicts a map of the world with the territories and possessions of the British Empire indicated in red. It was issued following the adoption at a conference in London of a uniform postal rate for the entire Empire. A rate of two cents per half-ounce (14 grams) was applied for letters; it came into effect on 25 December 1898.

The adoption of this rate was largely due to a campaign by J. Henniker Heaton, a Conservative MP in the House of Commons since 1885. Starting in 1887, Heaton argued in the House for the adoption of an imperial postal system. He had to wait ten years before the subject was given serious consideration, when William Mulock arranged the implementation of the idea. The issue of standardization of the rate structure was raised in 1897 at two major conferences: the Congress of the Universal Postal Union in Washington and the Colonial Conference in London. In the wake of the latter, Joseph Chamberlain, the British secretary of state for the colonies and an ardent imperialist, came over to Heaton’s opinion.

In Canada, there was a widespread desire to play a more active role in the affairs of the British Empire because American expansionism was generating real fears. At the time, Canada and the U.S. were in a dispute over the Alaska border. Anxious to rely on the human and financial resources of the members of its empire, Great Britain encouraged such participation. The military support of the Dominion for the Boer War that erupted in South Africa in 1899 was part of the "logic of imperial alliance."
Thus motivated by the imperialist fervour of the late 19th century, William Mulock, the Postmaster General of Canada, set his attention to designing a stamp worthy of the great imperial postal project in support of consolidation of the British Empire, despite the disagreement of certain colonies. Australia, for example, saw the adoption of a universal rate as an infringement of local authority. On 25 December 1898, the imperial two-cent stamp was issued by the Canadian Post Office department. Some believe that this date was chosen jointly by the Duke of Norfolk, the chair of the Colonial Conference of 1897, and Queen Victoria, to mark the birthday of Jesus, the Christmas infant and Prince of Peace. Others regarded this as a political manoeuvre on Mulock’s part, with the "Xmas 1898" caption being used to appease the colonies opposed to the reduction of the postal rate.

To mark the grandeur of the British Empire, the makers of this stamp entered on it the phrase "We hold a vaster empire than has been." This is taken from the ode, A Song of Empire, composed by Sir Lewis Morris on 20 June 1887 in honour of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

The first letter bearing the imperial stamp cancelled at the Ottawa Post Office was sent by Mulock to the Duke of Norfolk on Christmas Day 1898. Mulock wrote in it that those unhappy with the new rate structure were jokingly referring to the new issue as the "has-been stamp," an allusion to the obsolescence into which, in their view, imperialism was dragging Canada. All the same, this stamp remains one of the most popular in Canada, and is internationally recognized by collectors for its distinctive characteristics.

Stéphanie Ouellet


Boggs, Winthrop. S. The Postage Stamps and Postal History of Canada. Kalamazoo, MI: Chambers Publishing Co., 1945; reprinted Lawrence, MA: Quarterman Publications, 1974.

Daunton, Martin. Royal Mail, The Post Office since 1840. London: Athlone Press, 1985, pp 147-154.

Page, Robert. The Boer War and Canadian Imperialism. Canadian Historical Association Historical Booklet No. 44. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1967.

Pekonen, Bill. "Le premier timbre de Noël au monde." Canadian Postal Museum research paper.