Our story begins — as all the most exciting stories do — with the glitz and glamour of an international postage conference. It was the summer of 1898. Postmasters from all over the British Empire were gathered in London, England to hammer out a landmark agreement. The Imperial Postal Conference would establish a standard rate for postage across the empire. It didn’t matter if you were in England, India, Canada or the Windward Islands, if you wanted to send a letter it would cost you exactly one penny.
The man sent to represent Canada at this riveting affair was Sir William Mulock. He was a giant in the history of Canadian mail — in fact, in the entire history of Canadian communication. As a cabinet minister in Wilfird Laurier’s government, Mulock worked hard to build connections between Canada and the rest of the world. And with the rest of the British Empire in particular.
It was Sir William Mulock who backed Guglielmo Marconi’s plan to send the first transatlantic radio message. It was Sir William Mulock who secured funding for a super-long telegraph cable connecting Canada to Australia and New Zealand. And it was Sir William Mulock who dared to take on Bell’s telephone monopoly, leading to Canada’s first telecommunications regulations.
Mulock helped to create the Toronto Star, TD Bank, and the federal department of labour — even the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. He was a Supreme Court Justice, Chancellor of the University of Toronto, and acting Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. He was able to do so much because he lived nearly forever: from long before Confederation all the way to the Second World War. He was 101 when he died.
They called him “The Grand Old Man of Canada.”
As Postmaster General, Mulock also passionately believed it should cost less for people to send a letter. He spent ages campaigning for lower postal rates across the British Empire, the other countries were reluctant to sign on. Finally, when Mulock announced he was lowering Canada’s rates whether or not anyone else agreed, they finally organized the Imperial Postal Conference, where Mulock would be able to make his case.
It was a smashing success. Mulock got what he wanted: penny postage across the empire. Even Australia and New Zealand eventually signed on. All British subjects would now be able to send a letter for one British penny.
To celebrate, Mulock was planning to release a new stamp. He personally oversaw the design, hovering over the artist’s shoulder to make sure every detail was just right. The concept was ambitious: the most expensive stamp Canada had ever produced, thanks to the use of three colours and two different printing techniques. It showed a map of the world with all the various bits and pieces of the British Empire coloured red. At the bottom, there was a patriotic message: “WE HOLD A VASTER EMPIRE THAN HAS BEEN” — a line from a popular poem celebrating Queen Victoria’s recent diamond jubilee. Combined with Canada’s placement right at the very centre of the map, those words seemed to echo Mulock’s vision for Canada: a vital lynchpin holding the empire together.
It was all very British and very patriotic. But there wasn’t a single hint of Christmas anywhere in the design. No Santa Claus. No reindeer. No tree. Nothing that would suggest this stamp was destined to become the world’s first Christmas stamp.
So how did it happen?
Well, the details seem to change from one telling to another — some say the story is entirely apocryphal and didn’t really happen at all. But it generally goes something like this:
While he was in London for the Imperial Postal Conference, Mulock met Queen Victoria. He seized the opportunity to boast about his new stamp and the new postal rate. He even began to tell her that he’d chosen a special date to introduce them: a date chosen, he explained, to celebrate the prince.
“What prince?” Queen Victoria asked. And in that moment Sir William’s blood must have run cold.
He was talking about the Prince of Wales of course. Prince Edward was the heir to the throne, the future King Edward VII. Sir William’s plan was to launch the new stamp and implement the new postage rate on November 9, the prince’s birthday. But Prince Edward wasn’t the only prince in England. Queen Victoria had four sons and they were all princes. Presumably, she thought they were all worthy of honour — a fact that seems to have briefly slipped Mulock’s mind. He was dangerously close to insulting the queen of his beloved empire.
Thankfully, Sir William was a quick thinker. “Why ma’am, the Prince of Peace,” he answered. And just like that Mulock rebranded the stamp on the fly. Now, it honoured Jesus Christ.
So, the date was moved from Prince Edward’s birthday to Jesus’ birthday instead: Christmas. And Mulock’s design was updated: he squeezed the words “XMAS 1898” in across the bottom.
The Canadian postmaster had just accidentally created the world’s first Christmas stamp. And that year on December 25th, the new postage rate came into effect. Thanks to Sir William Mulock, as people mailed off their season’s greetings to their friends and loved ones across the British Empire, they all paid one single penny to do it.
Image of William Mulock: Library and Archives Canada PA-027849