We have to acknowledge that in life, there is a pendulum — one that sometimes goes to extremes in one direction and then, frequently, slowly swings back. It symbolizes our ability to come to our senses and venture back to center, or at least a more rational position.
For instance, most was fine with normal adult women until 1994, when a phenomenon called "Beanie Babies" appeared, causing an insatiable buying frenzy to erupt. Mothers and grandmothers couldn't get enough of them for their children, grandchildren and themselves. Inflated values came into play: Some were traded and sold for hundreds of dollars. A black market even emerged, and fights broke out in stores. Eventually, the pendulum began to swing back and cooler heads prevailed. And now we're left with countless closets and drawers filled with almost worthless stuffed toys.
This came to mind when I saw the offering of this year's holiday postage stamps. None features Beanie Babies but they relate to the pattern of the pendulum swinging through the years.
The first Christmas stamp was introduced in 1962. The lowly two-color issue featured a simple wreath, two candles and the word "Christmas." The next year's stamp showed a decorated tree in a rural field imprinted with "Christmas 1963," starting a tradition for those who loved sending Christmas cards.
For a while, the USPS included images of angels and the Madonna and Child on stamps. But then, in 1970, a different kind of stamp — one featuring toys — emerged, and consumers gained the ability to choose between religious-themed "traditional" stamps or "contemporary" ones.
Fast forward to 1980, when some began objecting to the stamps. On the contemporary stamp, the word "Christmas" was replaced with "Season's Greetings." And to further remove religion from the equation, the traditional stamp included only an image of Mother and Child, which was clearly identified as being a classic painting by an old master. The pendulum of political correctness had swung against stamps for Christmas, even though others issued for Hanukkah, Eid and Kwanzaa were noncontroversial.
By 1986, "Season's Greetings" devolved into just "Greetings," the same salutation young people get from the president when being informed of being drafted. The images on the stamps became equally neutral with snowmen, kids on sleds and cardinals in evergreen trees. Finally, bowing to pressure from a handful of people demanding fully secular affiliation, the USPS removed even the word "Greetings," and what remained were stamps with cartoon images of people skating, pinecones and snowflakes.
It's interesting how the subject matter controversy appears to be isolated to Christmas. In the same fashion, I suppose equal objections could be made against the annual "LOVE" stamps in deference to those not in a relationship; flag stamps for those with dual citizenship; and military stamps for conscientious objectors.
Shy of canceling the holiday or stamps altogether, the pendulum may have finally reached its zenith. A glimmer of flexibility was seen recently in the traditional stamp, which showed a photo image of a man leading a woman and baby on a donkey across a desert as a bright star shines in the sky. The religious connection to Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus and the Star of Bethlehem is unmistakable.
For 2013, the traditional stamp comes with a Madonna and Child classic painting (by 16th-century master J. Gossaert) and contemporary stamps show decorated gingerbread houses. Is this a game changer? Maybe. It's certainly no more secular than the picture of the menorah on the Hanukkah stamp or the inscription on the Islamic Eid stamp, which, according to the USPS, translates to "May your religious holiday be blessed." Not much gray area there.
At the end of the day, all the U.S. Postal Service hopes is that patrons use the stamps to send Christmas or other holiday cards. That tradition, too, has been waning in recent years. Perhaps the pendulum will start to swing back for those as well. This is the season for miracles, so anything's possible.
To find out more about Peter Rexford and features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.