What Do the Ink Stamps On Your Mail Mean?


December is peak season for the U.S. Postal Service. The average haul for the USPS on a typical day is 523 million pieces of mail, and that increases to 553 million pieces from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. (On the busiest day, December 16, the postal service processes approximately 640 million pieces.) Throughout the holidays, they deliver about 15.5 billion pieces of mail in total [PDF].

After sorting through your end-of-the-year influx of cards, gifts, family newsletters, and catalogs for weird chocolate companies, you may have wondered: What are those marks and numbers inked on top of items sent through the mail? And what do they mean?

The USPS has a collective general term for the stamps, meters, and other items used to process mail: “postage evidencing systems.” The ink markings on the upper-right corner are called “information-based indicia,” and they denote a piece has been paid for and signal where to enter it into the mail flow.

Postal marks—manually-pressed ink markings stamped over a stamp—are the oldest, most basic “indicia” and date back to 1660s England. At their most basic, they show the recipient where and when the piece of mail entered the postal system. In addition, postal marks have the dual purpose of marking a stamp as canceled and used. In complex cases, some show the item’s history of returns and forwards and damage. In the past, some postal agencies have had unique postmarks indicating the item’s method of travel (railroad, stagecoach, ship, etc.). U.S. mail sent with a stamp still bears the city and state from which the mail was sent and the date and time the USPS took custody of the item. It also often features a design, ranging from Lady Liberty to the snowflakes and message of “Happy Holidays” adopted by the USPS for the festive season.

As for those serial numbers on mail sent via an office postage meter, those numbers are vendor codes. They reveal the meter’s manufacturer and model. (There are currently six private contractors licensed to provide meters to the USPS: Data-Pac Mailing Systems, Francotyp-Postalia, Neopost, Pitney Bowes, Endicia, and The series of numbers beginning with 000 is a serial number for the specific meter.

In one part of the country, people “hack” the USPS’s indicia to make their holiday mail even more festive. Each year, especially holly-jolly denizens from neighboring towns flock to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on the eastern edge of the state, to have their holiday mail stamped from Bethlehem.

Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?

Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


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