Nativity scenes, done by contemporary artists as well as the familiar old masters, are more dominant on this year's Christmas stamps than they have been in many a year.
This provides philatelists, especially collectors who make Christmas issues a specialty, with an opportunity to contrast the approaches of artists of our own time with those of the greats of the past.
Two nations that cherish the traditional, Canada and Great Britain, have this year turned to 20th-century artists who have made powerful statements of the Christmas story on stamps.
Canada has issued three stamps for Christmas, beginning with a 32-cent value for domestic postage that reproduces Jean Dallaire's "The Annunciation." His figues of the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are impressionistic and their garb is brilliant blue and red.
A 37-cent stamp for mail to the United States shows "The Three Kings" by Simone Mary Bouchard, done in the primitive style resembling early Quebec religious art. The painter imagined the three kings taking part in the family celebration of Epiphany in the artist's home. "Snow in Bethlehem" by David Milne, on a 64-cent stamp for international mail, is a semi-abstract of snow and stars and rooftops as if painted by a child.
A British issue of five stamps shows the "Holy Family," "Arrival in Bethlehem," "Shepherd and Lamb," "Virgin and Child" and "Offerings of Frankincense." What sets these traditional themes apart is the art of Yvonne Gilbert, a London illustrator in her first stamp designs. She works totally in crayon, using a technique that gives her paintings great density of color, warmth and reality. The five stamps, ranging in denominations from 13 to 34 pence, have been produced by photogravure in six colors.
Liechtenstein has also used a contemporary native artist, Helga Hilti, to do a set of three on the same themes as Canada's. The figures are semi-abstract, set against a Gothic arch frame, and resemble a modern version of a medieval illuminated manuscript letter.
The African nations invariably give a contemporary local flavor to their Yuletide issues. This year it is Ghana, with a set of six done by a native artist, which makes some of the characters of the Christmas story unmistakably African and gives the setting African huts and flat-topped trees.
The old masters still remain dominant on Yule issues. They offer an ageless appeal and enable countries to provide a cultural note on stamps.
The paintings of Raphael appeared most often, followed by such other favorites as Fra Filippo Lippi and Bellini. Malawi, Sierra Leone, Western Samoa, Penrhyn, the Cook Islands, the Bahamas and Ireland were among those following the classic course.
Cyprus went back to the 11th century to depict on three stamps a miniature of St. Mark, a page of the Gospel according to St. Mark and another small painting of St. Luke. Austria shows a Christmas altar painting from a 14th-century monastery, and Greece shows four Nativity scenes from a type of icon popular in the 18th century.
Both Spain and Aitutaki in the South Pacific used decorations from altars in Spanish cathedrals. Aitutaki then decided to add a trio of Christmas stamps with a modern motif, showing Britain's Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Prince William and Prince Henry.
New Zealand has long been combining the traditional and the contemporary. This year's set of three shows an old master, Old St. Paul's Church in Wellington and bells ringing out the holiday.
Along with bells and flowers, the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" appears virtually every year on stamps, and this year it is depicted on a sheet of 12 from the Bailiwick of Guernsey. The Channel island depicts on three rows, four across, the successive gifts sent by a "True Love" to his beloved. Unusual flowers appear on a Christmas set of four from Palau, a United States Trust Territory in the Western Pacific issuing its own stamps on the road to independence. The flowers depicted -- with names of "beach morning glory," "reng," "Malay apple" and "plumeria" -- are used in the special Ngasech ceremony that Palauan women undergo in giving birth to their first child.
A pair from the Channel island of Jersey displays orchids from the world-famous private collection of Eric Young created on the island in 1958. The traditional poinsettia and other flowers are on a Christmas set of four from Barbados.
Also unusual is a Christmas issue from the Marshall Islands, another Pacific Trust Territory of the United States moving toward independence. The issue shows a page from the first complete Bible to be produced in Marshallese, one of the world's obscure languages. The page is the beginning of the story of the Nativity according to St. Matthew as it appears in the "JeJe Ko Rekhwojarjar" (Marshallese Good News Bible). Overlaying the text is an illustration of the Three Wise Men.
A set of five from Norfolk Island celebrates the centenary of the Methodist Church, while three from Nauru depict churches.
Walt Disney characters continue to appear on Yuletide stamps, and this year those who collect them get to celebrate not only Christmas but Donald Duck's 50th birthday, both on one and the same stamp. These stamps have been issued by Dominica, Grenada, Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla and Redonda.