Each year at this time, the U.S. Postal Service issues two different sets of stamps for use on holiday mail. One is a special stamp of religious significance. The other is nonreligious, featuring colorful portrayals of smiling snowmen or sundry Santas.
This year, 2001, the Postal Service's religious stamp depicts a detail of Italian Renaissance painter Lorenzo Costa's oil-on-panel "Virgin and Child" (circa 1490). The original painting now can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Costa's work is well represented in major European galleries but this one is a rare example in an American museum.
The stamp bears the inscription "Christmas" atop the illustration. At the bottom is "L.Costa. Philadelphia Museum of Art."
The nonreligious stamp features four different Santas of European origin.
Santa Claus began life as St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop in Asia Minor, who was considered a gift-giving protector of young children.
When the Dutch landed in the New World in 1624, they named St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas, in Dutch) as their patron. It merged with the English tradition of Father Christmas, creating the character we know today as Santa Claus.