Sending Christmas cheer one card at a time

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Volunteer Mary McCaine stamps mail at Noel’s post office. Her favorite part of the process is “meeting a lot of different people that come in the door.”

 NOEL – It may be tiny and tucked away in the Ozarks hills, but the village of Noel is no secret. After all, even before the advent of social media, Noel put itself on the map with a viral campaign of international proportions.

The plan was created in 1932 by E.T. Rousselot, a former Noel postmaster who doubled as an effective marketer. He suggested that during the holiday season, mail be specially stamped to wish recipients a merry Christmas from Noel. It was a next-to-no-cost initiative, one that could simultaneously bring cheer — and notoriety to the community — in the depths of the Great Depression.

The simple idea had simply spectacular results: Now more than 80 years later, hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail have been marked with the stamps — and volunteers are already hard at work on this year’s deliveries.

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Noel’s post office as it appeared in December 2015. 

Last stop before send

A Santa hat perched atop her head, Mary McCaine is one of those stamping elves. She’s sitting next to the post office’s picture window, the glass festively painted for the holidays. A glance inside reveals the hard-at-work Mary — but she’s not too busy to greet visitors with a smile.

“I’ve been doing this about three or four years,” says Mary of the stamping, for which she began helping with her late husband. He loved to do it, she says — and now, so does she. “As long as I’m able to do it, I’ll do it because I enjoy doing it,” Mary says.

Just like Santa, Mary marks each item twice: First is with a stamp that simply says Noel in bright red letters. Next comes either a green Christmas tree or a red wreath, which offers recipients season’s greetings from Noel.

In the past, the stamps instead proclaimed Noel as “The Christmas City in the Ozark Vacation Land.” However, even though the “vacation land” text has been dropped from the stamps, the postmaster’s marketing plan worked: Noel still capitalizes on the Christmas City USA connection.

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Mary displays a letter that’s headed to the Netherlands (address has been removed).

The main reason Mary says she enjoys volunteering is the people. After all, it gives her the opportunity to connect with new names and places — some far from the cozy confines of southwest Missouri. “You get (letters) from all different kind of countries, you know,” says Mary, mentioning mail destinations such as England, France, Germany and Ireland. Earlier that morning, she’d seen cards addressed to Canada and the Netherlands — and before the day is done, a package en route to Norway has been stamped and sent on its way.

Mary marks a new destination on the post office’s map. 

Each new destination means it’s time for a break. Mary gets up from the table and walks over to a map on a bulletin board, pushing in a pin to mark the most recent destination. “That way, everybody can see where some of (the letters) come from,” says Mary.

Origin of tradition

Word of mouth plays a big role in getting information out about Noel’s Christmas stamps. But in the past, a much bigger voice did some of the talking: Internationally known vocalist Kate Smith brought fame to the town when she broadcast the story of Noel, a tradition she continued for several years.

That shoutout helped Noel see more than 500,000 pieces of mail come through its post office at points in the ’40s and ’50s . After Kate’s mention, “cards and letters poured in, and volunteers stamped letters from the beginning of December right up to Christmas Eve,” proclaimed the Christian Science Monitor in 1977. Another example, cited in the Neosho Daily Democrat in 1946, noted that “this year one business concern alone mailed out 4,000 items to bear the Noel postmark.”

Such numbers aren’t nearly as high these days: In 2014, the post office estimates that it saw 65,000 letters, packages and cards come through to receive the Christmas stamps. It’s a change which is largely attributed to the general decline in postal mail.

“But there are people who this is a tradition for them,” says Lynn Howerton, a clerk at Noel’s post office, who notes that some people mail their cards to the post office to have them stamped. “I got just one single card from Canada with a note in it from somebody. They put in a note to please use our (Christmas) stamp on it…”

Other people, however, personally bring their cards by. That’s what Stacey Salmon, hailing from Joplin, did one sunny Saturday morning. “(It’s) kind of a novelty,” says Stacey of getting the Noel Christmas stamp.

He’s accompanied by friend Rylee Hartwell, who began the stamping cards in Noel around seven years ago — setting the bar high for his Christmas correspondence. “I think people just expect it from us,” Rylee says.

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Dot Harner coordinates volunteers who mark mail with Noel’s Christmas stamps.

Volunteering to stamp

There are around 30 to 35 volunteers working on stamping Noel’s mail in 2015, but volunteer coordinator Dot Harner says she’s always looking for extra help. It’s even more of a pressing need these days, since many of the longtime volunteers are “getting to the point where they…can’t do it because of their hands with arthritis and all that,” says Dot. “So I’m trying to recruit some young ones.”

Generally, one or two volunteers stamp mail for several hours a day six days a week during the season. That starts the day after Thanksgiving and continues through Dec. 24.

In an ironic full-circle situation, Dot personally knows the joy the letters can bring. “I used to live out in Columbus, Ohio and … (got) cards from my family that’s here,” recalls Dot, noting Noel’s Christmas stamps that were on the cards. After moving to Noel several years ago, she began helping keep the tradition alive. “It’s just something different,” she says.

Want to get your mail stamped?

Letters can be sent to Noel’s post office to receive the famous Christmas stamp free of charge. Please note that volunteers only stamp mail that specifically comes to the post office for the Christmas stamps.  Click here to learn more!