Wednesday 27 October 2021

Christmas - 2 November 2021 - Post Offices instructed to pen-cancel stamps!

In response to a number of enquiries I can only say that the publicity for this year’s Christmas stamps will be on the issue date, 2 November.

Please see also this September post.

If I am back early enough on Monday our news blog will replace this and launch at midnight.

UPDATE 2 November

When I returned yesterday I could have made time to add everything about the new Christmas stamps, but as subscribers to the Philatelic Bulletin received it last Saturday and have already commented, it seemed unnecessary to hurry.  By now the stamps and other products should be visible on the Royal Mail website.

So I shall read the Bulletin and catch up on correspondence and get back to this later.

Above is the heading on the information sheet that Royal Mail supplied to registered dealers.  It is - compared with the Philatelic Bulletin - remarkably devoid of facts.  The technical details are provided, along with the name of the artist, but very little else, as I will show.  

It was bad enough that the stamps were offered and pictured on auction site eBay, and grocery delivery service Ocado showed them for purchase on their website, during last week, but subscribers to the Philatelic Bulletin received the November edition on 30 October.  The embargo, of course, is so that the Royal Mail PR team can achieve maximum coverage in today's press and online news sites, especially regional local newspapers.  It seems that success is measured by column inches and pixels because they know that collectors will buy these for their collections however much - or little - publicity is generated.

So at 9pm today search engine results show news coverage from Kent Online, The Sun, (Newcastle) Chronicle Live, Devon Live, North Wales Pioneer, Plymouth Live, Liverpool Echo, Newbury Today.  But the nationals are mainly concerned with COP26 in Glasgow, so if they gave any space to the Royal Mail press release, it certainly didn't make them stand out on Google searches.

Only Design Week refers to the barcodes, 'which will aid with identification and “pave the way for innovative customer services in the future”, according to Royal Mail.' 

Christmas stamps

Royal Mail celebrates Christmas 2021 with a series of eight stamps, exclusively illustrated by
internationally renowned artist, Jorge Cocco.

The illustrations this year warmly reflect on key events from the traditional Christmas story, including Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, Mary and baby Jesus, up to the visit of the three magi observing a star and delivering gifts for the new baby.

The six designs portraying the Nativity are reflective of Cocco’s modern style of painting, illustrating sacred events through post-cubist art.

This year, some of our Christmas Special Stamps will feature barcodes.

Royal Mail 2021 Christmas stamps set and Miniature Sheet issued 2 November 2021

The design is attributed to Supple Studio, and printing is by International Security Printers in gravure (which almost certainly means ISP Walsall).  The barcoded stamps are 39 x 30 mm and perforated 15 x 14½, the other stamps are 24 x 28 mm and perforated 14½ x 15.  All values of the self-adhesive counter sheets contain 50 stamps.

The stamps on the miniature sheet are the same size, the sheet is 178 x 74 mm, and the sheet is conventionally gummed self-adhesive. 
I have been informed by HF that the miniature sheet is actually litho, which probably also means that it was printed by Cartor in France.  Something else that Royal Mail omitted to mention in their so-called Factfile.

The artwork is by Jorge Cocco†, exclusive to and copyright of Royal Mail Group 2021.

Other products

First day covers, presentation pack, stamp cards, retail booklets and Generic Sheet.

Retail booklet of 12 x 2nd class Christmas stamps 2021
Retail booklet of 12 x 1st class Christmas stamps 2021.

Christmas 2021 Generic Sheet of 20 stamps containing 8 each x 2nd and 1st class, and 2 each £1.70 and £2.55 self-adhesive stamps and labels, price £21.75



Stock codes for ordering from the Royal Mail Bureau are as follows:

1st barcoded - AS7900A
2nd barcoded - AS7900B
2nd Large - AS9700C
1st Large - AS7900D
£1.70 - AS7900E
£2.55 - AS7900F
Retail booklets
12 x 2nd - UB449
12 x 1st - UB448

And that's it as far as 'facts' are concerned in the factfile.  

I really expected that the embargo was related to a press release which would explain to ordinary social users the purpose of the datamatrix barcode.  At the time of writing it has not been added to the RM corporate website of press releases, but I suspect it doesn't mention them.  So there is apparently going to be no explanation as to why the 2nd, 1st and Large stamps have these appendages, nor why the booklet stamps do not.

I suspect the booklets contain ordinary-sized stamps because to do otherwise would have necessitated investment in new booklet equipment at the printers - and complaints from the public that the new larger books were too large to fit in wallet/purse.

Other technical detail

Sets provided to the Royal Mail standing order customers contain 8 stamps, of course as the basic 2nd and 1st exist in two forms.  Except that they don't, they exist in three forms.  The counter sheets are barcoded on security backing paper - and taking their lead from the forgers, the security printing consists of vertical wavy lines of text rather than horizontal.  Let's see how editors cope with designations for that!  My examination of one set of stamps shows that the backing paper is the same way up on each.

The retail booklets contain smaller (non-barcoded) 2nd & 1st stamps, but in the standing order supply and, I suspect, in presentation packs, these are not cut from booklets but are on similar thicker paper with no printing on the reverse.  The matrix surrounding the stamps is not removed, but lifting the stamp reveals the same type of (horizontal) security printing as on the booklets (which do have the matrix removed).

Stamps from Christmas 2nd class booklet (left) and presentation pack (right).

2nd class Christmas stamp with barcode, showing vertical printing on security backing paper.

1st class and 1st Large, £1.70 and £2.55 from sheets, and 1st class special printing on unprinted booklet card with matrix intact.  The two airmail values have conventional security backing paper.


UPDATE 3 November. Thanks to reader Iain who, in comments, drew attention to an eBay listing which shows all 8 stamps with vertical security backing printing. Further update: GONJ3 points out that "these are booklet stamps picked off and stuck on random backing" - I now see that the 2nd is scissor-cut at the top, the 1st scissor-cut at top and bottom.

Set of 8 Christmas stamps apparently from counter sheets, with vertical security backing printing. However the uncoded 2nd & 1st stamps have been transferred from booklets to ordinary backing paper.

Also, JG has written with his interpretation of the datamatrix codes as follows.  In the light of the new information below, these designations must change as shown.

2nd class: 26 07 21 on SBP2i SBP2u paper
2nd Large: 15 03 21 on SBP2u
SBP2i paper
1st class: 26 04 21 on SBP2u
SBP2i paper
1st Large: 12 04 21 on SBP2i
SBP2u paper

My thanks also to CFN for providing an image of the cylinder blocks for the 2nd and 1st class stamps.  As you can see these are printed sideways on conventional security backing paper, with the cylinder numbers above column 2.  The designation of backing paper should be simple based on the datamatrix being at the top of the stamp.

Christmas 2021 2nd & 1st class cylinder blocks from counter sheets printed sideways on ordinary security backing paper, and with the cylinder numbers above column 2.

Whatever designation you use for the SBP2 it is conventional, if based on the datamatrix code being at the top of the stamps.  The 2nd class in the picture is not the same as the 1st class, whereas all those I have received are the same as the 2nd class.  The dates are all the same as listed above, which may or may not be the printing date.  Royal Mail have not clarified this with us yet. 

Update 6 December:  according to IP, based on eBay observations, the sheets given to Royal Mail employees (50 x 1st Class barcoded stamps) have been provided with the surrounding matrix removed.

† Further research - Who is Jorge Cocco?

According to the Bulletin Jorge Cocco Santángelo comes from the city of Concepción del Uruguay, Argentina, and paints in a sacrocubist style - so called because of the fusion of sacred objects and post-cubist techniques.  (Wouldn't sacrocubist be a fusion of sacred objects and cubist, rather than post-cubist? - Ed.)

Apparently Cocco and his wife were Mormon pioneers in Argentina. 

And this from the Salt LakeTribune:


Datamatrix codes

The coding technology is the same as on the 2nd class business sheet trialled (although nobody has seen any commercial use) in the spring.  Using a smartphone QR-code reader the date is shown to be 190721.  All the stamps on a miniature sheet have the same serial number and date, but different values of course.  

We demonstrated earlier in the year that the presence of a postmark on the business sheet stamps did not hamper reading by a QR-code app, but it seems that Royal Mail are attempting to ensure that reading by their high-speed mail processors would not be affected, by changing the 7- and 11-wavy lines on ink-jet postmarks to just three.  These are now being widely reported across the UK.

Trial 3-line postmark designed to reduce interference with the barcode reader.

Post Offices

We have been told that post offices were told about the new barcoded stamps before they were distributed.  More recently we have been sent a copy of this instruction issued to branches concerning stamps affixed to items posted over the counter (which should - as we know but many of them don't - be cancelled with the counter date stamp) - but no longer!

Instruction to PO staff to pen-cancel barcoded stamps (click to enlarge).

"The introduction of barcoded stamps will allow Royal Mail to provide customer benefits in the future so the barcode must be readable.  This means that only the stamp should be cancelled and not the barcode which should remain unmarked.

"You should continue to cancel barcoded stamps for Large Letter and Parcel formats only and not letters§ (except for Special Delivery).

"Where multiple barocded stamps are affixed to a Large Letter or a Parcel the end stamp must be cancelled with a date-stamp and the remaining stamps should be struck through with a pen......"

So there we have it: Royal Mail's technology is so inadequate that the barcode must remain pristine. Deutsche Post of Germany avoided the problem by making all the barcodes black, and the postmarks blue - machine and handstamps.  Of course if stamps are monochrome, as UK definitives are, this would involve introducing a second colour.

Germany's first 'digital' stamp with datamatrix code in black, and postmark in blue.

But if Royal Mail goes down the same avenue as Deutsche Post (where special stamps are probably more widely used in preference to definitives) and applies datamatrix codes to all basic letter rate special stamps, it might be the end of VFU stamps from over-the-counter postings.

§ Incidentally this is the first occasion that we have seen counter staff told not to cancel basic letters; until now it wasn't mandatory but was obviously discretional.

What an absolute debacle.  We haven't asked Royal Mail for any comment on this yet: I'm sure we would be told that it is for operational reasons - after all these stamps, at least, are supposed to be used.  But likewise they have never indicated what the benefits are to the organisation or to the customer.  I wonder if they have yet decided what the 'future customer benefits' will be.  It certainly won't be collectable stamps.



  2. Those stamps are awful, and I thought religion stamps are meant to be issued once every 2 years, that's 3 years on a trot now. RM have lost the plot.

    1. I agree. The previous pattern of alternating secular and religious worked well - especially if POs kept a stock of the previous year's religious issue for those who strongly prefer that option. How about some well-designed midwinter scenes for a change? The Andy Goldsworthy ice sculptures were excellent. Christmas/Winter Post and Go are often better (Winter Greenery, Hibernating Animals) but a bit of gamble to find out which machines might have them.

  3. Martin has a good point. Personally I don't mind the stamps being religious as long as they are Christmassy, and while the other five have a very Christmassy tone, the first-class stamps are just a Madonna and child. It just looks like Renaissance art rather than a proper nativity scene. Last year's were the same. It's a bit disappointing.

  4. Details now in the latest Philatelic Bulletin.

  5. I don't think I will be bothering with them this year, well, maybe 1 or 2 first/second class from my local little sub post office... I do send lots of post and my provisional Christmas card list is at 80! But I have other nice stamps I can use.

  6. Don't know why these stamps are not online to order, I've just got my Royal Philatelic Bulletin today they are in there, I must admit waiting for them at midnight to order stamps on the first day of release its a bit ridiculous when some people can't get online during the week because they are at work, on the day or having technical issues with the internet to order on the day.

    And there is eight stamps not six.

  7. Funny how people see things differently; I love these stamps.

  8. I still believe the 2010 Wallace & Gromit stamps are still the best.
    Alas you can't please everyone I suppose.

  9. Nothing new about these stamps its only about the Nativity again for the 100th time, people moan about James Bond and DC Heroes, when they are fresh and new, can't please everyone I suppose.

    1. I agree that the stated policy from Royal Mail was to alternate religious and secular, with 1st & 2nd religious being returned to sale for 'secular years'. However....

      Whether you believe or not and Christian or not, these stamps are produced for the Christmas period and so are entirely appropriate. That's what the Nativity is all about (check wikipedia if you aren't sure).

      Now if you would like a generic 'holiday time' stamp, or Hannukah, Eid, etc, as the USPS produces, lobby Royal Mail or your MP. I doubt you'll get very far.

  10. Looks like I'm in a minority, because I actually quite like this year's stamps. They have artistic merit (whether you like or loathe the style), making no pretence to quasi-photographic realism; and it is good to see that the stamps feature a total of six distinct images rather than - as has seemed to be the norm - the 1st and 2nd being cut-down versions of the respective Large stamps.

  11. I also like them. However, they suffer in part from the same problem from which a number of recent issues have also suffered - some are very "busy". A canvas that is as small as stamp cannot do justice to a larger artwork. I also looked at Jorge Cocco Santangelo's website, and I admit to recoiling a little at terms such as "sacrocubism" and "art for the spiritual intellect", but I still like them.

  12. What I (and other people too) don't get is why the secrecy over this issue... day of issue! Now, I have just seen what USPS have planned for 2022.

  13. Just received my Christmas issue, I like them but.. the 1st & 2nd without barcodes have not been taken from a retail book as they are not on security backing paper, whereas the ones in the 2 retail booklets are so will they be catalogued as different? Who knows only SG

    1. They also have the matrix intact, Peter, as is normal with the sheets distributed to RM staff. So I am eager to find out what they get, bearing in mind the normal size of the cards containing their Christmas bonus.

  14. For those that get the Yearbook, Page 63 relates to the Christmas Issue. Customers should have received the Miniature Sheet, but instead RM have inadvertently sent the 8 individual stamps to customers instead. RM are now aware of this and will replace the item once you contact them.

  15. My bar coded 1st & 2nd appear to be printed 'sideways' relative to the security backing. No doubt we will now see sideways left and sideways right?! Doug (Enfield)

  16. I was actually able to buy some of the Christmas issue stamps today from my main Post Office - they were available unlike many of the special issues this year. I appreciate that they are 'busy' but they do seem to be larger in size than recent Christmas issues which have been too small to show off the design properly. I particularly like the £1.70 stamp showing the journey of the Magi - ideal for my 'Postcrossing' postcards and mail to Europe

  17. At least one person on ebay is selling sets of 8 with 2nd and 1st class no datamatrix code with the matrix removed and security backing running from top to bottom (its across the way on the booklets) , they look as if they have come from sheets? since there are perforation/tear of marks on the sides.

  18. There are 2 sellers , one uses the others photo! these are booklet stamps picked off and stuck on random backing. Matrix intact Bureau now listed on eBay as are single stamps from booklets

  19. I placed an order for sheets yesterday morning and they arrived today. The books I ordered at the same time are coming tomorrow. So at least, despite the last minute ability to order, despatch has been very quick.

    Does anyone know of it is possible to order quantities of the large rate stamps in quantities less than a sheet? Can't find a code for them or in the shop search.

    1. It is, Bob, I'll add them to the blog shortly.

  20. Thanks. Will have to give them a ring. Code only brings up
    complete sheets on the website. I’m sure in past years it allowed you to order smaller quantities.

  21. My copy of "First" arrived this morning and it shows half sheet ordering of the 'large' rate stamps. Half sheet 2nd large is AS7900CHS and Half sheet 1st large is AS7900DHS Regards Doug (Enfield)

  22. Despite what it states in RM's blurb above, the Miniature Sheets are self-adhesive (not conventionally gummed). The Philatelic Bulletin correctly says that the MS is S/A. Late change of mind, I wonder?


  23. Given the "only the stamp should be cancelled and not the barcode which should remain unmarked" instruction it's ironic that their First Day Cover illustrated on the "first" booklet has the postmark not touching the 2nd Large 'stamp' but only on its barcode.
    I suspect that many stamps so postmarked on ordinary mail will be reused after the barcode has been neatly cut off along the printed 'perforation'.

    In my nearest Post Office today, the Third Day Of Issue, I intended buying various quantities of the four barcoded stamps totaling £47.83 but was told "I've not got them out. I didn't think anyone would want them yet". With that attitude it's no surprise that he has no interest in selling any of the dozen other special issues each year.


  24. Called into my local PO (inside a convenience store) and quite a busy outlet. I saw the small pack of Christmas stamps that were delivered and they were only allocated 1 sheet of the 1st Large. Not many of all the other stamps in total. I really don't know how many they would expect to sell but looking at the stock I doubt they will last more than a couple of weeks. Doug (Enfield)

  25. My miniature sheet doesn't look like the one pictured above, the perforations (serrations?) are lost against the white background which they are printed on.
    from a distance they appear to be imperf.

    1. The picture I used is a pre-issue publicity picture.

  26. No major difference with the 'postman' Christmas stamps just guillotined to fit . Given the unique barcodes if RM were remotely interested they could establish the identities of staff who sell them. Christmas card really should have depicted a barcode version or both.

  27. The first used barcoded stamp arrive today on Christmas card and during this month I’ll be interested to see the proportion of barcoded counter sheet and non-barcoded booklet ones.
    Yesterday we got the first digital second class Christmas, rather than Machin, stamp on an item of marketing mail.

  28. Does anyone on here know (a) if Datamatrix codes are on the Christmas stamps as an attempt to prevent the reuse of those that haven't been cancelled and (b) if they are whether any attempt has been made to inform the public that reused uncancelled ones are likely to be detected and surcharged ?

    1. As dealers we were told nothing about the reason for the datamatrix code aside from what was announced in the spring.

      As far as I know there has been no announcement to the public as to why these patterns are disfiguring their Christmas stamps. I meant to ask a SPM this morning if there had been any reaction from customers, but I forgot.

    2. Thanks Ian, a mystery then, and trials for tracking delivery can't be very likely for such values.
      The instruction to sub postmasterss for datestamps to avoid the code suggests any scanning in Mail Centres would be BEFORE the inkjetted postmark though many Christmas cards miss the automatic sorting as shown by THE postmark and/or two rows of orange coding dots being absent.

  29. The Stafford Mudgie9 December 2021 at 08:55

    Elsewhere I've read that Royal Mail "colleagues should have been briefed about the new Bar Coding stamps and the need not to mark the bar code when cancelling stamps" and the comment "As they've moved the cancellation zone to left, I found myself having to manually cancel a lot more traditional stamps" but have they really "moved the cancellation zone to left" or just reduced the wavy lines to three ?
    A postman on delivery commented "since then I've spotted half a dozen or so, have attempted to scan then on delivery and just get the error beep and a message about being in the wrong work area" which isn't surprising.

    1. Yes they have moved the cancellation zone to the left, that's why the Delivered by Royal Mail logo is missing. Postmen are not required to scan them, so they are wasting their time - but they should have been told that there was no need.


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