One after another, Faye Davis pulls a postmarked card from a large stack and adds to it some holiday cheer in the form of a decorative stamp.
“We have one with a Christmas tree. It says ‘Seasons Greetings Noel, Missouri – The Christmas City – Ozark vacationland. This one is a wreath that just says ‘Seasons Greetings Noel, Missouri – Christmas City USA.’”
Davis is sitting at a small table in between a carousel of cards and a wall of postage package items. She’s the first face I see when I enter the venue at 318 Main Street. For those that walk or drive by in this town of less than 1,900, Davis is easy to spot behind a neatly decorated window of snow-covered trees that reads “United States Post Office, Noel, MO.” It’s pronounced Nole.
“But during Christmas time we’re No-el,” says a smiling Davis.
This tradition of sending cards and letters through Noel’s post office, where volunteers like Davis will issue the stamps, has been around for decades.
“1932 postmaster in Noel, Missouri was a Frenchman named Edward Roselie," says current postmaster Don Spiares. "He knew that French for Christmas was ‘Noel.’ He recognized the similarities, he petitioned to Congress for a special pictorial cancellation to help increase traffic flow through Noel.”
The request was granted, and the traffic flow skyrocketed.
Outside the immediate rea, the popularity of the Christmas postmarks occurred mainly through word of mouth. But its first broad promotion came from popular radio host and television singer Kate Smith, who learned about the postmarks while visiting the area in the 1940s.
“She went back to Broadway and put it out nationwide and worldwide through her radio and TV shows.”
Noel town officials loved that, and in return sent Smith a 35-pound fruitcake, according to Spiares. Every year since, until her death, Smith would receive a smaller fruitcake in appreciate for the promotion.
Volunteers who stamp the cards stay busy. They begin work on the day after Thanksgiving and continue through Christmas Eve. So as you’re hearing this story, perhaps you’re already one of the thousands who’ve received their Noel-stamped card this year. It could still be a day or two away from arriving in your mailbox.
“When I first started here in 2012 we stamped almost a hundred thousand cards. Last year we stamped just under 50 – like 48 thousand. It’s been 85, 80, 65 and then last year was 48 [thousand].”
Spiares was optimistic the post office would experience a rise in stamps this year. When I visited in early December, just one week after volunteers restarted the annual tradition, card volume was already at close to 20,000.
They’ll also receive “Packages, we get large flat envelopes – people will send them to us. We get people that just want actual stamps but not on cards. Those are the philatelic collectors, is what they call them. They’ll send us special request with a pre-stamped envelope.”
On the wall next to the cash register Davis adds pins to a map of the United States which indicate where each card has come from.
“We do that every day as they come in,” she says.
The map is cleared off each season. By Christmas, hundreds of cities and a majority of the states have received a pin. Since he’s been with the post office, Spiares says the most states to receive one in a single year is 36.
“We always need more,” he says. “I’d like to before I leave one day get every state.”
Christmas stamps from Noel have been sought internationally as well.
“We’ve had them from, this year from China. I’ve seen Lithuania, France, Germany. The little Chinese knot there,” Spiares says as he points to the map, “Two years ago that was sent to us by a young man in China who sent us three cards to be stamped. And he sent that [knot] along with a little piece of paper with ‘Merry Christmas’ written in Chinese.”
Some will drive to Noel to have their cards stamped in person. One couple in particular, according to Spiares, make the 300 mile drive from western Oklahoma each season.
“They’ll get up in the morning, drive here, get their card stamped and drive back home from western Oklahoma every year… Haven’t missed one yet.”
There’s up to 50 volunteer stampers that rotate shifts at the post office each year for the month-long season. For Faye Davis, it’s a great way to get involved in the community and to celebrate the holidays.
“People who’ve lived here for quite a while talk about it and [say] ‘It’s coming up and have you signed up yet to stamp?’ That kind of thing. I’d miss it if I didn’t do it – I really enjoy doing it.”
Embracing this Christmastime tradition has Spiares and others, as Davis mentioned earlier, willing to temporarily alter its city’s name while spreading holiday cheer – one card at a time.
“From the day after Thanksgiving till the day before Christmas we’re Noel, Missouri, not [Nole],” says Spiares.