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Ozarks town sends Christmas cheer since 1932

Dot Harner puts a special stamp on cards at the Noel Post Office
Kaitlyn McConnell
Dot Harner puts a special stamp on cards at the Noel Post Office

The Noel, Missouri Post Office has been adorning Christmas cards with holiday decorative stamps since 1932.

Christmas sounds a little different in Noel, Missouri. To begin with, at this time of year, the small town is actually known as No-el. Its post office is where thousands of cards are sent every holiday season. There, they receive special stamps to mark their passage through the Christmas City.

“It’s interesting. We get cards from everywhere. You name it, we’ve gotten it from,” says Dot Harner, the program’s coordinator, who has led the effort for several years.

She says that it all began in 1932, when the local postmaster suggested they start specially stamping cards. The idea gained momentum, especially after famed vocalist Kate Smith mentioned it on her radio show.

Ever since, cards have poured in each holiday season to receive decorative stamps.

"It's been always been the red wreath and the green Christmas tree with 'Christmas City' inside of it," says Dot.

In more recent years, they’ve also added a third stamp that simply says “Noel” in blue ink. While festive, it should be noted that none of these stamps replace a postage stamp, which is still required to actually mail the cards.

"We get a full box every year from China and one from Japan that's coming in, and they'll have them all stamped in a priority box. We open them (the boxes) up and stamp them (the cards), and send them off," says Patty Coggin, officer in charge of the Noel Post Office. "It’s amazing. I have gotten ten calls just this week making sure that we are still stamping.”

They’re now in the middle of their season, during which they have shifts of volunteers working between Thanksgiving and Christmas to stamp the annual supply of cards.

“I think it’s roughly 30,000 to 40,000," says Dot. "What was it at the peak? Oh, I think they said they had anywhere up to 100,000 … The mail was pretty heavy back then. But I can’t imagine someone sitting back there and stamping 100,000 cards. Granted they only had two stamps back then, but still, that’s a lot. That is a lot.”

Let’s pause there for just a moment: Even today, in a day and age of email and Facebook, the tiny post office still processes many, many times the town’s population in cards each year. Those pieces of mail are hand-stamped by volunteers, who sit at a small table adorned with a Christmas tree.

“You’ve got your diehards who come back every year," says Dot of the volunteers. "I don’t know if they feel sorry for me and come back, or if they really do enjoy it. They might not after this year, because there’s no heat out here. We’re hoping the weather stays.”

Dot’s talking about the fact that the small stamping table is actually sitting outside the post office in a hallway. It was moved out of the main area in light of COVID concerns, which is one reason it’s been more difficult to get volunteers nowadays. But it also allows for pop-up conversations with passersby – who sometimes become stampers, including one man on a recent Saturday, who stopped to chat and said he'd be willing to stamp, too.

"It’s exciting that people are still doing the tradition," says Patty. "I mean, some of them will drive all the way from Kansas City, or one lady drove all the way from Texas last year to drop off her cards in person."

As if on cue, Linda Genn pushes open the post office door. She drove up from Arkansas to drop off her cards for Christmas stamps – just as she’s been doing for around 50 years, a tradition which started when she lived in Noel as a child.

“My mom got us started on this,” she says. “We would all load up, come down and watch them stamp our cards. And then we’d take turns putting them in the little slot.

“It’s tradition, and I think it adds that little extra touch to let the people know, even with a card, they’re thought more than just passing out a card. It means more than that because you take the time, ladies come in and volunteer their time, and it’s just that little extra. And I think people realize that, especially now.”

"As long as I'm alive, it'll go on," says Dot.

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here. And to listen to the audio essay of "Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule," click the "play" icon below.