The joyous Jewish holiday of Hanukkah received a new stamp this fall and for the first time includes something not shown on previous U.S. stamps celebrating the holiday.
“Hanukkah is often thought about as a holiday for children,” said Ethel Kessler, the stamp’s art director. “But in all the stamps we have issued for Hanukkah we have not included children before as part of the image.”
That changed this year as the stamp depicts a sister and brother before their family’s iconic menorah.
Also called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah includes the ceremonial lighting of the hanukkiah, the nine-branched menorah used during the holiday. The stamp, issued in panes of 20, show the children on the final night of the eight-day festival.
“All eight of the Hanukkah candles have been lit, and the child is reaching up to replace the shamash, the helper candle used to light the others in the menorah,” said USPS Controller and Vice President Cara Greene.
A virtual dedication ceremony (below) was posted on the Postal Service’s Facebook and Twitter pages on October 6, the stamp’s official release date. The official first-day-of-issue postmark is New Rochelle, New York. The video event includes remarks from Greene, Rabbi Lennard Thal and stamp artist Jing Jing Tsong.
Hanukkah this year begins the evening of December 10 and concludes December 18.
The story of Hanukkah — “dedication” in Hebrew — tells of reclaiming the temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by a conquering army. Worshippers prepared to rededicate the holy space but discovered that only one small jar of consecrated oil remained, enough to last one day. Rather than wait for more oil to arrive, they lit the temple menorah, which burned for eight days.
Today, celebrants recite blessings each night, one before and one during the lighting. A third blessing, known as the Shehecheyanu, is recited or sung only on the first night of the festival just as it is on other special family occasions.
The candle for the first night is put on the far-right side of the menorah. On each subsequent night, an additional candle is placed to the immediate left of the previous night’s candle — right to left, the direction in which Hebrew is read. The candles are then lit from left to right, beginning with the newest candle. Some families take this opportunity to explain more about their heritage and the symbolism behind the ritual.
In the Postal Service dedication video, Rabbi Thal, senior vice president emeritus at the Union for Reform Judaism, gave a brief summary of the holiday’s origins, reviewed holiday traditions and recalled memories of the holiday with his family.
He pointed out that the candle in the center of the menorah is known as the shamash. It is retrieved, lit, used to light the other candles, and replaced every night during the festival.
“Families light the hanukkia (menorah) while reciting blessings, singing songs, exchanging gifts and playing a game with a dreidel, which reminds them of the miracle,” Thal said. “(Tradition calls to eat) special foods prepared with oil, such as latkes, or potato pancakes, or jelly doughnuts.”
Thal also reminisced about a colorful dreidel from the Thal family collection was used as the model for the Postal Service’s Hanukkah stamp issued in 2004.
Tsong, a professional illustrator and artist who lives in Seattle, chose her colors intentionally to evoke Hanukkah traditions as seen through the eyes of children. The darker blue colors in the background symbolize winter, while the brightly colored flaming candles reflect the spirit and warmth of sharing the holiday traditions.
Tsong spoke about designing stamps at the end of the dedication video.
“Ethel expressed interest in an image of children lighting the menorah,” Tsong explained. “I composed the image so we would see the children from behind with the menorah sitting in front of a window. It’s as if we are in a group of friends and family celebrating together watching a sister and brother light the candles.”
The broad, soft lines across the blue background represent the sun having set and night settling in, Tsong said.
To create the stamp, she carved arching lines in soft block and made a traditional relief print and used a similar technique to create movement and texture in the children’s clothing. Though the textures were all created by hand Tsong said she digitally collaged the final image.
Tsong, a mother and surfer whose technique includes layering color and texture, is influenced by her experiences working in traditional stone lithography and monoprints. Tsong has commercial clients, such as the Kresge Foundation and First Hawaiian Bank. She has worked extensively in children’s book illustration – such as the bestseller A Bucket of Blessings – and has created her own children’s books, including “Counting Birds.” She is married to Mike Austin, also an illustrator.
This was Tsong’s third U.S. stamp. She created the artwork for two of the four Winter Fun stamps (Building a Snowman; Snow Angels) of 2014.
The Postal Service has issued 14 stamps celebrating Hanukkah, with the first being a 32¢ stamp depicting a menorah. That was a joint issue with Israel. The same design was used again with denominations of 33, 34 and 37 cents. In 2004, the design showing the dreidel noted by Rabbi Thal was first used on a 37¢ stamp. The design was repeated with new denominations in 2006, 2007 and 2008. New Hanukkah stamps were issued in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2018, with all but the 2011 – which showed the letters in “Hanukkah” in colorful boxes – depicting a menorah. The 2018 forever stamp also was a joint issue with Israel.
Q and A with Ethel Kessler, stamp designer
When did you start working on this stamp?
We’re usually working on stamps for holidays several years out. We know there will be a new one, so we’re always keeping our eyes open for the next opportunity to use someone new and the style that will be different than before.
How did it come about to choose the final night of the holiday to depict?
First night, there would only be one candle lit. By using the last night, the whole area lights up from the eight candles for eight days.
Each candle is a different color. Was that simply the artist’s choice? Did you try different colors than the ones shown?
The traditional boxes of candles were multicolor, so you could choose to have one of each color or maybe you could find all the same color. It’s a much happier selection to use multiple colors.
(From Tsong: I chose colorful candles so the stamp would be bright and festive.)
It’s such a nicely balanced image. Did the artist use any specific resources for inspiration? Don’t know, but she got it right.
Is there anything else interesting you would like to add about the creation of this stamp? When working with illustrators who have never worked at stamp size, we have many discussions about what reads in miniature. The slight textures, instead of flat color, help to give interest and a sense of greater dimension, even at stamp size.
This column was originally printed in part in the December 2020 issue of The American Philatelist.