Christmas Island – A Home For The Holidays
By Andrea Sachs
Step inside the Christmas Island post office in Nova Scotia and you will feel it immediately, a rush of holiday spirit that hits you like a swig of eggnog or a whiff of roasting chestnuts. Santa figurines in various poses adorn the shelves, and bowls of candy canes and jelly beans provide envelope lickers with a sweet reprieve. Seasonal cards hang from a string along the ceiling, prayer flags of a different denomination. And in the back left corner, a woman younger than Mrs. Claus and taller than an elf stamped the Christmas Island postmark on a tumbling stack of cards.
“The people who come here are so full of spirit,” said postmistress Hughena MacKinnon, who during the season dons an apron inspired by a Santa suit. “They like to add the special touch of the Christmas Island post stamp.”
If Christmas Island truly honored its namesake, the post office’s special edition postmark would feature the image of the local Mi’kmaq man whose festive surname now appears on maps of Cape Breton Island, the northernmost part of Nova Scotia. Yet no purists made a ruckus when former postmistress Margaret Rose MacNeil proposed a pictorial postmark that played up the holly-jolly appellation. The first one came out in 1994, featuring a wreath encircled by the letters of the town. A Christmas Island tradition was born.
Emergency Landing of Canadian Forces Chopper on Christmas Island
“We have different versions each year. We make design changes – we may take away the leaves or add ornaments. We’ve had a Christmas tree coming out of an envelope and holly on a mailbox,” said MacKinnon, a Cape Breton native who replaced MacNeil 12 years ago. “But we like to stay with the wreath. I like its message of wishing for good health.”
The post office stands alone, a solitary box set back from a rural road, with unfettered views of Christmas Island pond and a small island overrun by nature. Occasionally, a car drives by. Frequently, that car stops outside the front door. In the absence of a diner, a bar or a barbershop, the post office has become a giant water cooler, where locals swap news and good wishes.
Christmas Island Post Office and Post Mistress Hughena MacKinnon
The Christmas Island post office serves 140 customers, but once the stamp is released in mid-November, business explodes. (They keep it around until mid-January.) MacKinnon said she receives up to 10 times as much mail during the holidays. In a record holiday season (1996-97), she processed 23,000 cards. Once, the lieutenant governor dropped off 2,500 envelopes over two days. This season, she expects to hand-stamp 14,000 to 17,000 pieces.
On the 23rd day before Christmas, the morning count was in the low triple digits – a slow day, according to MacKinnon. To maintain some order, she kept the pile of envelopes addressed to the post office in a box, which contained numerous cards that needed the finishing touch. On top of that, visitors stopped by throughout the day to drop off their loads, often carried in multiple plastic bags.
“Let me shake your hand. I have always wanted to meet you,” exclaimed Cathy Finney, who had driven an hour south, her husband in tow. “Every year, we say we are going to do this. This year, we were determined to do it.”
Finney left behind 24 cards and a warm handprint on MacKinnon’s palm.
While MacKinnon tended to customers at the counter, I nominated myself her elf and dug into the paper mounds. I ripped open envelopes, shaking the packages before placing the cards over by the workstation with ink pads and two stamps (one red, one green). Often the senders include a personal note to MacKinnon, expressing their gratitude on decorative stationery or the lip of the envelope.
“We really appreciate the wonderful work you do and the joy it brings to the recipients of the cards when they see that they have been sent from Christmas Island,” read one note. In another, she received a gift of Year of the Tiger stamps, with the inscription: “A few stamps for your kindness.”
Image of Christmas Island from the Past
“Maybe he thought I would run out,” she quipped.
Following MacKinnon’s instructions, I pressed one wreath on the actual stamp and another on a clean part of the envelope, in case collectors wanted a pure form for their books. Advance apologies to those whose wreaths turned out half-formed, too light, lopsided or too smudgy.
Before the post office closed for lunch, I pulled out one of my own Christmas cards and slid it over to MacKinnon for a one-two stamp. I was going to spread Nova Scotia’s holiday spirit by first-class mail.
Christmas Island Postmark
Reporter Laura Jean Grant writes on the Cape Breton Post website, “The holiday crunch is on at Canada Post locations across the country, and perhaps no post office feels it more keenly than in the rural Cape Breton community of Christmas Island. There, thousands of letters and packages are sent each Christmas season by people looking to have their holiday mail stamped with the distinctive and festive Christmas Island postmark.”
Christmas Island postmistress Hughena MacKinnon is quoted in the piece as saying, ““They come from all over Canada, we get them from the States, we get them from several countries around the world. A lot of stamp collectors and that, like to get the postmark for Christmas. We usually do in the vicinity of 10,000 Christmas cards per season hand-stamped with our postmark, and that’s just the cards alone, not packages and parcels and everything else. Usually, our busiest day, we do about 1,000 per day, when (Christmas) gets close in December.”
To get the Christmas Island postmark on your mail, send your addressed cards with proper postage in a larger envelope to Christmas Island Post Office, Grand Narrow Highway, Christmas Island, N.S., B1T 1A0.
Post Mistress MacKinnon hard at Work
Located in Nova Scotia, Christmas Island got its name because of a native that lived there whose surname was Christmas according to an entry on Wikipedia.
(Include this beautiful part of Cape Breton in your travels, you wont be disappointed in the place or the people – CAPER)
(Courtesy of Washington Post and Cape Breton Post)