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Unique postmark makes holiday cards special

A card sent from British Columbia with a final destination to China shows the two distinctive Christmas wreath stamps which were affixed at the small post office at Christmas Island, Nova Scotia., December 8, 2011. Cards and letters arrive from around the world for the special postage stamp.

Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/paul darrow The Globe and Mail

The Santa and Mrs. Claus cutouts in front are the first clue this is no ordinary Canada Post outlet.

For most of the year, the pace is sedate at the one-room post office in the tiny hamlet of Christmas Island in Cape Breton. But in the weeks before Christmas, an incredible surge of mail arrives from places as remote as Australia and Egypt.

Word has spread far and wide about the community's name, and thousands of people want their cards stamped with its Christmas-themed postmark before they are sent on to their final destination.

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The pace of this year's arrivals is still rising, and postmistress Hughena MacKinnon and an assistant expect to handle up to 2,000 pieces some days – 10 times the normal volume.

"It surprises me sometimes that people would be interested in this little place and our postmark," Ms. MacKinnon said. "But they are."

The tradition dates to the 1990s and hit a high last year, with around 16,000 pieces of mail coming through in pursuit of this special franking.

The community is not actually on an island, and it's unknown whether it was named for a local resident, or for the day surveyors finished their work here. Either way, it's become known through the initiative of Ms. MacKinnon's predecessor, Margaret Rose MacNeil, who was unsatisfied with the standard postmark that featured the local name, but was otherwise utilitarian.

Ms. MacNeil petitioned for something unique and, in 1994, the spot got what is billed as the first pictorial postmark in the country. The original design was a simple motif with three conifers. The current postmark is more ornate, including a wreath laden with decorations and a bow.

"I like the wreath," Ms. MacKinnon said. "A wreath's meaning was a wish of good health, so you put a little good health with the Christmas card."

Word of mouth spread and now mail arrives from around the world, typically in bundles of cards, each in a preaddressed envelope and accompanied by proper postage. These cards will be franked carefully, in both red and green, and then shipped onward to recipients around the world.

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"The first thing that will catch your eye is the postmark," Ms. MacKinnon said. "It's a conversation piece. People like to collect them and some put them on the tree."

On a visit this week, a storm had knocked out power and the dim room had a throwback feel, heightened by a stopped clock.

Ms. MacKinnon sported an apron reminiscent of Santa's coat as she worked through the day's pile of cards. With the power out, she worked by the light of a battery-powered lantern as gusts of wind shook the windows. Using scissors or a stiletto, she carefully opened packages from places as diverse as Austria, the United States and obscure specks of small-town Canada.

A decorated tree sits near the door, several wreathes decorate the walls and Father Christmas figurines line shelves. Strings of cards are suspended high on the walls, many of them thanking staff for their work. Ms. MacKinnon and the local driver sorting outgoing mail were in high spirits.

"You start seeing that the tempo of mail increases, you see the mail for the grandkids and it's really nice," said Roddie Farrell, preparing for his delivery run. "Hopefully that's never lost."

He understands why so many people value the local postmark.

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"You get a package for kids sort of teetering on the brink of 'Is it real?' and you can say, 'Look, it's from Christmas Island,'" he explained. "It's unique."

Over the years, many packages have included small tokens of thanks and appreciative notes along with the cards to be franked.

An album displays some of this correspondence to staff. It comes from stamp enthusiasts, people who want to make their cards unique or those who simply want to impress a child. "You will make a little girl in Mississippi very happy," one reads.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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