Surfing Santa – the iconic, but controversial, Christmas stamp of 1977

The year 1977 saw the issue of what is possibly Australia’s most controversial stamp, the 15c Christmas Surfing Santa. Designed by Roger Roberts (Adelaide), the stamp featured a humorous depiction of Santa Claus riding a surfboard, but the idea involved much controversy.

Surfing Santa was not the first occasion a cartoon was used on an Australian stamp, Four years earlier, the Metric Conversion stamps featuring a cartoon character, which attracted much criticism. However, the controversy on this occasion was the irreverent nature of Santa surfing!

Until 1975, all Christmas stamps featured religious themes, often based on the traditional nativity story. In 1976, a secular stamp was added to the Christmas issue, depicting a graphic illustration of a koala, some holly, a bauble, a Christmas tree and dove. It seemed to be well received. The 1977 Christmas stamps comprised a 15c value for the concessional greeting card rate (Surfing Santa) and a 45c value for air mail letter postage to most overseas countries (the Madonna and Child).

15 cent stamp featuring a colourful Santa wearing shorts and surfing on a twirling wave.

When Roger Roberts was commissioned for the 1977 stamp design, he was given no specific instructions regarding the subject matter, other than to take a secular approach.

Before the Surfing Santa stamp was issued on 31 October 1977, the leading Anglican and Catholic authorities in Melbourne were consulted and they had no objection to the design. Also, ahead of the stamp’s release, Surfing Santa was included in public opinion surveys carried out to evaluate Australia Post’s new television commercials. Out of 1,000 respondents surveyed only two per cent disliked Surfing Santa on religious grounds, and relatively few people disliked it for other reasons.

45 cent stamp from 2007 depicting a colourful Santa in board shorts surfing a wave and holding a piece of holly.

Nevertheless, the critics emerged quickly once the stamp appeared. A considerable amount of criticism appeared in the letter columns of daily newspapers and in letters sent directly to Australia Post.

Apparently, this stamp had generated more criticism than any previous Australian stamp. The following year’s Christmas stamps were confined entirely to religious subjects! Secular stamps were reinstated to the Christmas issue in 1979.

Thirty years on, Surfing Santa made a reappearance when Australia Post issued commemorative stamps to mark 50 years of Christmas stamps. One of the five designs in the 2007 issue reproduced the 1977 Surfing Santa stamp, which by now (ironically) had become iconic.