by Helen Brinkman

There’s special symbolism in a small wooden Christmas tree sitting in the local Lutheran church in the regional Victorian town of Nhill.

Not only does it remind us of the birth of Jesus Christ, but this tree’s peculiar decorations also remind us of the new life Jesus brings. This is because the adornments completely covering the tree’s trunk and boughs are damaged, used postage stamps.

These stamps have been given a new life on the tree lovingly decorated by 80-year-old Fay Sanders and built decades ago by her late husband Alf, both members of St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Nhill.

Each stamp on the tree is damaged, so it can’t be included in the bundles of 103 stamps Fay sends off to raise funds for the LCANZ’s Stamps for Mission program. These stamps are among tens of thousands collected by Fay since she was 15 years old.

For more than 60 years, Fay has collected, cleaned and bundled stamps from Australia and overseas which have been donated by individuals and businesses to support the church’s mission work. The program has raised more than $500,000 through the sale of stamps to collectors.

Fay started cleaning stamps to lend a helping hand to St Paul’s ladies’ guild while she was in high school. When she left school at 15 to help her bedridden mother manage her rheumatoid arthritis, stamp cleaning became a great hobby to suit her lifestyle.

‘It’s something I could do at home while looking after Mum and now it’s something I can do inside when the weather’s hot’, Fay says.

It wasn’t long before Fay asked her mum and two younger brothers on her family’s farm at Lorquon, north of Nhill, to help clean and bundle the stamps.

Fay recalls that her stamp recycling efforts also helped Nhill clinch a Tidy Town award during her high school days as her unique recycling endeavours gave the town extra points!

And the hobby continued after Fay’s marriage to Alf in 1967, and while raising their three boys. The family has since expanded to include a granddaughter and two grandsons.

Fay’s favourite stamps are brightly coloured ones depicting animals, birds and exotic scenery from neighbouring regions such as Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Christmas Island. Her preference will always be stamps that aren’t peel-and-stick, ‘I like the ones where you used to lick them and stick them on’, she says.

She would soak the stamps, drip-dry them, then lay them on a tea towel. The cat has been known to walk off with stamps stuck to its paws.

Even to this day, she’s still collecting, despite a drop in the quantity of stamps – and the quality, she says, not being a fan of self-sticking stamps. She even wrote a letter to Australia Post: ‘I told them I wasn’t impressed. They wrote back saying they were working on ways to improve them.’

In support of the program, several local Nhill shopkeepers still save stamps, which are collected by one of Fay’s sons for her to clean and sort, with the help of Fay’s cousin Bev Hobbs, a fellow St Paul’s parishioner. This included one surprisingly large box full of old stamps donated anonymously that took a month to sort – ‘I was going morning to night, cleaning’, Fay says.

Fay also keeps up with the philatelic news of the day through Australia Post’s stamp bulletin, to find out what kind of stamps are coming out.

She remains living independently with family help, supported by a walking frame and regular home care.

The stamp-laden Christmas tree continues to promote the work of Stamps for Mission projects in PNG, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia. It was originally created for the St Paul’s congregation’s annual Christmas Tree Festival, which started in 1999 and emulated a similar festival at the Lutheran congregation in Rainbow, Victoria (see Going Greyt, The Lutheran, September 2019).

‘My husband made the tree frame for me before he went on a four-wheel drive trip’, Fay recalls. She then set to work decorating it, using only the damaged stamps that didn’t have any monetary value. ‘In the kitchen, I had the whole table to myself – a week later when he returned it was done.’

The tree joined the ranks of 50 to 60 tree displays in the 1999 festival under the theme ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’ (no Santas allowed!). To this day, the beautiful tree bearing damaged stamps stands at the church as a reminder that God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).

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