You’ve probably already had a few at this point in proceedings (this year, I’ve even been sent one with a rather festive zebra on it!), and I can almost guarantee you’ve forgotten somebody when sending yours, because that’s traditional…
Christmas cards. They can be a real pain to get written and sent, but are always nice to receive. We see them as a pleasant age-old festive tradition, but they only came about in their modern form in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Yep. Just like so many other things that seem to have been part of Christmas forever, the sending of Christmas cards was popularised by those Victorians. You can see a reproduction of the first commercially available card above (and you can see more Victorian and Edwardian cards in the slideshow below).
This first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) in 1843. Clearly a shrewd man, he had previously been involved in the introduction of the hugely successful Penny Post in 1840 and later organised the Great Exhibition of 1851, plus he was the first Director of London’s Victoria & Albert museum in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Sir Henry commissioned the well-known artist John Calcott-Horsely (1817-1903) to design the card – and a thousand copies were produced, each hand-coloured. Once Cole had written and sent his share of the cards, the rest were put up for sale for a shilling apiece via an advert in The Athenaeum:
Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.
Showing a multi-generational family lifting a toast to the recipient and bookended by scenes of Christmas charity, the design of the card contained a very Victorian message of philanthropy, which we can also see in other such near-contemporary examples as the Christmas Books of Charles Dickens.
However, the image of a family drinking wine depicted on this card caused some controversy among the more outspoken and influential members of the Temperance Movement in Britain, who felt very strongly that the card promoted drunkenness!
Cole’s Christmas card was an immediate success, and the demand was such that a second printing had to be produced very quickly. In total, more than two thousand copies were printed and sold that Christmas – the Christmas card had, as it were, arrived.
You can see from the slideshow that many nineteenth and early twentieth century Christmas cards didn’t always look all that festive or religious in the sense that we would know it (and anyway, I’d love to know what’s so Christmassy about a ‘Beauty Spot at Bondi’, or a bunch of grumpy kittens perched upon a pipe! Admittedly, the Victorians seemed to love imagery of small and distinctly annoyed moggies – perhaps descendants of the notorious Icelandic Yule Cat?)
However, it’s also interesting to note that religious and secular seasonal themes were combined in some Christmas card art from very early on. Cards featuring angels carrying Christmas trees or guiding Father Christmas on his deliveries are yet another example of the longstanding jointly Christian/non-Christian nature of the festive celebrations.
A related phenomenon is the Victorian New Year card, which may hark back to historical celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when the upper reaches of society would exchange gifts on January 1st. You can see a few examples of these nineteenth century cards in the slideshow above, all of which depict themes of newness and/or luck in the coming year.
In recent years, such cards seem to have made a return – I have seen numerous examples on sale this Christmas (including – where else? – at the Post Office…). Greetings cards are big business in 21st century Britain, with one in six retailers stocking them. Many people also enjoy making them at home as a hobby, which obviously requires production of the relevent craft supplies (and glue all over your fingers).
Brits buy more greeting cards than any other nation, and raise around £50 million for various charities with the purchase of fundraising Christmas cards every year. You could see that as a nod back to the philanthropic message of Sir Henry Cole’s original, although I’m not sure what he would think about the auction of a rare surviving 1843 card for over £22,000 in 2001…
Cole’s small idea took wings, and now you can instantly send a Christmas card to someone on the other side of the world with just the click of a mouse. So I’m sending this post out as a Christmas card to you all, wherever you are, with love.
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