A Brief History of the Christmas Card

If you celebrate Christmas (or maybe even if you don’t) it’s a beloved tradition to give & receive Christmas cards during this festive time of year.

(Including, for the procrastinators out there, after Christmas. It’s the thought that counts, right?)

But the practice had to start somewhere. So when did this fun and nostalgic Christmas tradition begin?

The first known occurrence was in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole commissioned cards illustrated by John Callcott Horsley. The card shows a family giving a toast, with illustrations of charitable actions on the edges. They were sold for a shilling each.

Some were upset at the content of the card – it shows a child being given a glass of wine.

Also in the 1840s, “official” Christmas cards began to be issued, often showing images of royalty such as Queen Victoria.

Most early Christmas cards were not given to the kind of romantic winter image we see today, but instead leaned toward flowers and cheerful spring-like designs, looking forward to upcoming warmer weather.

A festive, embossed Christmas postcard showing a green-dressed Santa surrounded by poinsettias.

A festive, embossed Christmas postcard showing a green-dressed Santa surrounded by poinsettias.

Some designs were not quite so cheerful, however. “Some early Christmas card imagery, featured in Grossman’s book “Christmas Curiosities” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2008), may look more bizarre to modern eyes: Krampus* dragging bad children to the underworld, pine trees kissing, Santa lighting a cigar off a Christmas tree, anthropomorphic mice decorating trees and cats tossing snowballs. OK, people still love pictures of animals acting like humans, but how does one explain the Christmas cards that show a dead bird lying on its back with the words “May yours be a joyful Christmas” above?” (via Megan Gannon on Live Science)

The different sensibilities of the time don’t translate so well today. Here’s a tip, kids: just because the Victorians did it doesn’t mean you should send your dear old grandma a picture of a dead bird.

In 1870, the start of the One Penny Post allowed almost anyone to send cards, making the business even more successful.

A cute, vintage postcard showing a girl in a red dress with her toy horse, giving Christmas greetings.

A cute, vintage postcard showing a girl in a red dress with her toy horse, giving Christmas greetings.

In 1873 a lithograph firm began selling Christmas cards in England, which expanded to the U.S. the next year. One of the creators, Louis Prang, was called the “father of the American Christmas card.” His designs were so popular that they spawned cheap knockoffs that eventually drove him from business.

Today, 45% of all cards sent are Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole really knew what he was doing.

Many stationary businesses made Christmas cards from then on, each year reflecting the trends of the times with their images and designs. For instance, in the early 20th century each of the World Wars brought patriotic card themes, while the 1950s brought cartoon illustrations. Nostalgic images have since continued to rise, leading to the popular Victorian Christmas image we often see today.

Today, some use e-cards to send their holiday well-wishes, but that does not stop the physical Christmas card business from thriving. And many would prefer it that way, considering the lukewarm receptions to digital cards. There are only so many cutesy winter animations that one can sit through before going mad.

But no matter the medium, the Christmas card has become an embedded tradition within our culture, a tradition that sends joyful greetings and well-wishing thoughts around this festive time of year.

*Krampus is known as the “holiday devil” in Alpine folklore, a creature opposite of Santa Claus who punishes bad children. Good luck sleeping tonight.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Christmas Card

  1. I always think of the Mr Bean skit where he confuses the return address with the address of the person he’s sending the cards to. He gets a letter in the mail, opens it and it’s one of the cards he’s been sending out. They pan out and his entire living room is full of the same Xmas card.

    Comedic genius.

    • That is hilarious. We used to watch the Mr. Bean Christmas skits every year in my middle school math class, and I always looked forward to it (partly because that meant not having to do math, but, you know).

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