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Long Live the Christmas Card

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Christmas simply wouldn’t be complete without a card complete with pretty festive scenes and hand-written greeting. Today Christmas cards come in all shapes and sizes and the well-meant festive gesture of exchanging Christmas cards is considered as traditional and customary as enjoying a celebratory mince pie. Whilst Christmas cards are now considered a hallmark of the season they are in fact a relative newcomer in the list of Christmas traditions.

Sitting down and writing Christmas cards is one of those tasks that I really do enjoy and I simply love receiving a bundle of Christmas cards from friends and relatives that I don’t see all that frequently. It seems that I am not alone in my liking of this tradition as the British are expected to send around 800 million Christmas cards this year, with the average person sending nineteen cards each, although statistics show that this figure is decreasing each year. The impact of the internet, with the rise of e-cards and social networking websites such as Facebook, has changed the way people communicate around Christmas. For me no e-card can ever replace a physical card, especially as I am one of those sentimental types that like to save cards from my nearest and dearest.

With an abundance of Christmas cards for sale everywhere you turn it is easy to think of this tradition as a long standing one, however, whilst greeting and trinkets have been exchanged at New Year since the Roman Saturnalia festival it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that card-sending became associated with Christmas and gained mass appeal.

Early Christmas cards were nothing like we think of today. The original festive cards sprang from the popular Valentines cards that were typically embellished with lace, satin and embossed paper. As old valentines and calling cards were recycled into Christmas cards it meant that they were likely to carry images of spring flowers and hearts rather than the festive and merry designs we think of today. Then in 1843 the world’s first known manufactured Christmas card appeared in London. These ‘real’ Christmas cards came into being when Sir Henry Cole commissioned the painter and illustrator John Calcott Horsley to design a holiday card that he could send to his friends, family and business associates. The initial print run was for just a 1,000 cards, which were lithographed and hand coloured by a professional colourer named Mason. The surplus cards from the original print run were sold under Henry Cole’s pseudonym of Felix Summerly for one shilling each. With such a small print run it is not surprising that today’s experts say that only a small number are known to survive.

Due to their rarity Cole’s cards are sought after by collectors and indeed the scarce remaining cards have earned far more popularity in modern times than they did in 1843. At the time of creation the first Christmas card gathered little enthusiasm amongst the British. The growing temperance movement voiced their outright displeasure with the card’s central illustration, which depicted the merriment of the season and a young child drinking wine, although helping offset this criticism were the card’s side panels, which illustrated the more charitable endeavours of clothing the poor and feeding paupers. Although by 1860, objections to portrayal of joyful holiday merriment had vanished, and the custom of sending Christmas cards was becoming well established in Britain.

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Advances in printing techniques meant that good quality, colour cards could be produced cheaply and this combined with reduced postage costs meant that Christmas cards began to see a surge in popularity. The first postal service that ordinary people could use was started in 1840 when the first ‘Penny Post’ public postal deliveries began. The Penny stamp meant that sending letters was no longer the preserve of the rich and became available due to developments in rail networks. By 1860 Christmas cards were being commercially produced in volume and were beginning to become a ‘traditional’ part of Christmas.

Cards became even more popular in the Britain when they could be posted in an unsealed envelope for one halfpenny – half the price of an ordinary letter in 1870. It seems fitting to me that the postal service contributed to the success of the Christmas card for the Postmen in Victorian England were popularly called ‘robins,’ due to their red uniforms. Early Christmas cards often depicted a ‘robin’ delivering Christmas mail and indeed postmen were so swamped by the deluge of Christmas cards in the system by the 1870’s that the Post Office took to appealing to the public to ‘post early for Christmas’. It seems hard to imagine now, but Christmas post was so popular and celebrated that right up until the early 1960s there was a postal delivery on Christmas Day.

Whilst the high price postage will deter some from sending a Christmas card this year, I sincerely hope that festive cardboard camaraderie continues. In a world of technology and instant gratification it is nice to think that someone has taken the time to pen a personal message in a card or at least scrawl ‘best wishes’. This year as I sit as I attend to my Christmas card list I shall raise my festive glass of sherry and toast, ‘long live the Christmas card’.

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