Chances are good that when you check your mail (email or snail) today you will find a Christmas greeting or two tucked in between the bills. While the writing of letters and exchanging of notes have been around for centuries, the Christmas card itself is a relatively new concept.
Prior to the 1800s only New Year’s cards and Valentines days card were circulated. The former were generally sent from businesses to their clients and offered, much like the Christmas card would in the future, sentiments of good wishes and joy. The latter were most often homemade creations made with lace and bits of pretty paper delivered by hand.
In the 1800s, it was not uncommon for family, friends and business associates to write letters to each other around the Christmas season
exchanging good wishes. In England, where the card originated, many children would write home to their parents from boarding school to show off their penmanship and what they had learned and accomplished over the term. This bragging of accomplishments still forms the foundation of many Christmas letters circulated today. As you can imagine writing full letters to each acquaintance and family member would take considerable amount of time and creativity.
In 1843 in Britain, a businessman, inventor and Director of the London’s Victoria and Albert Museum sat down to pen a greeting to his friends and acquaintances as he had done for many years. This was a tedious job and ever determined to increase efficiency he, Sir Henry Cole, commissioned his friend, John Calcott Horsley, who just happened to be an artist, to create a card that could be sent out at Christmas time. What Mr. Horsley created was the very first Christmas card. The card was a tri-fold depicting a family feast scene in the centre of the card flanked by generous people feeding and clothing the needy on both sides. Mr. Horsley hand coloured each of the cards, 1,000 in total, which Sir Henry Cole then distributed to his family, friends and acquaintances. The message inside the card? “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The message still printed in cards today.
After this initial run, Mr. Horsley went on to create many more cards and the use of elaborate Christmas cards became popular with the upper class in Britain. Unfortunately, in the early part of 1800s it was still quite costly to use the mail system so the practice of sending cards was reserved for the wealthy only. It was not until the late 1800s that improvements were made to the mail system and it became more affordable for the average person. It was at this point that the newly invented Christmas Card caught on. A little over 30 years later, a German lithographer brought the Christmas card across the ocean and developed a way to make the cards in a simpler fashion and thus more affordable. Again their popularity rose and has remained strong. With the use of email and e-greetings fewer people send out cards today, however the expressions of good will and wishing those around a joyful Christmas season continues.
As an aside, the word “Merry” in the phrase merry Christmas is based on the old English use of the word “Merry” meaning “Blessed” or “Peaceful”. One could restate that phrase to read “[Wishing you a] Blessed Christmas and a happy New Year.”
You who bring Good Tidings; Lift up your voice with strength;
be not afraid; say unto the cities, “Behold your God!”