A History of Christmas Cards


A Brief History of Christmas Cards

The sending and exchange of the Christmas card is an activity that is very much ingrained into modern day Christmastime traditions. And given that families are spread out across the country and the world, sending a card at Christmastime is one thing people do to keep in touch. However, the sending of Christmas cards is a relatively recent addition to Christmas tradition, essentially beginning in the 1840s, not even two centuries ago. Here is a look at the history of Christmas cards and why we send them.

Early Greeting Cards

Although the first Christmas cards as we know them today appeared in the 1800s, the idea wasn’t fabricated from thin air, but was based on some other, older practices. The predecessors to the Christmas card, such as St. Valentine's cards and Christmas letters, paved the way for this newer tradition.

The first greeting cards were New Year’s cards and Valentines, which were established in the 15th century. New Year’s cards were often printed from wood-blocks and for some time sending them remained primarily a custom between businesses and customers. By the late 1700s, the general public would join into the practice.

The sending of St. Valentine’s cards became a publicly practiced tradition much sooner. First appearing in the 1400s, by the mid-1500s they had become popular. People typically made their own Valentines, writing their own verses or copying from books of verse and decorating cards with their own drawings or bits of ribbon and lace. The first manufactured Valentines appeared around the year 1800 and the popularity of these cards would pave the way for the widespread custom of sending Christmas cards.

Trade cards, which became common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were also a precursor to the Christmas card. They were cards packaged with products such as tea, soaps, tobacco and foods. The cards would have a pretty image and the name of the company.

The First Christmas Cards

At Christmastime, many people would send letters to friends and family far away, and children at boarding school would decorate paper and write letters to show off the writing skills they’d improved upon that term at school. However, the first official Christmas card was created in 1843 in Britain.

Sir Henry Cole, director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, would write letters to family and acquaintances at Christmastime. He and others could buy decorative paper on which to pen greetings and good wishes, but he found it to be a cumbersome task. So Cole commissioned an artist friend, John Calcott Horsley to create a card with a simple message that could be duplicated and sent to all his acquaintances. Horsley lithographed and hand-colored 1,000 copies of this first commercial card. It was a three-panel card – the center panel showed a family celebrating and the two wing panels depicted people feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. The card bore the simple greeting, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You,” which would become the standard sentiment of the mass-produced Christmas cards.

Christmas Cards Rise in Popularity

Christmas cards were quite elaborate and though the lithograph printing process helped in producing cards, they first became popular among the upper-class in England. However, the development and improvement of the postal system, making sending cards more affordable, was a big part of the rise in the popularity of Christmas cards. Early cards were not necessarily religious Christmas cards but favored images such as beautiful flowers, birds, scenery and other pretty things.

In 1875 Louis Prang brought the commercial Christmas card to the United States. Prang, a German lithographer, had developed a new innovative way of printing that made the process of creating Christmas and other cards much simpler and more affordable. Like British Christmas cards, Prang’s cards included various images that were simply pretty and tasteful, not truly having much to do with Christmas or even necessarily winter. However, some cards did include holly, snow and some other wintery or Christmas images. His cards became extremely popular in the U.S.; his company printed almost five million cards a year by 1881.

However, Prang’s cards were of exceptional quality and used quality materials, causing the cards to be somewhat pricey. As America became infatuated with sending Christmas cards, other companies began to flood the market with cheaper imitations, inspired by the Prang cards. By 1890, Prang was driven out of the market completely and his card-manufacturing company closed.

Christmas Cards Today

Beuronese Nativity Mosaic Christmas CardThe advent of the postcard is seen as the turning point when elaborate Victorian-era Christmas cards faded away in preference of simpler cards. Postcards were cheaper and easier to send. As of the 1920s, cards with envelopes grew in popularity again, but cards printed today still tend to be simple, not edged with lace or ribbon. In more recent decades, the sending of physical Christmas cards has declined somewhat because of the widespread use of electronic mail (e-mail) through the Internet. Many people send “E-Greetings” or “E-Cards” which are electronic cards, sometimes with music and animation, sent via e-mail. However, many people still choose to send real Christmas cards, with close to 2 billion Christmas cards being sent each year in America alone.

Catholic Christmas Cards

Christian Christmas cards were not among the first Christmas cards, despite Christmas being a Christian holiday. However, religious Christmas cards really came onto the scene in the 1890s. In light of many secular traditions taking precedence in society, many Catholics today use the card-sending tradition as an opportunity to promote focus on the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. If you would like to send and exchange truly Catholic Christmas cards this year, browse our religious Christmas Cards.

This article was adapted from Wikipedia and The Livaudais Christmas Collection History of Christmas Cards.

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