Some people are well organised and get the job out of the way early, whereas others keep putting it off and leave it until the last minute. I’ll admit, I fall into the latter camp. It’s not a thing I enjoy doing and I’m glad when it’s over and done with. What is it? Why, writing the Christmas cards, of course. It has to be done, you know it does, and some people take it as a personal affront if they don’t receive one and when we fall out with someone, what’s the worst thing we can do? We can take them off our Christmas card list.
That’s just about the worst slight we English can inflict on our fellow Englishmen. You know we mean business when we knock you off our Christmas card list. Forget vendettas, feuds, fisticuffs or a really stern look; if your name comes off the Christmas card list, you are beyond the pale, you are nothing to us, you may as well be dead.
Like many other Christmas customs, we stole the idea of Christmas cards from our continental cousins. It was a well-founded tradition for the French and Germans to send out New Year letters to their kith and kin at the turning of the year (the Germans also sent out Namenstag cards, sent not on a birthday but on your namesake saint’s day); just a few lines to let them know how things were going and what you were up to, and those Johnny Foreigners with lots of friends and relations came up with the idea of just writing one letter and getting it printed up and sent out en masse. The English spotted this ruse and pinched it; it’s a thing we are especially good at and it’s the reason that the sun never set on the British Empire - as not even God would trust an Englishman in the dark.
The idea of a Christmas card came from Henry Cole, a civil servant responsible for, amongst other things, designing the Penny Black postage stamp. Cole commissioned the Royal Academician John Callcott Horsley to design a greeting card for him in 1843, (his diary entry for November 17th 1843 includes, “Mr. Horsley came and brought design for Christmas card”).
In 1846, Cole had one thousand cards lithographed and hand-coloured, which sold for one shilling each, issued under Cole’s pseudonym Felix Summerly, printed by Mr Jobbins of Warwick Court, Holborn, and sold by Cole’s friend, Joseph Cundall, from his shop in Old Bond Street, London (see Cundall’s letter to Notes and Queries of January 26th 1864, where he clearly states that ‘possibly not more’ than one thousand cards were sold - not the 2,500 as the Wikipedia article on Christmas Cards claims).
|Cundall's Letter to Notes and Queries - 1864|
The card was a single paste-board, the size of a lady’s calling card, with Horsley’s Germanesque design of three panels, the side ones depicting charitable acts and the central one showing a scene of a family celebrating with glasses of wine – which caused the Victorian abstainers to object that a little girl was being encouraged to drink alcohol because, as we all know, pictures of children imbibing with their family on a Christmas card is the first step on the rocky road to drunkenness, debauchery, the gutter and far, far worse.
Although Cole’s cards sold out, the idea didn’t really catch on until about twenty years later, when playing-card manufacturers Charles Goodall and Sons branched out into the greeting cards business, producing visiting-card style cards with the simple message ‘A Merry Christmas’.
Soon after, robins began to appear, but the early Victorian card illustrations were not particularly festive – they featured fairies, animals, flowers and children, and over the years far more bizarre images began to appear. Bicycles and steam engines may not strike us as particularly Christmassy, but neither do scantily-clad nymphs or cricket matches, yet these were grist to the mills of the card makers.
It wasn’t long though until the familiar holly, snowmen, Kings, bells and all the other tat were rolled out and soon elaborate creations of lace, gilt, bells, silk, gold, silver, broche, embossing, scrolls, fans, pop-ups, velvet, scent and goodness knows what else began to appear.
|Lace, Swans and Lambs - on a Christmas Card|
This didn’t stop the killjoys and the puritans attempting to get in on the act, for as early as 1871 there were complaints in the newspapers that ‘legitimate correspondence’ was being delayed by all this whimsical postal nonsense and in 1873, The Times printed the first notice apologising for ‘not sending Christmas cards this year’.
By the 1890s, the custom of sending cards was beginning to decline and might well have died out all together had it not been for the resurgence during the First World War, when cards to and from the front became a welcome communication with loved ones. Christmas cards may well be in danger again as the habit of hand-written communication diminishes in the face of the instant messages of the e-mail, text and other modern forms of keeping in touch.