The Paper Kind

Creative living.

Why Are Christmas Cards A Thing?

September is coming to an end and with it, the festive season begins to draw closer. One aspect of Christmas which brings much enjoyment, along with a good amount of stress is sending cards to friends and family. But where did this tradition of sending Christmas cards begin, and why do we still do it in the age of email? 

Today I’m going to share a very short history of the Christmas card, how we got into the habit of sending cards every year, and at the end, I will be shilling my own Christmas cards which I’ve just released on Etsy. 

Why Are Christmas Cards A Thing?

The First (Surviving) Christmas Card

The first surviving object which resembles a Christmas card was presented to King James the first of England (also known as King James the fifth of Scotland) in 1611. Though this object has very little resemblance to what we know today as Christmas cards. 

First discovered in the 60s by Adam McLean, it is a manuscript in a Rosicrucian style. The actual manuscript is quite large, at around 80 by 60 centimetres, and appears to have been folded into sections which divide parts of the illustration. 

The manuscript shows a rose in the centre, held up by a stem and resting on a base. These illustrations are created using handwritten text, the main part of which states “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612”.

Unfortunately due to copyright reasons, it’s not possible to show an image of this manuscript, and due to the age, some parts of the lettering can only be seen under blacklight. However, it is possible to view it on request at the National Archives in Edinburgh. 

The First Commercial Christmas Card

The inventor of the first commercial Christmas Card was Henry Cole. A civil servant who set up the Public Record Office, now known as the post office. Cole worked as an Assistant Keeper and was instrumental in reforming the postal system and setting up the Uniform Penny Post. Previously, postage would depend on the distance and number of sheets of paper. With these changes, postage was calculated by weight, meaning one could send a letter anywhere in the country provided it was the correct weight. 

New railway lines meant more post could be carried compared to horse and carriage. Better education led to more people being able to read and write. So this discounted postage meant that sending a letter became affordable to more and more people. 

At the same time, Christmas was taking over Victorian society with a return to traditions such as banquets, parties and gifting to charity. One particular Christmas tradition was writing letters to friends and acquaintances to wish them a merry holiday season. 

henry cole christmas card
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843, Public Domain

As you can imagine with the creation of the Post Office and traditions requiring many personal letters over the festive season. Christmas was a busy time for Henry Cole. With many letters to write Cole devised a solution where he would send the same card, with some personalisation to every person, in turn saving himself the time of writing a full letter. 

Cole designed the artwork for what became the first Christmas card in collaboration with painter John Horsley, the cards were then printed using a new lithography printing technique and finally, colour was added on top. The card featured two acts of charity, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, in a scene which depicted three generations of the Cole family. 

One thousand of these cards were created, with Cole using as many as needed. The rest were put up for sale however due to the high price – a shilling each – they were a commercial flop as they were too expensive for most people. 

A Victorian Christmas Card

Though Henry Cole’s Christmas card was considered a flop, the sending of Christmas cards became more popular during this time with the invention of new printing processes which combined metallic inks and die cutting to create elaborate Christmas cards. 

1870 victorian style christmas card
Victorian, c. 1870

The design of Victorian Christmas cards was inspired by Valentine’s cards, which were already popular by this point. These cards featured “paper lace” and layers which opened to reveal flowers and other religious symbols. The Christmas card eventually became so popular that it replaced Happy New Year cards and was the favoured way of corresponding with friends and family. 

This period of Christmas-mania between 1860 and 1890 saw the beginning of many symbols and images which we now associate with the Christmas season. From robins, holly and evergreen, to churches and snowy landscapes. 

1880 christmas card showing winter scene
Christmas Card, 1880

These initial highly decorative Christmas cards were sold in bookshops and stationers, and marketed to the wealthy because of their intricate nature. But over time more affordable Christmas cards and other items were made, aimed at the middle class. These Christmas cards became a collectable item, with Victorians displaying and exchanging cards. 

Modern(ish) Day

The invention of the postcard saw the decline of the elaborate Victorian-style Christmas card. But even this was replaced by the traditional folded style Christmas card we come to think of now thanks to the Hall brothers. Hallmark cards were founded in 1915 and made holiday cards. The Hall brothers capitalised on a desire for more personalised holiday cards, this was helped by customers becoming frustrated by the postcard format and its lack of space. 

christmas postcard, 1907
Christmas postcard, 1907

Hallmark’s success occurred with the outbreak of World War 1 as customers demanded cards to send overseas to soldiers. Since then Hallmark has become one of the largest brands selling greeting cards for Christmas as well as numerous other holidays. 

The design and manufacturing of Christmas cards became even more popular throughout the twentieth century. As George Buday put it in his book The History of Christmas, it was less about the religious acts of Christmas. Rather the sending of Christmas cards was associated in the minds of the senders with festivities. What started with Henry Cole as a time-saving device had now become an international phenomenon. 

Now

Customised Christmas cards are more popular than ever with new printing technologies making them easy to design and make. But sending Christmas cards is still a common holiday tradition. The need for yearly correspondence with friends and family is waning. Social media and other modern technologies make it easier than ever to communicate and stay up to date on what is happening with friends. 

So do we still need Christmas cards? Certainly, the festive season is the most popular time of the year for sending cards. And we know that there is something uniquely special about getting a handwritten card throughout the year. Maybe the Victorians had it right, the important bit of sending Christmas cards is not the card. It’s the connection you make from taking the time to handwrite a personal note to a friend. In the age of social media, where we can communicate at the touch of a button, maybe we should try a more old-fashioned way of saying Merry Christmas. 

The part which pays the bills

I’m going to be completely honest, that whole last section was just a way for me to try and convince you that handmade cards are better than sending an e-card. And it just so happens that I am selling a brand new range of Christmas cards. 

 Okay all joking aside, my main area of focus as a calligrapher is not in the holiday season. But I’ve always wanted to try making greeting cards. Every year one of my friends will spend a whole month making Christmas cards. These things are incredible, true works of art. Each is unique and specifically designed to reflect an interest or some other area related to the receiver. I’ve received numerous cards over the year and there’s something so special about each one. I don’t keep the majority of my Christmas cards but I do keep every single one that this friend has given me. 

modern handmade calligraphy christmas cards

There’s something extra special in knowing they’ve taken the time to make and hand write this card just for me. I can’t say my cards are anywhere near the same standard, but they are handmade and I’ve spent two months working on them. I started my Christmas designs right around the time of the heatwave in July and can I just say it was a very strange experience trying to get in a festive mood while boiling from the heat. 

If you’d like to see my Christmas cards they are available for sale over on nethystudio.com. I’ve also got a few other Christmas bits available along with some original art pieces I’ve worked on this year. It would make me so happy if you were able to check it out. 

Resources

The History of the Christmas Card by George Buday (1954)
A Rosicrucian Christmas Card by Paul Goodall

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