Christmas Cards: History and Tradition

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The tradition of sending Christmas cards is a well-established custom that dates back to the 19th century. It is a delightful means of maintaining connections with family and friends, especially those who live far away. The simple act of sending a card communicates affection, appreciation, and good wishes during the holiday season.

illustration of people holding up a glass of drink
First Christmas Card – 1843

The First Christmas Card

The first Christmas card is believed to have been created in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole in the UK. At the time, Cole was a civil servant who helped set up what would later become the Post Office, and he wanted to find a way to encourage people to use the postal service more.

Collaborating with artist John Callcott Horsley, they designed a card featuring a family having Christmas dinner, with a message of “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” Initially, it wasn’t well received due to the depiction of a child drinking wine. However, the idea of sending Christmas wishes in this way gradually caught on.

The Christmas card tradition truly took off with advancements in printing technology and the reduction in postal rates, making it affordable for the average person to send cards. By the late 19th and early 20th century, Christmas cards were being produced in large numbers.

illustration of early winter scene
By Published by J. Hoover, Philadelphia

Early Christmas Card Styles

Early Christmas cards often avoided overt references to the holiday, featuring instead generic wintery scenes or whimsical illustrations. Over time, however, they began to incorporate more explicitly Christmas-related themes, such as nativity scenes, Santa Claus, and Christmas decorations.

illustration of santa riding reindeer
Souvenir Post Card Company, New York

Modern Christmas Cards

Nowadays, Christmas cards come in a wide variety of designs, ranging from traditional to humorous, religious to secular, and simple to extravagant. Some people prefer to send handmade cards, while others opt for store-bought ones. Personalised photo cards have also become a popular trend, featuring a picture of the family, children, or even pets.

In addition to the cards themselves, the way they are sent has also evolved. While many people still enjoy the process of handwriting a message, addressing an envelope, and sending a physical card through the mail, others have embraced the convenience of electronic Christmas cards. These e-cards can be personalised, animated, and sent instantly to recipients all over the world, reducing costs and environmental impact.

Cultural and Historical Influence on Design of Christmas Cards

Another interesting aspect of Christmas cards is the cultural and historical significance. The themes, designs, and messages on cards often reflect the societal attitudes, technological advancements, and artistic trends of their time. For instance, Victorian-era cards are known for their intricate designs and often contained elements reflecting the fascination with nature and industry. During war periods, cards would often carry patriotic themes or messages of hope and resilience.

pile of different christmas cards
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Collecting Christmas Cards

Collecting Christmas cards is a hobby for some, who treasure the artistry and historical value of these seasonal greetings. Antique and vintage cards are particularly prized by collectors. Some museums and libraries even have collections of Christmas cards for their historical significance.

The Meaning of Exchanging Christmas Cards Today

Despite these modern adaptations, the essence of the Christmas card tradition remains the same: it’s a way to express love, gratitude, and holiday cheer to the important people in our lives. Whether they’re displayed on a mantelpiece, hung up with string, or opened on a computer screen, Christmas cards continue to be a cherished part of the holiday season.

The act of sending and receiving Christmas cards also has a personal significance. For many, it’s a cherished tradition that kicks off the holiday season. The sight of cards arriving in the mail, the ritual of opening them, and the joy of displaying them around the house all contribute to the festive spirit of Christmas.

In an increasingly digital age, the tradition of sending physical Christmas cards has taken on a new meaning. For some, it’s a way to disconnect from the digital world and engage in a more tactile, personal form of communication. There’s something special about holding a physical card, knowing it was handpicked, possibly written by hand, and physically mailed to you.

Christmas cards are much more than simple pieces of paper. They are a tradition that carries historical, cultural, and personal significance, enhancing the warmth and connection inherent in the holiday season.

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