Christmas cards: 179 years of tradition

In digital times, “card exchanges” is something discarded or transferred to emails. Until 20 years ago, however, even in Brazil there were mailings or expectations of exchanges of greetings during holidays. But in British (and American) culture, there is one habit that is still going strong: personalized cards wishing you a Merry Christmas. The Royal Family cards, for example, even generate articles, evaluating every detail of the record. This year, for example, King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla chose a moment of mutual happiness. Prince William and Kate Middleton shared theirs, with their children. We haven’t seen Meghan Markle and Prince Harry‘s card yet, but it’s sure to be creative. Princess Diana‘s cards, for example, always focused on her children.

And how did this tradition of Christmas cards come about? Do you know?

It was in 1843, in England, that Sir Henry Cole, a prominent civil servant, educator, and inventor, swamped with work at Christmas time found himself without time to respond individually to the many letters he received. To be rude and not reply was not on the table for him, after all, he himself had been instrumental in reforming the British postal system just three years earlier, helping to create the Uniform Penny Post, which was affordable prepaid mail (one penny per post), made in a smaller format than a letter, but enough to include a few words that become the “postcard”. Along with the now famous “Penny Black” stamps, the invention was the catalyst for the massive growth of mail exchange and the creation of jobs (they needed more postmen to deliver). Still, that Christmas, Sir Henry was looking for a practical alternative that wouldn’t take up too much of his time to write his letters. Those who are creative face difficulties always looking outside the box. He had an idea.

To carry out his plan, he needed help and contacted the artist John Callcott Horsley, his friend and literally the only one who could illustrate what he idealized. The concept was twofold: wishing abundance and happiness, but also remembering the neediest in a single message. So, in the size of a postcard, he inserted the image of his family in celebration, happy and with plenty of food and drink, contrasted by illustrations that showed less fortunate people receiving donations of food and clothing. The message just said “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”.

With a keen commercial eye, Sir Henry had a thousand hand-colored copies engraved: 500 cards were sent to friends and customers, the other half offered for sale in his London shop. Need I say it became an immediate success? Of course. Thus was born the first commercial Christmas card.

The cards invented by Sir Cole were very useful in the exchange of communication in the 19th and 20th centuries, with multiplied mailings and playing an important role in communication during the two world wars. Even today, in the UK alone, it is estimated the volume of more than one billion card exchanges, has increased at the time of the Pandemic.

Although in England the tradition of the family image is kept alive (later with photos rather than illustrations), religious themes dominate many Christmas cards, but snow remains a popular image as well. It was first used in 1860 after the coldest winter on record at the time. Santa’s popularity is due to Queen Victoria. The Sovereign was the first to use it on annual cards for staff, friends, and tenants at both Windsor and Osborne House. With the popularization of photography, the tradition of taking a family photo to wish happy holidays remained, something that the Royal Family respects to this day.

There are still original copies of Sir Henry Cole’s cards which are sought after by collectors. Today his creation is analyzed as being responsible for a great impact on industries focused on creativity and aesthetics because from 1843 onwards, he began to hire designers to develop a variety of cards and decorative gifts that were commercialized. At the Victoria & Albert Museum in London alone (of which Sir Henry was the first director) there is a collection of more than 30,000 cards, with examples from the 18th century to today. With this context, the exchange of messages is much more interesting, isn’t it?


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