A lesson on Christmas cards - the best season’s greeting of all...

Today, a bewilderingly large selection of festive cards is available – religious, nostalgic, contemporary, cute, humorous… Robert Hume looks back to when card giving began.

Henry Cole’s problem was that he had too many friends. How on earth could a man busy inventing perforated postage stamps and children’s colouring boxes find time to write them all a letter at Christmas — as any Victorian gentleman was expected to?

In 1843, the eureka moment: He asked artist friend John Callcott Horsley to design an illustration that he could send them instead. Horsley came up with an image of a family

sitting around a table celebrating Christmas, surrounded by people helping the poor. No need to write a greeting because there was a printed one: “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You”. All Cole had to do was insert two names: “To___________” and “From_____________”.

He asked a London printer to produce 1,000 copies on stiff cardboard, measuring 5 by 3¼ inches, and off they went in the new penny post.

But the temperance movement was not amused: The card showed the outrageous image of one child enjoying a glass of wine.

By the 1870s, Christmas cards had become the in thing. They were now folded, and suited all pockets, ranging in price from a halfpenny to five guineas.

Sharpshooter Annie Oakley sent the first known “personalised” Christmas card in 1891. Posted from Glasgow to family and friends in USA, it featured a photo of her wearing a tartan outfit.

The Irish Christmas card

Just before Christmas 1916, republican revolutionary Constance Markievicz noticed that the war had caused the traditional festive cards made in Germany to be replaced by patriotic English ones. Immediately, she set about designing a series of Irish cards.

Walker’s Tower Press in Dublin was probably the first publisher of genuinely Irish Christmas cards.

One early image was Jack Butler Yeats’s bird in flight, carrying a letter over the snowy roofs of Irish cottages. Another was George Fagan’s couple on their way to Mass across wintery fields.

If sending a card abroad, it had to be Irish. Messrs Waller of Dublin advertised “Irish-made cards containing packets of shamrock seed, with the greeting: “from the Old Country”. Guy and Co of Cork printed beautiful cards in gold, guaranteeing their Irishness with embossed emblems and mottoes. Eason’s used green ink and Celtic interlace heraldry. Decorated with foil and green ribbon, they were often too delicate to post.

From nature, to nativity, to charity

The earliest cards were by no means always festive. Many reminded the recipient of the approach of spring, or even summer: poppies and lilies of the valley; donkeys on the sand; even a Chinese pleasure boat. Not a single snowflake or piece of twinkling bauble in sight!

Motifs came to be replaced by holly and ivy and dreamy-eyed children, the Magi and horse-drawn stagecoaches, Christmas trees and jolly Santas.

One favourite, writes George Buday in The History of the Christmas Card, was “humanised robins” going to church, distributing red holly berries to poor robins.

Today, many organisations — from animal rescue to cancer care — produce Christmas cards as a fundraising tool. Unicef launched the first charity card in 1949, showing a picture of a maypole and women dancing, reportedly drawn by a seven-year-old Czech girl.


The most popular Christmas card ever produced contains a simple image of three little angels. Two are bowed in prayer, a third peers out from the card with big blue eyes, and halo slightly askew. First published in 1977, the card — still part of Hallmark’s collection — has sold a whopping 34 million copies.


Some cards were hilarious, not least those showing laughing faces with missing teeth, and children attacking a giant Christmas pudding, c 1890.

Others were sad: One from the early 1870s depicts a boar’s head on a dish, carried on the shoulders of four solemn piglets, drying their tears on large white handkerchiefs. Still others were disturbing: A dead robin lying on its back with the inscription: “Sweet messenger of calm decay and Peace Divine”. Apparently, small dead birds often featured on Christmas cards in the 1880s.

Full circle: saving time…all over again

With the arrival of the internet, sales of Christmas cards have dwindled. Hallmark reports a 33.7% decrease since 2007.

Only 22% of all households said they would be sending out traditional Christmas cards, according to a recent survey by Parenting magazine.

Some of us opt for family picture cards that we can print at home and email out with news — a “round robin” — to friends and relations.

Others send free commercial e-cards rather than spend time and money mailing them.

Nowadays there are so many ways of communicating on a daily basis throughout the year with distant relatives. So, will sending physical Christmas cards die out — like letter writing has?

Bah humbug! One recent survey showed that Europeans still send an average of 11 Christmas cards a year.

Another survey by An Post in Ireland last year revealed that 68% of respondents prefer to receive a handwritten card.

Cheery to pick up from the mat, and open, Christmas cards look lovely displayed on a shelf. They show that the sender has taken trouble to choose a card for you, address an envelope, and post it.

Long may the tradition continue!

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