Compliments of the Season!

Unlike many other traditions, the exchanging of Christmas cards is of comparatively recent origin. No one knows who sent the first such card; however, there is agreement that the practice originated during the 1840s in England.

In 1841 Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria imported a German custom by decorating a tree for Christmas at Windsor Castle. The idea caught public fancy and soon spread throughout Britain and overseas. A year later, Charles Dickens wrote his immortal The Christmas Carol enshrining Ebenezer Scrooge, along with Tiny Tim, in the vocabulary of the season. A most appropriate decade for launching the first Christmas card!

There are at least four claimants for the distinction of being the earliest designer. In 1844, novelist and clergyman Edward Bradley (1827–89), then vicar at Newcastle, England, reputedly mailed lithographed holiday greetings to his friends. Also in 1844, other sources assert that an artist of the Royal Academy, William Dobson (1817–98), sent out hand colored cards.

Yet another claimant is William Maw Egely (1826–1916). One of his cards, dated either 1842 or 1849, was deposited in the British Museum in 1931. It depicted several holiday activities; a Christmas dinner, carolers and a Punch and Judy show. If created in 1842, Egely would have been in his teens, causing some authorities to suggest 1849 as the correct date for his card. The question hinges on the interpretation of a single digit. If it was December 1842, then first card honors must go to William Egley.

In 1884 the London Times made an attempt to settle the issue. Following research they uncovered another strong claimant. Prior to Christmas 1843, Sir Henry Cole (1808–1882) a civil servant, and friend of Prince Albert, asked artist John Callcott Horsley (1817–1903) to design a Christmas greeting.

The result was a three panelled illustrated card. In the centre, a grapevine encircled a trellis and below, three generations of a family were seen celebrating Christmas. The card aroused considerable attention as the family was depicted drinking wine to the horror of the temperance lobby. The two side panels were devoted to typical holiday acts of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

About a thousand copies were printed by Cundall and Son, London. Controversy notwithstanding; they were popular, selling for a shilling each at a book store on Old Bond Street, London.

Who was first in the Christmas card stakes? We will probably never know. Nevertheless, the evidence supporting the Egley design was sufficient for the American greeting card industry to officially mark the 100th anniversary of the Christmas card on December 3, 1942.

On this side of the Atlantic, a Bavarian born lithographer, Louis Prang (1824–1909), is credited with creating the first American Christmas card in 1874. By 1881, his firm in Roxbury, Massachusetts, was turning out five million cards per year! Certainly some of these found their way to Canada.

We do not have a precise date for the first Canadian Christmas card; however, by the 1890’s they were being printed and sold in several locations. The rapid development of the postal system and the advent of the penny post card encouraged their widespread use. See illustration for two examples, taken from my collection of early Christmas post cards.

Remarkable as it may seem today, in 1899, a post card with a one cent stamp could be mailed to any address in Canada or the United States. Foreign addresses called for two cents. At first, personal messages were not permitted. Later the address space was divided, providing room for brief comments. By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, folded Christmas cards, much like those in use today, were being mailed in envelopes. They quickly replaced the once popular post card.

By mid-century the designs used on Christmas cards had become more varied. Reproductions of paintings continued in popularity as did Victorian winter scenes of stage coaches, sleighs and covered bridges. Christmas symbols such as: candles, holly, mistletoe, bells, yule logs and poinsettias became common. Religious subjects, including the Madonna and Child, the Magi, manger scenes, churches and carolers were often used.

The latter part of the twentieth century witnessed several new trends in Christmas cards. Interest groups began issuing cards to raise funds, and soon, countless charitable organizations entered the fray. One of the most successful was UNESCO, featuring greetings in many languages. Artists from countries around the world still appear annually on their cards. Another trend can be seen in the appearance of neutral greeting cards for those not of the Christian faith.

Today many people with artistic ability design their own Christmas cards; while camera buffs frequently combine special photographs with seasonal greetings. One outcome of this personalized trend is the production by some families of an annual Christmas letter.

Predictably at this time of the year, newspapers and magazines feature articles poking fun at this practice. Headlines such as: ’Tis The Season To Be Boastful; Mixed Reviews for Christmas Missiles; or Christmas Letters — Better to Give Than to Receive are recent examples.

Let me record a personal bias. I’m willing to admit that, at their worst, these accounts can read like corporate reports bragging about an above average year. On the otherhand, at their best, they serve as interesting, informative, year-end summaries from far flung friends whom we have not heard from since last year. As one who has lived overseas, these letters are always welcome, as we recall Christmas Past in other countries.

As with so many other activities at this season of the year moderation is to be recommended. Compliments of the Season to all Flashback readers!