When the Royal Mail publish their leaflet “Delivering Christmas” you know it’s time to stack up on Christmas Cards – if you haven’t done so already during the January sales. But who started the trend of sending them?
The first recorded Christmas Cards were dispatched by Michael Maier, a German physician and counsellor, to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick in 1611 – “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King”. We also know of cards commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843, a previous scholar of Christ’s Hospital in Newgate. The cards were illustrated by John Callcott Horsley, an academic painter of genre (everyday life) and historical scenes. The central picture showed three generations of a family raising a toast to the card's recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor. It caused some controversy because it depicted a small child drinking wine. Overall, the idea was clever; Cole had helped to introduce the Penny Post three years earlier. Over 2,000 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each.
Early British cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead fanciful designs that reminded of the approach of spring. Humorous and sentimental images of children and animals were also popular. "Official" Christmas Cards began with Queen Victoria around this time, a tradition the Royal Family has continued.
At Christmas 1873, American lithograph firm Prang and Mayer began creating greeting cards for the popular market in Britain on a bigger scale. The production of Christmas Cards was throughout the 20th century a profitable business for many stationery manufacturers with the design of cards continually evolving with changing tastes and printing techniques.
In recent times however, advances in technology are responsible for the decline of the Christmas Card with websites offering free virtual options. But nothing beats a hand-written card, especially when it supports one of the many charities.