Sending Christmas cards to friends and family has become as much a part of the holiday season as decorating trees, wrapping gifts, and putting up holiday lights. We all love these traditions, but we don’t really think often about why we do them. They’re just something we do.
But the tradition of sending Christmas cards is one that stretches back to the early Victorian age (over 150 years ago), and its history is actually pretty fascinating. The first Christmas card wasn’t sent out of obligation or sentiment, but because its sender was rather panicked and stressed out during the holidays. (And honestly, who can’t relate?)
Henry Cole, a well-heeled educator and supporter of the arts in Victorian England, knew a lot of people, and a lot of people knew him. Because advancements in the British postal system had made sending letters very easy and affordable, Cole had started getting inundated with correspondence from many of his friends and colleagues. By the time the holidays arrived in 1843 (coincidentally, the same year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was first published), Cole was worried that he wouldn’t have time to respond to everyone in his social circle and that people would find his lack of correspondence rude.
But Cole had an idea. He commissioned an artist friend by the name of J.C. Horsley to design and illustrate a scene that Cole described to him: A family gathered round a table, festively sipping wine as scenes of seasonal charity and acts of goodwill flanked each side. The postcard carried a simple, sendable message in the center, and a line in the bottom right allowed Cole to quickly personalize it with his signature.
And so the first holiday (post)card was born. Cole had 1,000 of these cards printed and mailed out, and only 21 have survived. But Cole’s creation sparked a tradition that has grown and evolved ever since.
Despite the success of Cole’s postcard idea, the card-sending tradition took several decades to really take off. For one thing, literacy rates were still catching up with printing advancements. But printing methods were also still relatively expensive, so few people or businesses could afford to commission and print cards to send out. This changed in the 1850s, when a British artist named George Baxter invented a printing method that allowed cheaper mass production of color prints.
Even after Baxter’s creation, though, there wasn’t really a clear roadmap for successful Christmas cards. Because there were neither traditional greetings nor familiar Christmas iconography in British or American culture, holiday postcards were kind of all over the place and reflected a wide range of themes and images. Victorian tastes in art and humor ran the full gamut, and some of those early postcards were just plain weird. Below is a sampling of some of the most eclectic.
Victorians were particularly interested in unique fantasy creatures and animals, and greeting cards of the era reflected these tastes and trends. After all, greeting cards and postcards were used more to delight and entertain than they were to fulfill an expected social obligation. The more visually interesting and unexpected, the better. This was especially evident in the two kinds of animal postcards that emerged at the time. Some were cute and relatively safe:
But some were more whimsical and outright peculiar:
Animals were far from the only cards embraced by the Victorians, though. By the late 1800s, the more familiar iconography of Christmas started taking shape. As a result, a number of distinct and consistent themes began to emerge. From the silly to the serious to the sacred, Victorian holiday greeting cards and postcards are a visual feast. Below are examples of some of the major categories these cards started falling into.
Kids and the Anticipation of Christmas:
Angels and Spirituality:
Socialites and Aristocracy:
And, of course, a healthy mix of the weird and wonderful:
So as you choose, fill out, and mail your Christmas cards this year, remember that there’s no real right way to do it. The original card was created because its sender ran out of time, and the next few decades were a free-for-all of people sending a wide variety of strange, sweet, and silly greetings to the people closest to them. The important thing is to make your cards reflect yourself, the people to whom you’re sending them, or (ideally) both! Especially this year, just embrace what you love and share it with the people who mean the most to you.
[Note: Many of the designs in this post have been recreated and turned into Christmas cards by Victorian Trading Co. in recent years. To browse our vintage greeting card collection, please feel free to visit us here. And thank you for reading!]