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Christmas is the time when even the laziest among the human species rouse themselves to send the mandatory Christmas card to friends and relations. A custom that has held its own in this age of electronic mail and instant messaging. Quite frankly, Christmas isn’t the same unless you send and receive cards that celebrate the happy season.
But, just when did the tradition of sending cards to friends and loved ones on Christmas originate?
The first ever Christmas card was created more than 150 years ago in England, and that, too, by pure chance. In the Christmas of 1843, Sir Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, found himself too busy to send handwritten greetings to his many friends and well wishers. He hit upon a novel idea to make his task easier. He commissioned painter John Calcott Horsley to create a card which had a painting of the poor and needy being fed and clothed. A central panel was to depict a family enjoying the Christmas festivities. The card bore the words, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’. And, thus was born the world’s first ever Christmas card! Little did Cole and Horsley guess that this isolated instance would spawn one of the most honoured of all Christmas traditions down the centuries.
In the late 1800s and beginning of the 20th century, Christmas cards were often elaborate affairs, embellished with silk, lace and satin.
For about 30 years after England created the Christmas card, Americans continued to import theirs from the UK. It was only when a German immigrant, Louis Prang, went and settled in the US and opened his own lithographic shop that the Americans began to enjoy their own home-grown Christmas cards. His designs included winter motifs and Christmas themes.
The early British Christmas cards featured unrelated figures of birds, flowers, fairies and other natural scenery rather than any religious or winter themes. It was only much later that the focus shifted to snow landscapes, fir trees, decorated Christmas trees, glowing fireplaces and Santa Claus.
As printing technology improved, Christmas greeting cards grew more and more in popularity. By the early 20th century, Christmas cards had conquered Europe and were particularly a big hit in Germany.
During the Victorian era, the ‘trick card’ became hugely popular as a Christmas card. The card always involved some pulling of the string or lever to reveal some element of surprise! Pull out flower cards ruled the day.
In 1915, the legendary Hallmark Cards was created by John C. Hall and two of his brothers – one of the biggest card making companies in the world today!
Around that time, in the early 20th century, several charities started selling Christmas greeting cards to raise funds for their organisations. The most prominent among these was the UNICEF Christmas card programme, launched in 1943.
In 1953, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first official White House card, thereby setting into motion a trend of prominent artists depicting original winter decorations in the White House.
Today’s modern Christmas cards sport a more trendy look with cartoons and funny verses. However, typical Christmas images like the Nativity scenes, children grouped around a lighted Christmas tree and Christmas symbols such as the Star of Bethlehem and shepherds with their flocks continue to hold a timeless appeal.
Christmas cards boast a rich history, with many of the early greeting cards prized collector’s items. Queen Mary’s collection of Christmas cards can be viewed at the British Museum in London.