Greetings of the season that go back hundreds of years

The first commercial Christmas card commissioned by Sir Henry Cole.
The first commercial Christmas card commissioned by Sir Henry Cole. / SUR

  • The tradition of giving seasonal greetings cards began in the 19th century, although the custom is little practised today

The custom of exchanging the time-honoured Christmas card during the weeks leading to Christmas is a tradition that took off in Britain in the middle of the 19th century. However, like so many customs related to Yuletide, this simple gesture is almost a thing of the past.

Today, many people send their Christmas sentiments via the internet with platforms like Moonpig or social media, yet it was once a major part of the build-up to the festive season. People sent cards to family, close friends and acquaintances, making the task a multi-hour chore in addressing dozens of envelopes.

The Christmas card custom did not catch on in Spain with the same intensity as in the UK and America, but, as with the appearance of Christmas trees and Santa, cards with the inscription Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo are now available in tobacconists and stationers.

The first recorded Christmas card, discovered in the Scottish Records Office in 1979, was sent to King James I in 1611. The card was sent by German physicist Michael Maier and contained the inscription “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King”.

First commercial cards

It would be more than 200 years, however, before British civil servant Sir Henry Cole, best remembered today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, commissioned the painter J. C. Horsley to design the first commercial card. The card, which was produced in London in 1843, cost one shilling and offered an image of a family drinking wine, which, at the time, was considered somewhat controversial because it was thought to encourage underage drinking.

In 1873, Louis Prang began creating commercial Christmas cards in Britain, and, one year later, he became the first printer to offer cards in America, earning him the title of “father of the American Christmas card”. Although Prang began producing around five million cards a year, cheap imitations, and the invention of the postcard, eventually put him out of business and signalled the end of the elaborate Victorian style greetings cards.

By the beginning of the 20th century, cards with envelopes had made a come back and the tradition proved to be a profitable business. The hugely popular brand produced by the Hall brothers (Hallmark) began to market colourful Christmas cards with red-suited Santas, nativity scenes and cheerful messages inside; while the two world wars increased demand for more personalised greeting cards to send to soldiers.

Idiosyncratic cards with risqué humour caught on in the 1950s, but the Victorian and Edwardian designs have remained popular to this day.

Appreciation of the artistry of Christmas cards grew in the late 19th century, which was partly due to competitions organised by card publishers. Queen Mary amassed a large collection that is now housed in the British Museum.

Specimens from the golden age of printing (1840s -1890s) are especially popular at auctions, although the most expensive card ever sold was that commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, which was sold in the UK in 2001 for 22,250 pounds.