Custom survived: Sending Christmas Cards


“Sending cards is a very British thing…”I have a few French friends who think we’re all a bit potty for doing it, but it’s engrained in our social culture – it’s what we do.”

If you are anything like me you’re probably staring at a pile unsent. Or else looking at a card from the one person you didn’t send to or perhaps you again sent them too late! Whatever it is you’ve sent Christmas cards…what is less well known is that the custom of sending cards is relatively modern – arriving in 1843 and is British!

What a card!

A civil servant called Sir Henry Cole was investigating how the general public could utilise the newly established post office – and what an invention he came up with – one which has undoubtedly kept that service alive and kicking into the 21st century. However, like all good customs it was not original people had been giving new year cards for many years previous

Sir Henry invited an artist friend John Horsley to design it. The card which cost 1 shilling had three panels. The central panel showed a family eating Christmas dinner with two side panels of people caring for the poor. Around 1000 cards were printed. The message was a traditional and still popular ‘A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you.’

Despite a short run the success of the card was sealed. The establishment of the postal service’s Penny Post made the sending of items more affordable to the general public. Soon based on the train large volumes prices for sending these new cards dropped to half a penny for one in an unsealed envelope, a much cheaper method of correspondence that letter at the time which cost a penny!

Sign sealed delivered I’m yours

Unsurprisingly Dickens has a hand in it…indirectly. A man who could claim possibly single handedly reinventing Christmas! His artist William Egley was one of the first noted individuals to draw for a Christmas card. Most of these early cards naturally showed the nativity, but by the late 1800s snow scenes and the Robin appeared. By 1900 it had spread across Europe and English speaking colonies and ex-colonies.

Not everyone is keen on them of course! Those with Robin were unpopular. For it was also unlucky to bring a Robin into the house and this remained a belief and possibly still is a belief into the age of card sending. Some people refused to have it on the card suggesting a death in the family would arise as result! An account from a Gloucestershire correspondent of Folklore recorded in 1955:

“A young women told me it was a death sign to receive a Christmas card with a robin on it. This saying dashed me considerably at the time, as I had just had card with robins printed. However, I sent them out in spite of the warning, and I am happy to say that here was no undue mortality amongst my friends that year.”

Steve Roud (2006) states that the belief was still recorded in the 1990s and may still be around.

Fall of a card

2007 Telegraph was telling us that Britain was:

“falling out of love with the Christmas card. The number of festive cards bought in High Street shops has dropped by 20 million in the past two years.”

Why? The eCard an electronic greeting sent over the Internet or by mobile phone and the Telegraph told us it was:

increasingly popular with young people who say it is easier, cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than traditional cards.”

However, despite this clarion cry for its demise. It has not happened. In 2009 a 3% rise in sales was recorded and it was perhaps because of the lack of thought associated with e-cards. Some companies like Scribbler noted for their rather avant garde and sometimes downright rude cards even saw 15% increase.

Stephen Bayley a design critic and cultural commentator noted:

“In our exhaustingly pixellated world where gigabytes count for more than a winning way with a rhyming couplet, the greetings card may seem a quaint anomaly. But its survival is not so very strange. Nowadays any fool can reach 50 million people after a few minutes heartless work on a keypad, but reaching an individual is altogether more interesting. In the same way that a single witty postcard is worth more than 25 million Tweets, a card suggests something that went missing in the digital revolution: intimacy.”

So in a way the Christmas Card tradition is like any other custom, preserved because it still means something and everyone welcomes a card.

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