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We still love our Christmas cards

December 2016

christmas card

Here in the UK whatever our religion or whether we are religious or not, Christmas plays a big part of mid-winter. In the middle of cold dark miserable days, having a celebration to cheer everything up is welcomed by everyone. The story of celebrating the birth of a baby can also be appreciated by anyone, whatever their beliefs.

One big traditions associated with Christmas today is the exchanging of Christmas cards.

Christmas cards are very much part of Christmas and help with the general feelings of warmth and happiness as they are displayed cheerily around a room …something an email message can never do.
The UK especially is a big sender of Christmas cards and also one of the world’s biggest sender of charity Christmas cards.

 But while Christmas has been celebrated for centuries in various forms, the custom of sending cards only started in the middle of the 19th century.

It all began when a British government worker called Sir Henry Cole.  In 1840 he helped to introduce the Penny Post. Before that time any post had to be sent by very expensive special delivery (horses were very involved here of course). The Penny Post was the first postal service aimed at ordinary people. This coincided with the big growth in railways, helping post be delivered quickly and easily across the country.  So Sir Henry had the idea of sending Christmas cards to popularise the new postal service…and no doubt to make some extra money as well. In 1843 he collaborated with his friend John Horsley who was an accomplished artist and they designed the first card. They printed two batches totalling 2,050 cards that first year and sold them for one shilling each, quite an expense in those days.   Interestingly Sir Henry was also the founder of the V&A Museum in London.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Henry’s idea quickly caught on and in following years many wealthy Victorian families took up the idea, designing their own cards. Queen Victoria, the ruling monarch, was also enthusiastic about the idea and records show she even encouraged her own children to design Christmas cards for the family.

Printing methods were improving at this time, especially with colour printing technology, and this together with the affordable post encouraged the idea to grow. By 1880 over 11 million Christmas cards were printed and the commercial potential was recognised by a growing number of businesses.

Early Victorian Christmas cards changed from pictures of family celebrations to pictures of the nativity scene and winter landscapes. Snow featured early in Christmas cards (some say  harking back to the very bad winter in 1836) and robins crept into the picture early on as well.

In Edwardian times, homemade Christmas cards became very popular and pre=designed cards ready to be coloured and finished remained a feature right though the first half of the 20th century.

Official cards came in much later.  In America, enthusiasm for Christmas cards had also been growing and the first White House card in America was sent in 1953 by President Dwight D Eisenhower. The British royal family send out Christmas cards to serving military during both the first and second world wars; but it wasn’t until 1955 that the first Royal Family card was sent out to a wider list of recipients. 

Charity Christmas cards actually started in Denmark in the early 1900s when a postal worker thought it would be lovely to raise money for charities at this time of year. He organised specially decorated seals and stickers to be used on the envelopes of Christmas Cards and it proved an enormous success, with four million sold the first year.

In the UK, around 2 billion Christmas cards sent each year and around 30%  of these involve a charitable donation.

The top subject, according to research commissioned by the Royal Mail, is a snow scene with around a fifth of people loving a wintry image best on their cards. This was followed by humouir (14 per cent), nativity (seven per cent) and a Christmas tree (six per cent).

And as always, the Royal Mail are asking everyone to post early for Christmas...something that has become a real Christmas tradition itself!

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