I don’t know about you but one of the wonders of the Christmas season growing up was seeing all the different Christmas cards my parents would receive. Some were simple, wishing us a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays.” Others were more elaborate, and either reproduced works of art like nativity scenes, or they were works of art in and of themselves. Perhaps they were pictures of the Holy Family, or a fairy tale snow-covered village, or even a window with a wreath, candle, and warm glow suggesting hospitality within. The expensive cards had lots of shiny silver or gold ink.
My father would save the best of the cards he received each year and hang them from ribbons over doorways, or stand them up on our living room mantle by the Christmas tree. I think it just seemed a shame to him to either store them away not to be seen, or even worse, to throw them out. They made a great, and inexpensive decoration that added to the “Christmas-y” feel around the home.
My dad received some of the most beautiful cards when he was working as a cosmetics buyer for McKelvey’s. The different cosmetic manufacturers or their representatives would send elegantly designed cards, sometimes accompanied by cosmetic gifts. Until he passed away, the Chanel rep my dad dealt with would send a bottle of perfume for my mom every year–and she didn’t mind a bit!
The first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. He was a civil servant who set up the Public Record Office in Great Britain — what we now call the Post Office. This was intended to provide postal service for the general populace and one of Cole’s challenges was to figure out ways to encourage people to use this service. One of his answers was the Christmas card. John Callcott Horsley designed the first card which consisted of three panels. The outer two show people assisting the poor, while the middle panel shows a family gathering of people celebrating. It did raise a ruckus, however. If you look closely, you can see one of the adults assisting a child in drinking a glass of wine! Scandalous you say? How many of you had your first taste of alcohol at a family celebration as a child? The card sold for a shilling (about 8 cents today) and could be sent with a penny stamp.
By 1874, the British lithograph firm Prang and Mayer began selling Christmas cards in America. They sold over 5 million a year in the 1880’s. In 1913 Joyce and Rollie Hall created Hallmark cards to sell their cards. In recent years the numbers of Christmas cards has declined, with the average number received by a household dropping from 29 in 1987 to 20 in 2004. With the rise of digital cards, this number may drop further.
We continue to put cards around our house each year. The picture at the top of this post is a collage of cards assembled by my wife and attached to foam board that we hang up over one of our doors each year. I’d love to hear what your favorite kinds of Christmas cards are and how you display them around your house!