How and when did Christmas Cards originate? A prominent educator and patron of the arts, Henry Cole traveled in the elite, social circles of early Victorian England, and had the misfortune of having too many friends. During the holiday season of 1843, those friends were causing Cole much anxiety.
The problem were their letters: An old custom in England, the Christmas and New Year’s letter, had received a new impetus with the recent expansion of the British postal system and the introduction of the “Penny Post.” This allowed the sender to send a letter or card anywhere in the country by affixing a penny stamp to the correspondence.
Now, everybody was sending letters. Sir Cole—best remembered today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—was an enthusiastic supporter of the new postal system, and he enjoyed being the 1840s equivalent of an A-Lister. But he was a busy man. As he watched the stacks of unanswered letters, he fretted over what to do. “In Victorian England, it was considered impolite not to answer mail,” says Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. “He (Cole) had to figure out a way to respond to all of these people.”
Cole hit on an ingenious idea. He approached an artist friend, J.C. Horsley, and asked him to design an idea that Cole had sketched out in his mind. Cole then took Horsley’s illustration—a triptych showing a family at table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor—and had a thousand copies made by a London printer. The image was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches in size. At the top of each was the salutation, “TO:_____” allowing Cole to personalize his responses, which included the generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.” It was the first Christmas card.
Cole’s inner circle of friends immediately recognized his idea as a good way to save time. Within a few years, several other prominent Victorians had simply copied his and Horsley’s creation and were sending their own Christmas Cards during the holiday season.
While Cole and Horsley get the credit for the first, it took several decades for the Christmas card to really catch on, both in Great Britain and the United States. Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, is credited with creating the first Christmas card originating in the United States in 1875. It was very different from Cole and Horsley’s of 30 years prior, in that it didn’t even contain a Christmas or holiday image.
Christmas Cards have become an integral part of our holiday celebrations. Don’t fail to send yours this year.
Soli deo Gloria!