Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Cards

The first Christmas card
One of the traditions most associated with Christmas in the 20th and 21st Centuries is the sending of Christmas cards. The tradition is so much a part of the holidays that it seems as if it had to firmly entrenched for centuries. In truth, as far as Yuletide traditions go, Christmas cards are a relatively recent development, only going back a little over 160 years.

What is more, the giving of greeting cards at other holidays pre-dates Christmas cards by centuries. It was as early as 1400 that New Years greeting cards were being made from woodcuts in Germany. It was also in the 15th Century that lovers began exchanging Valentine cards (or more simply, "Valentines"). The oldest known Valentine was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans and sent to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt. By the late 18th Century printers in Great Britain had already started producing the first commercial Valentines.

It would not be until 1843 that the first commercially produced Christmas card would be introduced. It was on 1 May 1843 Sir Heny Cole commissioned that first Christmas card. It was artist John Callcott Horsley who provided its illustrations. Seen today that first card might not seem very Christmasy. It simply showed an extended family raising their glass in a toast. Apparently the subject matter proved a bit controversial given it involved drinking. The card was sold for 1 shilling each, which would have been a bit pricey in the mid-19th Century. About 1000 copies of that first Christmas card were sold. Regardless, the idea of Christmas cards would soon catch on.

As to what made that first Christmas card possible, it was a number of factors. Advances in printing had reduced the price to print not only books and newspapers, but items such as cards as well. The introduction of the Uniform Penny Post across the United Kingdom in 1840 also made it much cheaper to post letters and cards. These two factors, as well as yet others, not only made that first commercially produced Christmas card possible, but pretty much all commercially produced greeting cards to follow.

It was 1873 that the printing firm of Prang and Mayer began printing Christmas cards in the United Kingdom. Prang and Mayer introduced the Christmas card the following year, 1874, to the United States. While Christmas cards had existed in the United States since the 1840's, they tended to be rather pricey. It was Prang and Mather that first produced them so that they were affordable for most Americans.

Vintage 1950's Hallmark card
Regardless, greeting cards would prove as popular in the United States as they had the United Kingdom. Quite naturally, new firms were founded to cater to the demand for greeting cards. American Greetings was founded in 1906 in Brooklyn, Ohio by Polish immigrant  Jacob Sapirstein. The giant of the greeting card industry, Hallmark Cards, was founded in 1910 in Kansas City by Joyce Hall. Hallmark Cards would also make another contribution to the holiday beyond their Christmas cards. In 1917 Joyce Hall and his brother Rollie invented modern day wrapping paper.

The subject matter of Christmas cards has changed over the years. The early British cards of the Victorian Era eschewed religious scenes (such as the Nativity or the Three Magi) or wintry scenes in favour of such things as animals, children, flowers, and fairies. As Christmas cards evolved religious themes such as the Nativity started appearing. It was late in the 19th Century that wintry scenes, such as snowy landscapes, finally became popular. Father Christmas in the United Kingdom and Santa Claus in the United States became increasingly popular as the years went by.

While the tradition of sending Christmas cards is a relatively recent addition to the holiday, it is one that has become firmly a part of it. While the various styles and even subject matter of cards have changed over the years, at no point has sending Christmas cards gone out of fashion. Even today, in the age of the World Wide Web and mobile phones, the Christmas card remains popular.

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