Christmas Card Customs

Did you receive a Christmas card this year? While the hundreds of greeting cards lining store shelves year round may seem like a modern invention, Christmas cards have been sent between friends and family for nearly two centuries. The tradition has evolved over time, and here at our Genealogy Centre we have two Christmas cards dating back to 1907 and 1915.

The custom of sending cards to loved ones during the holidays originated in the United Kingdom with Sir Henry Cole. Cole was an elite upper class man in Victorian society and is credited for establishing both the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As a well respected educator and wealthy patron of the arts, he had accumulated many friends and associates throughout his career. So many in fact, that when the holiday season approached in 1843 he found himself riddled with anxiety. An unanswered letter in Victorian England was considered quite impolite, and the piles of unopened envelopes only seemed to grow on his desk each day. It was then that Sir Henry Cole had the brilliant idea of commissioning his long-time artist friend J.C. Horsley for an illustration of which ordered 1000 copies.

The First Christmas Card, 1843. via Wikimedia Commons

This was the first ever Christmas card. A 5 1/8 x 3 1/4 inch print that Sir Henry Cole was able to quickly personalize and send out to his countless friends. The extra copies were sold commercially for one shilling each. Within a few years this idea had caught on outside of Cole’s circle and a holiday tradition was born!

During the first world war, many front line soldiers fashioned their own cards in their down time to send home to loved ones, and a small industry popped up in war torn France and Belgium. Families were forced to flee their homes to escape the violence waging around them, and with few options to support themselves, some women took up making and selling embroidery to be mounted to postcards for a small income.

Dated December 30th, 1917, this card was either made or purchased by Douglas McKenzie and was sent to his sister Eva. Douglas was a soldier who joined the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary force in 1915 on the 108th battalion. On this card, Douglas wrote; “To Eva, Wishing you a happy New Year from D.G.M”.

Beautifully crafted embroidery is just one common design found on Christmas cards of the era. The card below comes from Germany and features embossed flowers and gold foil. Embossment was another popular decorative style in the 20th century. The design is the result of applying pressure and indenting the back of the card to create these raised embellishments.

This card is dated after 1907 and was sent to Sarah Ann Morrison (1848-1936) by her niece Violet.

To see these beautiful Christmas cards visit our Genealogy Centre located on the second floor of the St. Andrews Heritage Centre and Rectory.

References and Further Reading