...at Christmas time and always | Sunday Observer

...at Christmas time and always

It is a ‘dying’ tradition according to some. However, others call it ‘virally alive’. Whichever the way one thinks, the tradition of sending cards to loved ones is part and parcel of Christmas. While the air is filled with the notes of Christmas carols, the young and old alike await the delivery of Christmas cards – be it through post, email or social media. How did this all begin? Let’s explore.

Sending Christmas greetings to loved ones living far and near started during the mediaeval times. However, this was not in the form of cards, but letters. With the introduction of the British postal system and the postal stamp, the “Penny Post” became a popular mode of sending Christmas letters. The first Christmas card was ‘invented’ during this time, purely as an effective response to these Christmas letters. The honour of sending the first printed Christmas card goes to Sir. Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Birth of X’mas cards

In the winter of 1843, Cole a busy man who moved in the early Victorian elite social circles, had had the misfortune of having a stacks of unanswered Christmas letters. As not answering mail was regarded ‘impolite’ in the Victorian social circles, he sought for a more efficient way to complete the task. Cole asked J.C. Horsley, an artistic friend to illustrate an idea that he had in mind; a family at the table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor. Then Cole had a thousand copies of this image made by a London printer. It was on stiff cardboard, about 5 1/8 x 3 ¼ inches in size. It had a generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You” and the salutation “To:___” so that Cole could personalize his response. That was the birth of the Christmas card.

Though there were disputes about what the image depicted, many of the elite in London soon caught up Cole’s idea and reprinted the image for their personal use and it grew in popularity and demand.

In the United States of America, it was a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, who is credited with creating the first Christmas card. Louis Prang’s Christmas card was introduced in 1875. It was a painting of a flower rather than a holiday image and contained the words, “Merry Christmas.” The first generation of American Christmas cards took a more artistic, subtle approach of the holidays mainly depicting nature.

By the 1880s, sending commercially printed Christmas cards by post became an integral part of the holiday season for many families in America as well as Europe. As the habit took hold, so was the demand which publishers rushed to meet, forsaking quality. In 1885, ‘The Decorator and Furnisher’ magazine of America criticized the publishers for depicting ‘unrealistic’ images – specially of little children singing in snowstorms and angels floating in midair bearing babies. However, all was not dismal. Publishers held competitions inviting new designs and offering cash prizes. The year’s new introductions were reviewed in newspapers. Soon the quality and the artistry of the Christmas cards grew, they became collectibles. In 1894, an influential British art magazine of the time ‘The Studio’ edited by arts writer Gleeson White devoted an entire issue to the study of Christmas cards.

The modern form of Christmas cards arguably began in 1915 when Hall Brothers, a small publishing company in USA (which later became the Hallmark Company) introduced the card in ‘book form.’ These cards were 4 inches wide, 6 inches high, folded once, and inserted in an envelope. They were able to meet the demand of the people who wanted to write more than what they could in a post card, but had no intention to make it long as a letter. The trend soon caught up.

With the improvement of technology in the 1900s, card manufacturing became a competitive and lucrative business. In the 1920s, in USA publicity teams were employed to convince people that card sending was an age old custom which one cannot do without during the holidays. Samuel Grafton a writer of ‘The North American Review’ in 1928, commented that “you think yourself a feverish yellow cur if you do not invest each December in seven dollars’ worth of assorted glue and ink and paper.” He reported that the consumers were “behaving like sheep,” letting themselves manipulated by the manufacturers.

Colour and cheer was imbibed in the Christmas cards in the 1930s to 1950s. Colourful Santa Clause wearing a red suit, bright starts shining in the dark blue backgrounds were introduced around this time with simple and cheerful sentiments inside the card, which soon became clichéd.

One significant incident reflecting the popularity of the custom of sending Christmas cards could be the introduction of the Christmas Stamp by the U.S. Post Office in 1962. Though the department had ordered printing of 350 million of the 4-cent, green and white stamps it was not sufficient to meet the demand. By the end of the year, a total of one billion copies of the 1962 Christmas stamp had been printed and distributed.

The Stamp comes in

With the improvement of technology and the demand for Christmas cards, manufacturers employed renowned artists to design their cards. Today, the Christmas and holiday card industry is big business. A variety of cards, starting from home made and recycled to that of audio and even video are available in the market. The sentiments also vary from that of the generic greetings for Christmas and New Year, to highly personalized, humourous and so on. The array of cards is so vast and targeted to niche audiences that there are even Christmas cards for ‘atheists who celebrate Christmas.’ With the advent of the internet and the social media, sending e-cards is becoming more popular especially among the younger generations, which makes some lament that the tradition of sending Christmas cards is ‘dying’. However, though the mode of conveyance may be changing, the tradition of sending Christmas cards to loved ones still stays on. 

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