Every year I have good intentions of writing Christmas cards earlier; every year that task happens later than sooner except this year when an earlier finish of classes I teach has enabled me to keep up with cards.

We never do an elaborate newsletter, as some people do, but writing a note in cards still takes time, thought, and attention to spelling and grammar, for who knows how many people may read that card! Of course, I begin by choosing just the right card for the individual from the variety package. Inevitably, I am sending cards into the new year as I plod along trying to stay caught up with the cards sent to us. Those newsletters may have some advantages after all in terms of mass production.

The modern Christmas newsletter is not new, I discover. It has origins in the days before the invention of the Christmas card. In Victorian times, people sent sheets of writing paper decorated with Christmas themes. The then-recent development of an efficient postal system transported these greetings to friends.

However, even early Victorians balked at too much letter writing; they then resorted to all-purpose anniversary cards on which people could write “Christmas.” While people were accustomed to sending cards with greetings for the new year, no one had yet thought of the Christmas card, though some people decorated their visiting or calling cards, akin to today’s business cards.

The first English Christmas card

Then, in 1843, according to William Sansom in “A Book of Christmas,” John Calcott Horsley designed the first Christmas card at the request of Sir Henry Cole, a reformer who wanted to save the time expended writing on Christmas sheets of paper and who had an interest in expansion of the postal system.

According to an article at Smithsonian.com by John Hanc, Sir Henry Cole sketched a triptych (a three-fold card) that showed a family at the dinner table flanked by images of people helping the poor. Cole had 1,000 copies made of Horsley’s illustration printed on stiff card stock approximately 5x8. At the top was the word “To” with a blank Cole could fill in with the name of the recipient.

In “The History of the Christmas Card,” published in 1968, author George Buday says that William Max Egley was also an early card designer who specialized in rural, jovial scenes; ivy-leaved frames; and drawings of gifts for the poor. Egley also later used holly as part of his design.

These published greeting cards were not immediately popular, Sansom points out. But by mid-1860, commercial production was assured because of advanced printing techniques, improved postal delivery, and the stimulation of commercial interests.

The first American Christmas card

In the U.S., cards became more popular in 1875 when a lithographer, Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant who had a print shop near Boston, produced a Christmas card that had a drawing of a flower, but the first American card appeared in the early 1850s. It had an advertisement for “Pease’s Great Varety [sic] Store in the Temple of Fancy.”

Sansom says that cards of the past always had a religious or sentimental theme; rarely did a card contain the off-color references purporting to be humor that we see in today’s choices.

Victorian cards were works of art: printed on paper, they had additions of satin, fringed silk, velvet, gilding and frosting. They looked like fans, stars, crescents, and other shapes. Embossed and jeweled, they stood up, they squeaked (though none sang as some of today’s cards do!), and they illustrated a variety of scenes from firesides to churches to stagecoaches to snowballs.

Other variations — some odd — included cards that were personal silhouettes; cards that had a concealed meaning, revealed if they were held sideways or upside down; triptych cards; and cards that looked like treasury notes or checks.

The strangest Victorian card series showed dead robins; Sansom says it was traditional to kill a wren on the day following Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day. The wren was a sacred bird which no one was allowed ever to kill except on this one day. Eventually the wren was confused with the robin, thus the robin motif on cards.

The killing of the wren probably was a substitute for human sacrifices, but the robin may have symbolized sympathy for birds killed by a sharp December winter.

World wars and other national crises in America resulted in special cards, as in a card that showed a “bewhiskered and angel-winged stockbroker with the verse, ‘I hope you will not think it strange,/If I fly from the Stock Exchange,/To bring to you the news surprising,/That all the New Year bonds are rising!’” Comforting news, indeed!

In 1915, the Christmas card industry was kickstarted when a postcard printing company in Kansas City adapted a new design for the cards — 4x6, folded once, and placed into the envelope. Joyce Hall founded this company which his brothers Rollie and William later joined. The Hall Brothers 10 years later changed the name to Hallmark, and the cards became popular in the 1930s to ’50s. Hall and his brothers commissioned famous artists like Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell to design the cards.

The most popular card ever

Some of you are familiar with a card first published in 1977 that depicts three cherubs, two of whom are bowed in prayer while the third looks out of the card at us with huge blue eyes and a crooked halo. The message reads: “God bless you, keep you, and love you, ... at Christmastime and always.” This design has sold more than 34 million copies and is still published today. It is my Christmas wish for all you dear readers.

Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to lizmeador@earthlink.net.