Already we are receiving Christmas cards from friends and family more organized than I am, and in this Year of the Pandemic, these greetings are more welcome than ever. Friends have sent photo cards that depict their ever-growing children whose faces have matured into young men and women; they enclose photos of their pets that offer comfort and entertainment. The cards are as welcome as the longer version of greetings that the Christmas newsletter conveys.
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! Invariably, 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, and 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.
Then, in 1843, John Calcott Horsley, according to William Sansom in “A Book of Christmas,” 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.
In “The History of the Christmas Card,” author George Buday says that only a thousand of these cards were sold at one shilling a copy. W.M. 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.
In the U.S., cards became more popular in 1875 when a lithographer, Louis Prang, began production, 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. This year we are more likely to read many wry, acerbic references that bid good riddance to 2020, given the mayhem of weather, the coronavirus, and politics — a Bermuda Triangle of various events that make us yearn for a better 2021.
Victorian cards were works of art: printed on paper, they had additions of satin, fringed silk, velvet, gilt, and frosting. They looked like fans, stars, crescents, and other shapes. Embossed and jeweled, they stood up, they squeaked (though none sang as do today’s cards!), 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 (three-panel) 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.
Wartime and other national stress 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!
If my goal is to have all my cards sent before New Year’s, I feel worse about my tardiness with card-sending when I read that as late as the 13th century, Christmas Day was the official beginning of a new year. Even today, December 25 in England marks the first day of the legal quarter-year. Obviously my first new year’s resolution is to prepare my Christmas cards sooner.
This column may have to be my best wishes at Christmas for the loyal readers of this newspaper and this article about language. From me and my family, Merry Christmas!
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.