Why Do We Send Christmas Cards?

Obviously to keep the Post office in business!

The tradition had its beginning in early 19th-century England. British students would write home [hopefully] boasting good grades and showing off their penmanship, composition, and artwork. They hoped that these joyful letters would produce good presents and/or money for Christmas.

The First Christmas Card

These letters combined today’s bragging Christmas letters and the pleading letters to Santa. Sending Christmas Cards was not popular until they were printed and marketed as such. The very popular Henry Cole[1] was worried about stacks of unanswered correspondence he had received. He wanted to answer them all and came up with a plan. He approached an artist friend, J.C. Horsley[2], and asked him to create a response card.

It was a triptych[3] showing a family at a table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor. Cole simply had to address the To____ and sign the From____, apply the penny stamp, and mail. These were the first Christmas Cards.

In 1839, shortly after the introduction of the penny post in England, the true Christmas card tradition of sending cards to friends and relatives developed. One thousand copies of the card designed for Sir Henry Cole were sold. Usually regarded as the first of its kind, it was made by J.C. Horsley, a member of the Royal Academy.

Holiday Folklore, Phobias, and Fun – book by Donald E. Dossey

Within a few years, several other prominent Victorians who had received Cole’s cards had simply copied his and Horsley’s creation and were sending them out at Christmas. Louis Prang[4], a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, is credited with creating the first Christmas card originating in the United States in 1875.

Appreciation of the quality and the artistry of the cards grew in the late 1800s, spurred in part by competitions organized by card publishers, with cash prizes offered for the best designs. People soon collected Christmas cards like they would butterflies or coins, and the new crop each season were reviewed in newspapers, like books or films today.

The modern Christmas card industry arguably began in 1915, when a Kansas City-based fledgling postcard printing company started by Joyce Hall[5], later to be joined by his brothers Rollie and William, published its first-holiday card. The Hall Brothers company (which, a decade later, change its name to Hallmark), soon adapted a new format for the cards—4 inches wide, 6 inches high, folded once, and inserted in an envelope.

Norman Rockwell Christmas Card

As the hunger for cards grew, Hallmark and its competitors reached out for new ideas to sell them. Commissioning famous artists to design them was one way: Hence, the creation of cards by Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell, who designed a series of Christmas cards for Hallmark (the Rockwell cards are still reprinted every few years). The most popular Christmas card of all time, however, is a simple one.

Salvador Dali Christmas Card

It’s an image of three cherubic angels, two of whom are bowed in prayer. The third peers out from the card with big, baby-blue eyes, her halo slightly askew. “God bless you, keep you, and love you…at Christmastime and always,” reads the sentiment. First published in 1977, that card—still part of Hallmark’s collection—has sold 34 million copies.

Now you can buy individual cards or boxes of them at any local retail store. You can even send off your images to have them made into personalized cards. A study showed that an overwhelming 72% of people would prefer to receive a proper Christmas Card rather than an electronic greeting or message through e-mail or social media. 27% of people said that would actively ignore or delete an e-card, with even more saying they thought an e-greeting was “silly” or “too generic”.

I firmly believe that receiving cards increases self-esteem, helps to stave off feelings of loneliness and isolation and even to ward off the early stages of depression.

Dr Lynda Shaw – Cognitive Neuroscientist

  1. Sir Henry Cole (July 15, 1808 – April 18, 1882) was a British civil servant and inventor who facilitated many innovations in commerce and education in the 19th century in the United Kingdom. Cole is credited with devising the concept of sending greeting cards at Christmas time, introducing the world’s first commercial Christmas card in 1843. He is best remembered today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. [Back]
  2. John Callcott Horsley (January 29, 1817 – October 18, 1903) was an English academic painter of genre and historical scenes, illustrator, and designer of the first Christmas card. He was a member of the artist’s colony in Cranbrook. Horsley’s paintings were large of historical subjects set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, influenced by the Dutch masters Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. [Back]
  3. A triptych is a work of art (usually a panel painting) that is divided into three sections or three carved panels that are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open. It is therefore a type of polyptych, the term for all multi-panel works. The middle panel is typically the largest and it is flanked by two smaller related works, although there are triptychs of equal-sized panels. The form can also be used for pendant jewelry. [Back]
  4. Louis Prang (March 12, 1824 – June 15, 1909) was an American printer, lithographer, publisher, and Georgist. He is sometimes known as the “father of the American Christmas card”. In 1856, Prang and a partner created a press, Prang and Mayer, to produce lithographs. The company specialized in prints of buildings and towns in Massachusetts. In 1860, he bought out his partner, creating L. Prang & Company, and began work in color printing of advertising and other forms of business materials. The firm became quite successful and became known for war maps, printed during the American Civil War and distributed by newspapers. At Christmas 1873, Prang began creating greeting cards for the popular market in England and began selling Christmas cards in America in 1874. [Back]
  5. Joyce Clyde Hall (August 29, 1891 – October 29, 1982), better known as J. C. Hall, was an American businessman and the founder of Hallmark Cards. After quitting high school in 1910, Hall moved to Kansas City, Missouri, with little more than two shoe boxes of postcards. By 1913, he and his brothers were operating a store (which would eventually evolve into Kansas City’s Halls department store) selling not only postcards but also greeting cards. The store burned in 1915, and a year later, Hall bought an engraving business and began printing his own cards. It turned into a bigger business than he had had before. In 1928, he began marketing his cards under the Hallmark brand name. [Back]

Further Reading


Smithsonian Magazine

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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