6. Christmas Cards

It’s early December and time to write the Christmas cards.

The tradition of sending Christmas greetings goes back a very long way. A letter dating from 1534 is the first known to include the phrase, ‘Merry Christmas’.  The first recorded Christmas cards were actually sent to King James I of England and his son, the Prince of Wales in 1611.

Christmas cards have been popular since Victorian times, when Sir Henry Cole (who was instrumental in establishing the new Post Office in 1840), wanted to make sending post more appealing to ‘ordinary’ people. Before the Post Office was in existence, only wealthy people could afford to send letters by post. The Penny Post was introduced in 1840 which meant that many more people were able to make use of the postal system.  In 1843, Cole and his artist friend, John Horsley, designed their first Christmas card, and sold over 2000 of them for one shilling each.

Queen Victoria started to send ‘official’ Christmas cards during the 1840s and they began to be produced on a much larger scale by the 1860s.  Early British Christmas cards generally depicted non-religious images of flowers and fairies, but later scenes of the Nativity, wintery landscapes and Robins became more popular.

By the early 1900s Christmas cards had also become very popular in Europe, especially in Germany. Worldwide demand continued to increase throughout the 20th Century.  This has declined somewhat in the last 20 years with some people preferring to use new technologies to send their Christmas greetings.

Design for Christmas Greetings card by Barnett Freedman. Lithographic print, dated c.1955.

This is one of several designs for Christmas cards that we have in our Fine Art collections.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, many artists chose to design their own cards to send to friends and family for the festive season.