The History of the Christmas Card (2023)

The History of the Christmas Card (1)

A prominent educator and patron of the arts, Henry Cole travelled in the elite, social circles of early Victorian England, and had the misfortune of having too many friends.

During the holiday season of 1843, those friends were causing Cole much anxiety.

The problem were their letters: An old custom in England, the Christmas and New Year’s letter had received a new impetus with the recent expansion of the British postal system and the introduction of the “Penny Post,” allowing the sender to send a letter or card anywhere in the country by affixing a penny stamp to the correspondence.

Now, everybody was sending letters. Sir Cole—best remembered today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—was an enthusiastic supporter of the new postal system, and he enjoyed being the 1840s equivalent of an A-Lister, but he was a busy man. As he watched the stacks of unanswered correspondence he fretted over what to do. “In Victorian England, it was considered impolite not to answer mail,” says Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. “He had to figure out a way to respond to all of these people.”

Cole hit on an ingenious idea. He approached an artist friend, J.C. Horsley, and asked him to design an idea that Cole had sketched out in his mind. Cole then took Horsley’s illustration—a triptych showing a family at table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor—and had a thousand copies made by a London printer. The image was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches in size. At the top of each was the salutation, “TO:_____” allowing Cole to personalize his responses, which included the generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.”

It was the first Christmas card.

Unlike many holiday traditions—can anyone really say who sent the first Christmas fruitcake?—we have a generally agreed upon name and date for the beginning of this one. But as with today’s brouhahas about Starbucks cups or “Happy Holidays” greetings, it was not without controversy. In their image of the family celebrating, Cole and Horsley had included several young children enjoying what appear to be glasses of wine along with their older siblings and parents. “At the time there was a big temperance movement in England,” Collins says. “So there were some that thought he was encouraging underage drinking.”

The criticism was not enough to blunt what some in Cole’s circle immediately recognized as a good way to save time. Within a few years, several other prominent Victorians had simply copied his and Horsley’s creation and were sending them out at Christmas.

While Cole and Horsley get the credit for the first, it took several decades for the Christmas card to really catch on, both in Great Britain and the United States. Once it did, it became an integral part of our holiday celebrations—even as the definition of “the holidays” became more expansive, and now includes not just Christmas and New Year’s, but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice.

Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, is credited with creating the first Christmas card originating in the United States in 1875. It was very different from Cole and Horsley’s of 30 years prior, in that it didn’t even contain a Christmas or holiday image. The card was a painting of a flower, and it read “Merry Christmas.” This more artistic, subtle approach would categorize this first generation of American Christmas cards. “They were vivid, beautiful reproductions,” says Collins. “There were very few nativity scenes or depictions of holiday celebrations. You were typically looking at animals, nature, scenes that could have taken place in October or February.”

(Video) Christmas Cards: A History

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.

In 1894, prominent British arts writer Gleeson White devoted an entire issue of his influential magazine, The Studio, to a study of Christmas cards. While he found the varied designs interesting, he was not impressed by the written sentiments. “It’s obvious that for the sake of their literature no collection would be worth making,” he sniffed. (White’s comments are included as part of an online exhibit of Victorian Christmas cards from Indiana University’s Lilly Library)

“In the manufacture of Victorian Christmas cards,” wrote George Buday in his 1968 book, The History of the Christmas Card, “we witness the emergence of a form of popular art, accommodated to the transitory conditions of society and its production methods.”

The modern Christmas card industry arguably began in 1915, when a Kansas City-based fledgling postcard printing company started by Joyce Hall, 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.

“They discovered that people didn’t have enough room to write everything they wanted to say on a post card,” says Steve Doyal, vice president of public affairs for Hallmark, “but they didn’t want to write a whole letter.”

In this new “book” format—which remains the industry standard—colorful Christmas cards with red-suited Santas and brilliant stars of Bethlehem, and cheerful, if soon clichéd, messages inside, became enormously popular in the 1930s-1950s. As 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 Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art has a fascinating collection of more personal Christmas cards sent by artists including Alexander Calder.)

The History of the Christmas Card (2)


The History of the Christmas Card (3)


The History of the Christmas Card (4)


The History of the Christmas Card (5)


(Video) A brief history of (weird and wonderful) Victorian Christmas cards | V&A
The History of the Christmas Card (6)


The History of the Christmas Card (7)


(Video) The history of Christmas cards

The most popular Christmas card of all time, however, is a simple one. 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 Christmastime and always,” reads the sentiment. First published in 1977, that card—still part of Hallmark’s collection—has sold 34 million copies.

(Video) World's First Christmas Card | How did the tradition of sending Christmas cards start?

The introduction, 53 years ago, of the first Christmas stamp by the U.S. Post Office perhaps speaks even more powerfully to the popularity of the Christmas card. It depicted a wreath, two candles and had the words “Christmas, 1962.” According to the Post Office, the department ordered the printing of 350 million of these 4-cent, green and white stamps. However, says Daniel Piazza, chief curator of philately for the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, “they underestimated the demand and ended up having to do a special printing.”

But there was a problem.

“They didn’t have enough of the right size paper,” Piazza says. Hence, the first printing of the new Christmas stamps came in sheets of 100. The second printing was in sheets of 90. (Although they are not rare, Piazza adds, the second printing-sheets of these stamps are collectibles today).

Still, thanks to the round the clock efforts by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a total of onebillioncopies of the 1962 Christmas stamp were printed and distributed by the end of the year.

Today, much of the innovation in Christmas cards is found in smaller, niche publishers whose work is found in gift shops and paper stores. “These smaller publishers are bringing in a lot of new ideas,” says Peter Doherty, executive director of the Greeting Card Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing the card publishers. “You have elaborate pop up cards, video cards, audio cards, cards segmented to various audiences.”

The sentiments, too, are different than the stock greetings of the past. “It’s not always the touchy-feely, ‘to you and yours on this festive, glorious occasion’ kind of prose,” says Doherty. “Those cards are still out there, but the newer publishers are writing in a language that is speaking to a younger generation.”

Henry Cole’s first card was a convenient way for him to speak to his many friends and associates without having to draft long, personalized responses to each. Yet, there are also accounts of Cole selling at least some of the cards for a shilling apiece at his art gallery in London, possibly for charity. Maybe Sir Cole was not only a pioneer of the Christmas card, but prescient in his recognition of another aspect of our celebration of Christmas.

It’s big business.

John Hanc | READ MORE

(Video) Why do we send Christmas Cards?

New York-based writer John Hanc is a long time Smithsonian contributor. He also writes regularly for the New York Times, Newsday, and Brain & Life magazine.

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What is the history of the Christmas greeting card? ›

The first “real” Christmas card was the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole, a dedicated civil-servant and scholar in the United Kingdom. Sir Cole had just worked to pass a reform that lowered the cost of postage to a single penny (the “penny post”) to encourage British citizens of all walks of life to use the postal system.

What are some facts about the history of Christmas cards? ›

A man named John Calcott Horsley printed the first Christmas card for Sir Henry Cole, the friend who had given him the idea. Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy British businessman, wanted a card he could proudly send to friends and professional acquaintances to wish them a "Merry Christmas."

What was the message in the first Christmas card? ›

Horsley's design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand-coloured panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity.

What are the children drinking in the first ever Christmas card? ›


However, those very first Christmas cards weren't without controversy. The fact that the family were drinking wine was, so the advocates of temperance argued, promoting drunkenness.

What was the original reason for people sending Christmas cards at Christmas? ›

This custom started in Denmark in the early 1900s by a postal worker who thought it would be a good way for charities to raise money, as well as making the cards more decorative. It was a great success: over four million were sold in the first year!

Who started the tradition of Christmas cards and Christmas trees? ›

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes.

What are three facts about Christmas cards? ›

There are more than 3,000 greeting card publishers in America. 15% of Christmas cards are purchased by men. Over 2 billion Christmas cards are sent in the US each year. Around 500 million e-cards are sent each year.

Who started the idea of Christmas cards? ›

The first Christmas card, as the term is now understood, is believed to have been designed in England in 1843 by John Callcott Horsley. An edition of 1,000 hand-coloured copies was placed on sale in London.

Who created the first Christmas card and why? ›

Reproduction of the first Christmas card

Reproduction of the Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. This is recognised as the first Christmas card ever sent.

What is the most important message of Christmas? ›

The good news of Christmas is that even when the world or our circumstances change – the message of Christmas is timeless. Because Christmas is about the birth of God's Son – Jesus. It is about how he came to give us love, hope and joy. That message doesn't change from year to year.

Why Christmas cards are important? ›

The tradition of sending Christmas cards originated back in England in 1843. A busy nobleman didn't have time to send a personal note to his friends to wish them Merry Christmas, so he hired a local artist to paint some ready-made cards that he could send out to friends and family. Pretty soon, a tradition was born!

Who is the father of the Christmas card? ›

Louis Prang, Father of the American Christmas Card | New-York Historical Society.

What is the oldest known Christmas card? ›

The first known Christmas card was sent by Michael Maier to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1611. It was discovered in 1979 by Adam McLean in the Scottish Record Office.

What is 1 traditional Christmas drink? ›

Eggnog. Of all the holiday cocktails you can mix up, few are as fitting as a glass of homemade eggnog. It's a luscious, creamy drink that many crave when December rolls around and it often brings back fond memories. Eggnog is not difficult to make from scratch and it's tastier than most store-bought options.

Which country sends the most Christmas cards? ›

Research shows that the Dutch send the most Christmas cards. Within Europe, the percentage of households which send Christmas cards is between 68% and 76%. The Netherlands are far ahead with 90%.

What does the Christmas tree symbolize in the Bible? ›

In Christianity, Christmas tree is symbolic of birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The tree's branches and shrubs are viewed as an emblem of immortality and are said to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross.

What did the first Christmas card look like? ›

It was very different from Cole and Horsley's of 30 years prior, in that it didn't even contain a Christmas or holiday image. The card was a painting of a flower, and it read “Merry Christmas.” This more artistic, subtle approach would categorize this first generation of American Christmas cards.

What color were the first Christmas lights? ›

Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882. Johnson, Edison's friend and partner in the Edison's Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree.

Who was the first president to send Christmas cards? ›

Written on White House stationery in his own hand in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge issued the first official Christmas message to the American people.

Are holiday cards an American thing? ›

Sir Henry Cole created the first Christmas card, originating in England in 1843. Louis Prang created the first American Christmas cards at his Roxbury factory in 1874 using high quality lithographs. Within five years, he had his annual sales surpassed the 5 million mark.

Where did the Christmas card originated? ›

Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.” Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

What does Christmas literally mean? ›

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the word Christmas originates from the phrase “Cristes Maesse”, first recorded in 1038, which means the Mass of Christ or Christ's Mass.

What does Christmas stand for? ›

Christmas, Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus. The English term Christmas (“mass on Christ's day”) is of fairly recent origin. The earlier term Yule may have derived from the Germanic jōl or the Anglo-Saxon geōl, which referred to the feast of the winter solstice.

When was Jesus actually born? ›

The date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical sources, but most biblical scholars generally accept a date of birth between 6 BC and 4 BC, the year in which King Herod died.

Why are Christmas cards important to Christians? ›

Christmas is a time to catch up with family, friends and loved ones and Christian Xmas Cards are the perfect opportunity to show an expression of love and appreciation, a chance to send blessings to those we don't see too often or live far away from.

Is it OK to not do Christmas cards? ›

No one ever has to send Christmas cards. If it's a sad time in your life and you feel like skipping them, please, please, please do. And if writing them makes you feel better, then by all means send them.

What is the point of sending holiday cards? ›

Holiday cards let you connect (or reconnect) with family and friends. Although e-cards are efficient and great in their own way, tangible cards feel all the more special in that you took the time to write a thoughtful note, add a stamp, and drop it off at the mailbox.

Why is the Robin on Christmas cards? ›

If you have ever wondered why red robins are associated with Christmas, postmen in Victorian Britain were nicknamed “Robins” because of their red-breasted coloured uniforms. So the Robin on the Christmas card came to represent the postman who delivered the card yet there are links that pre date this explanation.

When was Christmas first celebrated? ›

The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25, AD 336. In the 3rd century, the date of the nativity was the subject of great interest.

What president was the first to put a Christmas tree in the White House? ›

White House Christmas Trees. The tradition of a placing a decorated tree in the White House began in 1889 on Christmas morning during the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison.

How much did the first Christmas card cost? ›

Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas Cards with his friend John Horsley, who was an artist. They designed the first card and sold them for 1 shilling each. (That is only 5p or 8 cents today(!), but in those days it was worth much more.)

What is the smallest Christmas card ever made? ›

The card has "Seasons Greetings" on the front beneath an image of a snowman. The inside reads, "Seasons Greetings From NPL." It's a mere 20 micrometers tall, which translates to about 0.00079 inches. You could fit 200 million of the mini cards in one postage stamp.

What is Santa's favorite drink? ›

Everyone knows that Santa's favorite way to wash down his plate of cookies is with a big glass of eggnog. This tradition has been around for decades, but have you ever asked yourself why? When did drinking this egg and milk concoction become a holiday tradition?

What is the Queen's favorite Christmas drink? ›

Food & Drink / 4 weeks ago. As the country moves from one era to the next, one way of paying our respect to the late Queen Elizabeth II is by mixing up her favourite drink: Dubonnet and gin.

What is the most popular Christmas drink in the US? ›

Accordingly, the most popular drink at Christmas is eggnog. This creamy, spiced beverage is often made with milk, cream, and rum and is a favorite among many during the cold winter months.

What country takes Christmas most seriously? ›

Norway. Norway tops the list as the European country with the most Christmas spirit. The Christmas season here is characterized by cold mornings, crystal clear landscapes, reindeer, lots of snow and cookies.

Why don t people send Christmas cards anymore? ›

In fact, the U.S. Postal Service has seen a dramatic decline in all personal mail as people rely more on electronic messaging. Given these trends, most of us are sending and receiving fewer cards than we did in previous years. Many people have totally given up the practice of sending out holiday greetings.

What holiday sells the most cards? ›

Christmas is the largest card-sending holiday in the United States with approximately 1.3 billion cards sent annually. Hallmark provides more than 2,000 Hallmark Christmas card designs, including more than 1,600 individual Christmas cards and more than 325 boxed card designs.

Where did Christmas greeting cards originate? ›

The first Christmas card, as the term is now understood, is believed to have been designed in England in 1843 by John Callcott Horsley. An edition of 1,000 hand-coloured copies was placed on sale in London.

Why do we need greeting cards in Christmas? ›

An annual holiday greeting card sent to family and friends allows you to keep in touch and reminds everyone that you are thinking of them. A greeting card expresses all the human emotions, joy, thanks, sympathy, humor, love and admiration.

What is the history of the Hallmark greeting card company? ›

On January 10, 1910, a teenager from Nebraska stepped off a train in Kansas City, Mo., with little more than big dreams and two shoeboxes of picture postcards. From those inauspicious beginnings an iconic brand was born. More than 100 years and billions of well-wishes later, Hallmark Cards, Inc.

Are Christmas cards an American thing? ›

Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, is credited with creating the first Christmas card originating in the United States in 1875.

Who invented greeting card? ›

A British civil servant named Sir Henry Cole hired his friend John Callcott Horsley, a painter and illustrator, to design the card. It was made of stiff cardboard with a lithograph design that was then hand-painted.

What do greeting cards symbolize? ›

greeting card, an illustrated message that expresses, either seriously or humorously, affection, good will, gratitude, sympathy, or other sentiments. Greeting cards are usually sent by mail in observance of a special day or event and can be divided into two general classifications: seasonal and everyday.

Is there any point in sending Christmas cards? ›

Moreover, we know that prosocial gestures like expressing gratitude in letters and cards have been found to boost positive emotions in both the receiver and sender. As such, it is likely that sending Christmas cards could be considered more than just the exchange of pleasantries and good wishes over the festive season.

What is the largest greeting card company in the US? ›

Learn about this topic in these articles:

…and chief executive (1910–66) of Hallmark Cards, Inc., the largest greeting-card manufacturer in the world.

What year did Hallmark introduce their first Christmas card? ›

When did Hallmark first introduce Christmas cards? Hallmark introduced Christmas cards in 1915, five years after the company was founded in 1910.

Why are Hallmark greeting cards so expensive? ›

The cardstock is thicker and the designs more intricate. Hallmark says it has 500 writer-designers on staff just for their greeting card division.


1. The Story Behind the Christmas Card - Pioneer Village
(Salt and Light Media)
2. History of the Christmas Card | A COZY CHRISTMAS MYSTERY QUESTION
(Sarah Jane Weldon)
3. A Brief History of the Holiday Card from JSTOR Daily
4. The History of Christmas Cards for Kids | Why Do We Send Christmas Cards?
(Twinkl Educational Publishing)
5. The History of Christmas Cards | History By Mail
(History By Mail)
6. The Victorians. History of the Christmas Card.
(Tracy Martin)


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