The Custom of Christmas Cards

The Custom of Christmas Cards

By Mary Emma Allen

Christmas cards abound each year as friends wish one another holiday cheer. These colorful greetings are displayed on tabletops, mantlepieces, and sometimes strung around the room. They're often collected and pasted in albums or used the following year for making Christmas decorations.

But sending Christmas greetings in the form of a card is not a centuries old custom. Actually the first real Christmas card supposedly appeared in the 1840s.

First Christmas Card

Henry Cole, an Englishman, found himself pressed for time at Christmas. So he wasn't able to send the personal Christmas letters (a tradition at that time) to his friends. Thus he asked well-known artist J.C. Horsley to design a Christmas message that could be printed up and mailed.

One source says that Mr. Horsley designed and sold more than 1,000 copies of that first card. Did Mr. Cole send so many cards himself, or did Mr. Horsley interest others in buying and sending cards, too?

Design of the First Card

This first Christmas card apparently was constructed of stiff cardboard, illustrated with a drawing of a family seated around the table eating Christmas dinner. Then the side panels depicted poor Londoners receiving food and clothing from the more well-to-do.

The card carried the message, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You" as many cards do today.

Christmas Cards of Many Types

Louis Prang, a German immigrant, started printing commercially the first Christmas cards in America in 1875. By 1881, Prang was printing five million cards a year.

The smallest card ever made was perhaps the one sent to the Duke of Windsor in 1929. A grain of rice was inscribed with Christmas greetings.

This inscription could be seen only through a magnifying glass. Over the years, Christmas cards have come in all shapes and sizes and were made from a variety of materials. Some early Christmas cards were no larger than a postage stamp.

A Christmas Tradition That Continues

Sending Christmas cards is a tradition that isn't likely to die out even though postage keeps increasing. When you include a personal note or annual family letter you add something of yourself to the greeting. In today's computer world, we're finding computer designed and generated cards, as well as online greetings.

No matter how we send them, Christmas greetings bring people closer together at this time of year.

(c)Mary Emma Allen

About the author

Mary Emma Allen writes children's stories as well as columns and articles for newspapers and magazines. Her books include: "When We Become the Parent of Our Parents," "Tales of Adventure & Discovery," "Writing in Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont," "The Magic of Patchwork," and Writers' Manuals. Visit her web site or email her at


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