Written by Selina Hallam

It's that time of year again, where we're dressing the tree and putting up the decorations, scouring the shops for gifts and sitting down to write on Christmas cards to send to our loved ones both near and far. You may be wondering why we started sending Christmas cards in the first place and why we still send them now and if so, read on!

Thoughtful messages have been given to one another in paper form since ancient times, such as to celebrate the Chinese New Year, and then in the last few centuries, people began to exchange cards on various occasions like Valentine's and Christmas. When sending a Christmas card, the prevailing sentiment is one of goodwill; it's spreading festive cheer to your family, friends and colleagues and letting them know that you're thinking of them at this time of year.  

In 1611, Michael Maier, a German physician, decided to do just that with a manuscript on parchment sent to King James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and it's the first Christmas card that we know of, having been discovered in 1979. Named as 'King James’s Christmas Card' by the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh, this handmade greeting card featured the following words:

'A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate.'

While it's not possible to view a digital image of this card online (though it is possible to arrange a visit to view it in person in Edinburgh), diagrams have been recreated of the manuscript:

Christmas card

Buying and sending physical Christmas cards is still big business these days, even with the digital age bringing with it e-cards, and that's partly due to tradition. Many still send them for religious reasons instead, while for others, it's simply the one time of the year that they contact the recipients. The Greeting Card Association said in 2020 that, "75% of consumers who send holiday cards say they do so because they know how good it feels when they receive a holiday greeting." The most popular seasonal cards purchased in the US are Christmas cards but when did we start buying them to send to others? 

We wrote about the very first commercial Christmas card in our blog The History of the Greeting Card, which was commissioned by British civil servant Henry Cole.

Henry Cole card

Image courtesy of V&A

According to Tim Travis, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum Museum in London, as interviewed for Good Housekeeping:

"In 1843, civil servant, entrepreneur and future V&A director Henry Cole found he was too busy to send his customary Christmas letters to all his friends and acquaintances. Instead, he commissioned his friend, the artist John Callcott Horsley, to design a card for him to send. The illustration depicted three generations of a Victorian family drinking a toast to the recipient over a banner with the greeting 'A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU'. A thousand of these were made and hand-coloured by a professional colourer called William Mason."

At the time, it was customary for people in England to visit each other at Christmas but Henry Cole was so busy that he decided to design a particular card that could be sent to everyone instead. Each one was advertised with the following text:

'Just published, a Christmas Congratulations Card; or picture emblematical of old English festivity to perpetuate kind recollections between dear friends!'

Travis went on to say that, "... after Henry had sent his cards, the leftover cards were sold by Cole’s business partner Joseph Cundall at their emporium in Bond Street, for the then princely sum of one shilling each."

Henry Cole had helped to introduce the Penny Post in 1840, which was the first postal service that ordinary people could use, but while sales of this card were poor due to the cost (as one shilling was a day's pay for many working men), this set in motion the Christmas card industry. The Half Penny Post, introduced years later in 1894, boosted Christmas card sales, with the cheaper postcard-style being the most popular option sent, and then the tradition simply grew over the years. 

These days, when most of the envelopes that come through the letterbox seem to be bills, we're happy - excited even - to see a handwritten card from someone we know, often from another city, province or country. Sales of Christmas cards have been higher than ever since the pandemic hit, with more and more people thinking it especially important to send heartfelt wishes of joy to those they care about. 

The British company Moo created this interesting infographic about Christmas cards, which shows that an original Henry Cole card sold for a whopping $35,800 in recent years and that 45% of all cards sent are Christmas cards, so it's clear that this tradition isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

moo infographic

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