A Holiday Tradition: Christmas Cards


Lauren Devlin, Intro Writer

With the holiday season in full swing, Christmas cards are being delivered to mailboxes all over the country. This is a tradition that was started by Henry Cole in 1843. Cole was an elite Victorian with many friends. During the holiday season in England, it was customary for people to send a Christmas letter to their acquaintances.1 This meant that Cole was receiving many letters and leaving mail unanswered was considered rude at the time.1 Cole had a dilemma– he had letters piling up and needed to respond promptly.


To find a solution, Cole turned to artist John Horsley, commissioning him to illustrate the design of a Christmas card.2 One thousand copies were printed and Cole used as many as he needed, selling the rest.3 The cards that Cole sent were the first Christmas cards.

At first, the cards were unsuccessful, but they soon gained popularity. Eventually, other elite Victorians helped spread Cole’s idea by doing it themselves, since it saved time.1 Two factors aided the rise of Christmas cards. First was the postal system’s establishment, and when Christmas became firmly commercialized in the 1870s.2 This resulted in millions of cards being sent.


In the late 1800s, Christmas cards were quite creative. They started displaying illustrations of holiday symbols or beautiful objects, usually showing off the sender’s artistic talent. This caused people to start collecting cards and competitions among families and friends for the best cards became quite common.1


By 1915, the modern Christmas card industry had begun. Hall Brothers Company, now Hallmark, became a major player in the industry. Halls Brothers Company created a new card format, a card that was 4 by 6 inches, folded once in the middle, and inserted in an envelope.1 This new format was popular in the 1930s-1950s because people wanted to write more than what could fit on a postcard (the previous format of Christmas cards), but not an entire letter.1 The holiday greeting cards, in the new book format, had colorful, bright designs of Christmas motifs such as Santa, holly, and winter scenes. Hall Brothers Company also got commissions for cards that are now collectibles.  


Now, people create a card that displays photos of themselves and their family. They will occasionally write a letter along with the photo card as well. The family photos on the card come in numerous types. Families can decide if they want a more comical photo, a professional/planned photo, a photo from a vacation, or any other photo they like. People often use programs, like Shutterfly, that provide templates to format their cards. Others will take a different route and send a holiday greeting card from the store or illustrate one themselves as well. 


In 1877, the Postmaster General reported an additional 4.5 million letters had been mailed during the holiday season.3 Every December, we continue to see this spike in delivering mail. Sending holiday cards has always been a way for people to stay connected with their loved ones. Even back in the day, Christmas cards allowed people to socialize and have “heartfelt communications” between senders and receivers.2


“[I create Christmas cards] to keep in touch with everybody– family and friends,” said Kelly Devlin, a sender and receiver of Christmas cards. “I enjoy it because our family enjoys seeing them. It’s not just about me, it’s about the people who are receiving it as well.” 


“For me, I love seeing, especially from year to year, how people get bigger,” said Madeline Lenzini, a receiver of Christmas cards. “I think other people send Christmas cards to show what they have done over the past year, to keep up with each other.”

For hundreds of years, people have sent Christmas cards to stay updated with one another. Now in the digital age, people appreciate getting a physical card even more. “I think it’s a stronger connection when it’s a tangible thing that you are holding…[it’s] bringing people into your home, in a way,” said Joy Root, sender and receiver of Christmas cards. “It takes time and effort to send actual holiday cards… it shows that extra level of care, that the person cares enough to physically send you something.”


Even though the tradition of sending holiday cards started in the 19th century, they continue to find their way into loved ones’ homes, making the holidays what they are today.



Works Cited:

  1. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-christmas-card-180957487/
  2. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-first-christmas-card
  3. https://www.postalmuseum.org/collections/first-christmas-card/