Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Fröhliche Weihnachten! İFeliz Navidad!

Say it with a fan…

This miniature silk fan is part of the Leeds Museums collection housed at Abbey House Museum. It is a sweet twist on the idea of sending a Christmas card. The greeting on the fan is, ‘Joy and all fair things attend your Christmas tide’. The fan is from the nineteenth century and depicts a new and innovative way of sending your Christmas greetings.

Christmas cards have been passed between families and friends since the mid nineteenth century. The first ever commercial Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London, 1843 and was designed by artist John Callcott Horsley.

As the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Henry found himself too busy in the Christmas season of 1843 to compose individual Christmas greetings usually in the form of letters for his friends. Therefore he came up with the idea of sending a card by post. One thousand copies of the card were printed and sold for one shilling (5p today).

The card had three panels. The outer two showed people caring for the poor and the centre panel was a family drinking and eating together. The inscription read, ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.’ Although the card caused controversy because it showed a child being given a glass of wine, the sending of Christmas cards was a hit.

Of the original one thousand Cole cards printed only twelve are known to exist in private collections. An original Cole card that was sent to his grandmother holds the world record as the most expensive Christmas card ever sold. It was sold at auction in 2001 to an anonymous bidder for £22,250!

No one could have predicted the outcome of Christmas cards, even the Christmas card manufacturers themselves believed it was a phase that would pass. However as printing and postal methods improved the sending of cards became much more popular and they were produced in large numbers from 1860.

These early Christmas cards depicted, flowers, fairies, sentimental designs of children, humorous designs of animals and even flying butterflies amongst stalks of wheat or insects landing on ripening blackberries. These images were to remind the recipient of the approaching of spring. A complete contrast to what we view today as being ‘traditional Christmas cards’ ones that show wintry or religious themes. It was not until late Victorian times snow scenes with a robin, like this one from the 1860s, became popular because of the postmen’s nickname, ‘Robins’ due to the red uniform that they wore.

Today Christmas cards contain many different types of images and themes. They also come in many shapes and sizes and even the method has changed with many people preferring to send ‘e-cards’. The UK is the world leader on sending Christmas cards, spending £1billion each year. I bet the early Victorian Christmas card manufacturers could certainly have never predicted that!
By Georgie Cash

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