Strictly speaking, a Christmas card is a greeting card specifically oriented for the Christmas celebrations of 25 December.

What Does a Christmas Card Look Like?

The cover of a Christmas card usually contains a random selection of animals covered in snow, reindeer with blindingly red noses, Santa Claus and his minions, snow-men and snow-women, cathedrals in European cities with too many k's and z's in their names1, or an image from the birth of Christ. In the Southern Hemisphere, where Christmas occurs in the middle of summer, many Christmas cards depict melting snow-men or Santa Claus in shorts and a t-shirt.

The centrefold of a Christmas card usually contains a generic, religious-free phrase, wishing the reader a merry festive season and a safe new year.

If you're very lucky, your card may be electrically wired to play a cheerful Christmas carol when the card is opened.

Corporate Christmas Cards

Corporate Christmas cards are a Human Relations event and have absolutely nothing to do with seasonal well-wishes. Towards the end of the year, many corporations will send Christmas cards to clients, customers and business partners in an attempt to gain cheap popularity points. These Christmas cards often contain a picture of an important project undertaken or owned by the business (buildings and artworks are always popular) and they usually make no reference whatsoever to religion.

These corporate Christmas cards usually sit on a secretary's desk until the first working day after Christmas, but that matters not; it remains vitally important to send the card. Forgetting to send a card to an important client is considered the ultimate snub in certain business circles. Thus, the creation of a Christmas card list is often given high priority by middle management.

It is interesting to note that although HR managers across the globe deliberate for hours over corporate Christmas card lists, very few staff members receive Christmas cards from their own company.

Personal Christmas Cards

Personal Christmas cards are a private hell for many people. You may buy your mother a diamond-studded BMW for Christmas, but if you forget to stick a Christmas card on the dashboard, expect to be written out of the family will on Boxing Day.

If you're not familiar with organising Christmas cards, but you feel obliged to do so, it can be a bewildering experience. Below, several frequently-asked questions are answered.

Q. Must I really send Christmas cards?
A. It's entirely up to you. It's considered polite, if that matters to you. If you think it will make the recipient smile, it's worth sending it.

Q. When should I start organising my personal Christmas cards?
A. Right now. Failing that, start around the first weekend of December.

Q. To whom should I send a card?
A. Family and friends. Make a list (and check it twice!): your good friends, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, children, if applicable. The more devout will send cards to casual friends, aunts and uncles, grandparents, etc. Some people send cards to their regular haunts: a favourite bookstore, record store, cafe and nightclub. Well, maybe not nightclub. Some people send cards to their boss; only do this if you actually like your boss. Otherwise, you will not be fooling anyone.

Q. What kind of cards should I send?
A. Nice ones. The cheapest and simplest option is to buy a box of generic cards. Your local newsagency or supermarket should sell boxes of cards with various pleasant pictures (see above). Or, remember that Nature favours the brave: consider making your own cards. If you do, don't use letters cut out of a newspaper.

Q. What should I write?
A. Herein lies the quandry. If the recipient is a good friend, there's nothing you can say in a Christmas card that you haven't already told them. If you don't speak to them often, you can't wax lyrical about how much you care.

Aim for a nice phrase. Try and add a personal touch:

"Dear x, Wishing you a merry festive season and a wonderful new year. Hope the y is going well! See you at z. Best wishes, your-name-here."

where x is the recipient's name, y is their job or hobby and z is the next time you'll see them. If z is more than four months from the time of writing, "See you soon" will do nicely.

Q. When should I post the cards?
A. Two weekends before Christmas. Postal companies tend to be very overloaded during the silly season, and relatives like to have your card on the mantelpiece for Christmas Day.

Q. What should I do with the Christmas cards people send me?
A. As a rule of thumb, keep them until New Year's Day. If you have a Christmas tree, you could comfortably keep them on display until you take the tree down. After that, feel free to throw them away - but throw them directly in the trash. No one likes to see their own card in the kitchen bin.

Q. What if I am not religious?
A. Most stores carry non-religious cards with unoffensive reindeer or Santa Claus getting personal with Mrs Claus. Some stores sell cards for a number of religions or non-religions. The spirit of the card is not the religion, but the thought.

Christianity may not be your religion of choice. Christmas may not be your ideal public holiday. But your card may make someone smile. For many non-Christians, that's reason enough to send a card.

1 Thank you, my lord and master, P. J. O'Rourke.

    "I will honor Christmas in all my heart and try to keep it all year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."
    -Ebenezer Scrooge to the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come, A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens.

The earliest form of Christmas cards were made by wood engravers who constructed prints with religious themes in the European Middle Ages, later came "Christmas pieces” fashioned by schoolboys who filled in pre-printed pages via means of their best penmanship within special holiday vignettes. " However, it was literary giant Charles Dickens book A Christmas Carol that was the single most important influence in establishing the Christmas spirit," says one Dickens’s academic. "The conversion of Scrooge is the conversion of a Christian soul. It's a reawakening of a Christian being and of a good being."

In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens devotes an entire chapter to making Yuletide merry in his chapter Inventing Christmas, and is responsible for generating the warmth associated with Christmastide. Published in 1843, the story was intended to encourage well-to-do Victorian's to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor. Prior to Queen Victoria’s reign no one in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and there were seldom holidays from work. The prosperity and knowledge produced by the Industrial Revolution of the era would change the face of Christmas forever.

Up until then people exchanged handwritten holiday greetings, originally in person, then by post. It was Rowland Hill's Penny Black postage introduced in 1840 that led the way to the custom of sending Christmas cards. It was a straightforward idea to charge a penny to post a letter to anywhere in Britain. Three years later Sir Henry Cole solicited artist John Calcott Horsley to produce a number of Christmas cards:

    ”Sir Henry Cole was a prominent innovator in the 1800s. He modernized the British Postal system, managed construction of the Albert Hall, arranged for the Great Exhibition in 1851, and oversaw the inauguration of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Most of all, Cole sought to 'beautify life." In his spare time he ran an art shop on Bond Street, specializing in decorative objects of the home. In the summer of 1843, he commissioned Horsley to design an impressive card for that year's Christmas.”

Printed in black and white the one thousand cards were then colored by hand. These gifts of small works of art became affordable to nearly everyone and grew in popularity when due to the modern efficiency of the railway system; the half penny postage rate was introduced in 1870. Good works good eating and drinking were the basic elements of a Victorian Christmas. The cards created by Horsley, sold for one shilling a piece, depicted a happy family raising a toast to the recipient, and was soundly criticized by the British Temperance Movement for promoting drunkenness.

John Horsley created his 1843 triptych along the lines of the Dickens story. Published at Summerly's Home Treasury Office at 12 Old Bond Street in London, the centerpiece depicted merrymakings of adults and children, with lavish food and drink. The two side panels portrayed a good deed--clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. The message read" "merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you." In the vernacular of the day "Merry” was a religious word denoting 'blessed," as in "merry old England." Of the first one thousand cards printed for Henry Cole, only twelve survive today in personal collections. The card became all the rage in London and their popularity spread to Germany.

    “By 1822 homemade Christmas cards had become the bane of the US postal system. That year, the Superintendent of Mails in Washington, DC, complained of the need to hire sixteen extra mailmen. Fearful of future bottlenecks, he petitioned Congress to limit the exchange of cards by post, concluding, "I don't know what we'll do if it keeps on."

Not only did it keep on, but with the marketing of attractive commercial cards the postal burden worsened. Meanwhile in London printers Charles Goodall & Sons were the first to mass-produce Christmas cards. In 1862 they printed cards saying "A Merry Christmas." Later designs, remained primarily Victorian in style included robins, holly, mangers, snowmen; even Little Red Riding Hood.

Until the middle of the 19th century, Americans purchased the imported and expensive Christmas cards. In 1875, German emigrant, printer Louis Prang, designed and sold colored Christmas cards in Roxbury, Massachusetts garnering the German native a designation as "father of the American Christmas card." In less than a decade his printing shop was producing over five million cards a year. His chromolithographic or chromo method of printing from zinc plates permitted printers to use up to forty-five color plates to turn out one image. The cards give the impression of being original watercolors and were well received:

    ”Prang's high quality cards were costly, and they initially featured not such images as the Madonna and Child, a decorated tree, or even Santa Claus, but colored floral arrangements or roses, daisies, gardenias, geraniums and apple blossoms. Americans took to Christmas cards, but not to Prang's; he was forced out of business in 1890. It was cheap penny Christmas postcards imported from Germany that remained the vogue until World War 1. By war's end, America's modern greeting card industry had been born.”

At the same time that Prang was successfully creating orthodox Christmas cards, Thomas Nast, a fellow German immigrant, who was raised in the United States, was enthusiastically expanding his art career and in due course, many Americans perception of Christmas. Frank Leslie, owner of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper had noticed Nast undertakings as an artist and was so impressed with his flair and persistence he hired Nast as an illustrator for his publication at the age of fifteen. Unable to read or write, Nast became an illustrator for Leslie's publication at the very young age of 15, before his twentieth birthday Harper’s Weekly published Nast’s earliest political cartoon. New York Illustrated News subsequently employed him to do illustrations in Europe. In spite of the fact that Thomas Nast could not read he had become a successful artist. In 1862 Nast’s wife read Dr. Clement Clarke Moore's poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas or what is sometimes called A Visit from St. Nicholas. Nast became infatuated with the poem and couldn't resist the chance to visually illustrate Moore's Christmas fantasies altering the American Christmas card forever:

    "He created a sleigh and reindeer and a Santa Claus. Harper's Weekly published his drawings... our modern Santa had come to town! Nast didn't stop there... his Christmas concepts, which became industry standards, instituted the North Pole as the home of Santa Claus and the elves and their workshop, the good vs. naughty child reward system, letters to Santa and other modern Santa traditions."

In 1915 the Hallmark Company introduced its first Christmas cards and today more than two billion Christmas cards are exchanged annually in the United States as the number one card-selling holiday of the year

A note of interest was this information about the earliest known Christmas greeting in existence today in the United States The spirit that welcomes one of the holiest days of the Christian year was engraved in a petroglyph by Irish monks discovered on a rock ledge in West Virginia in November 1982. Harvard professor Dr. Barry Fell deciphered the advance form Ogham script he had studied in Ireland and on other New England carvings. He began a translation from Ogham into Old Irish, from Old Irish into modern Irish, and then into English.

Dr. Fell wondered how could a Christmas message be carved in America, in an Irish script, between 500 and 800 A.D.? He and a small group of other experts interested in knowing the answer to the same question gathered together determined to verify the translation by,”Calculating the difference between the Julian calendar and today's Gregorian calendar.” Meeting at the petroglyph just before daybreak on December 22, 1982 they waited as the sun rose in the east, painted over the mountains, and the rays flowed across the face of the cliff.

    “They watched in amazement as the first shaft of sunlight funneled like a flashlight beam through a 3-sided notch in the cliff overhang and struck the center of a sun symbol on the left side of the panel. As they watched in awe, the beam pushed the shadow from left to right, slowly bathing the entire message in sunlight like a prehistoric neon sign announcing yet another Christmas, as it has done for centuries. Before their eyes, they had received a message across the ages” The translation reads:
      “At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the savior Lord Christ. Behold he is born of Mary, a woman.“

Ideas abound for recycling Christmas cards on the net! You can make nesting boxes says one web site, another suggests binding them in a notebook and using them as prayer reminders. “You can also cut your Christmas cards down to make bookmarks. Write the name of the sender on the back so that you can remember their thoughtfulness and pray for them each time you use the bookmark.”


THE FIRST CHRISTMAS CARD: Santa Claus & The History and Customs of Christmas: Happywoman:

History and Legends of Christmas:

Christmas Traditions: History of Christmas Trees, Christmas Cards: -

McCormack, Mike, “America's First Christmas Card”, From the Housetops,, date of publication unknown.

A Victorian Christmas - Christmas celebrations and traditions: VictorianChristmas.htm

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