Opening your mailbox to find brightly colored envelopes at Christmas time is like a little present each time you get the mail. Christmas cards give you a chance to slow down and reflect on the blessings in your life. Sending the cards lets you share the Christmas spirit with your loved ones.
The Christmas card tradition is a popular one. In fact, people send more than 2 billion Christmas cards each year, and Christmas cards account for 61% of annual card sales in the U.S. Christmas cards come in a variety of styles and designs, but the annual holiday cards are nothing new. The tradition of sending Christmas cards started back in the 1800s, and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. Read on to learn more about the tradition of sending Christmas cards.
The First Christmas Cards
Sir Henry Cole gets the credit or coming up with the idea of Christmas cards in 1843. During that time in England, it was common practice to send Christmas and New Year’s letters to acquaintances. Children who attended boarding school wrote letters home at the holidays to show off their writing skills. People often decorated the pages or used special decorated paper to make the messages festive.
At the same time, the British postal system expanded significantly with the beginning of the Penny Post, which made mailing more affordable or everyone, not just the wealthy. Cole had a heavy hand in creating the Penny Post through his work as a civil servant. As an assistant keeper in the Public Record Office, eventually called the post office, Cole wanted to increase use by everyday people.
The tradition of sending Christmas cards and the increased use of the postal system led to the invention of the Christmas card. Cole received many of those Christmas letters likely because of his connections in elite social circles. He couldn’t let the letters go unanswered — that was impolite — so he came up with a solution to respond to everyone quickly and easily. Thus, the original Christmas cards came into existence. Little did he know his idea would catch on and start the Christmas card tradition we are all familiar with.
Cole enlisted the help of his friend J.C. Horsley, who happened to be an artist. Cole gave him an idea for a Christmas image he wanted, and Horsley came through with a drawing of that image. The lithograph print became the basis for the printed Christmas cards.
Those original Christmas cards measured 5-1/8 inches by 3-1/4 inches and featured three panels. The two outer panels showed people helping the poor. The center panel featured a family celebration, with three generations gathering for a joyous meal. The greeting was a simple one, stating, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” This sentiment is similar to greetings used throughout the history of Christmas cards. Cole had the image printed onto stiff cardboard with a line saying, “To: _____” so he could write in names of the recipients on each card. This gave the holiday greetings a personalized touch without requiring the time to handwrite full letters to everyone who sent him one.
That original Cole/Horsley design wasn’t only for personal use. Cole had 1,000 copies of the card printed and sold. The cards sold for 1 shilling each. Many of the recipients on Cole’s list liked the idea and used the prints themselves to simplify their own holiday correspondence.
The Spread of Christmas Cards
Christmas cards were slow to catch on in those early days. The trend continued growing in the 1800s after the creation of the Cole/Horsley design, but it took some time for cards to become a widespread practice.
The initial Christmas cards proved to be costly for many people. As printing processed advanced, the cost of creating Christmas cards decreased, making the practice more affordable for the average person. Mailing postcards also became more affordable in 1870, when the price to send a postcard dropped from 1 penny to half a penny.
In 1880, a London firm held a contest for the best Christmas card designs. Artists, printers and other creatives competed for the 500 guineas worth of prizes offered up in the contest. Other companies followed suit, holding contests that generated some amazingly artistic designs for greeting cards. These contests gave the creative types a new outlet for their work. In fact, many notable artists of the time participated in these contests.
With this increase in artistry of the images, the Christmas cards quickly became a collector’s item. People held on to the cards, collecting them like any other prized possession or collection. Newspapers reviewed new Christmas card designs as they released.
While many printers and companies produced Christmas cards by the end of the 1800s, it was a U.S.-based company that started a more modern version of the Christmas card industry in 1915. That company, originally called the Hall Brothers company, eventually became known as Hallmark.
The company advanced Christmas card design by creating the more modern folded card design that goes inside an envelope. The cards measured 4 inches by 6 inches. That larger design provided additional room for writing letters to the recipient, something that was missing in the smaller Christmas cards previously produced.
The First U.S. Christmas Cards
Christmas cards began to show up in United States in the late 1840s, but these cards imported from England weren’t affordable for many people. That changed when the production of the cards moved to the U.S.
The first Christmas card created in the United States hit the presses in 1875, thanks to a Prussian immigrant named Louis Prang. He had a small print shop just outside Boston, which he used to reproduce beautiful images onto Christmas cards. Prang had experience in the U.K. creating Christmas cards before moving to the United States, so he was no stranger to the industry. Prang’s mass produced Christmas cards were much more affordable for the general public, due to innovative, affordable printing methods he used. This made the exchange of Christmas cards more popular in the United States.
Prang’s initial Christmas card design was a flower with the words “Merry Christmas” printed on them. It was a simple yet beautiful image, much different from the religious or holiday designs prevalent at the time in English Christmas card designs. Those nature images prevailed in his early designs, but Prang eventually shifted toward more Christmas themes, with images of fir trees, fireplaces and children with toys.
By 1881, Prang’s designs gained mass popularity. His printing company produced about 5 million cards each year. That high production rate changed by 1890, when Prang was forced out of the market by greeting card companies that made cheaper versions of his high-quality cards.
The Rise of Handmade Cards
In the 1910s and 1920s, many people opted to make their own Christmas cards instead of buying the mass produced cards. These handmade cards often featured embellishments, such as ribbons, or were cut into intricate shapes. The delicate nature of these handmade cards made them impossible to send through the postal system. These cards were typically hand delivered to ensure they arrived in one piece, making them suitable only for local recipients.
A Shift Toward Personalization
Another trend as Christmas cards advanced was the shift toward adding personal elements in the card design. This was true for both personal Christmas cards and business holiday mailings.
Individual families started including photos in the Christmas card mailings. Often professionally photographed, the images showed an idyllic family for the holiday season.
Businesses started using Christmas cards as an advertising method. Current and potential clients would receive printed cards with holiday designs that also included a bit of advertising.
Organizations also used personalized Christmas cards to spread their messages. This included both political and nonprofit organizations. Selling Christmas cards also became a way for nonprofit organizations to generate donations for the cause.
Families, businesses and organizations still use these customized Christmas cards today.
Images on Christmas Cards
Just as the cards themselves evolve over the years, the images printed onto Christmas cards change throughout the years. The designs often reflected the times, with early cards often centering around a few design types, unlike the wide range of designs of current Christmas cards.
Some of the common Christmas card images throughout history include:
- Cole’s first card in the U.K. featured a family holiday celebration along with people helping the poor. His image showed children drinking wine, which didn’t go over well during the temperance movement of the time. Others didn’t mind his design. While the initial printing only included 1,000 copies, subsequent printings repeated that same design, making it a popular image in the early Christmas card industry.
- Many of the early Christmas cards featured nativity scenes, connecting the cards to the religious meaning of the holiday. Other religious images, such as cherubs, were also popular and continue to be a widely available choice in Christmas card designs.
- Birds: Robins became popular Christmas card images in the late Victorian era. At the same time, snowy scenes were popular images on the cards.
- Nature: The images on the first U.S. Christmas cards often didn’t feature Christmas images at all. They focused heavily on nature and animal images without a strong Christmas or winter connection. Many of the images were scenes you might see earlier in the year rather than during winter.
- Shaped Cards: The late 1800s to early 1900s brought about a shift toward more elaborately decorated cards. Many included satin, silk and fringe accents. Shaped Christmas cards also became popular. Shapes included fans, crescents, bells, birds, candles and more. Pop-up cards eventually appeared, as did fun accents like mirrored papers to create reflective pond surfaces.
- Patriotic Twist: During World War I, many people sent Christmas cards to soldiers as a way to boost morale. Patriotic themes became part of some Christmas card designs during this time. During World War II, Christmas cards focused more on a message of peace and optimism.
- Traditional Holiday Symbols: In the 1930s to 1950s, traditional holiday symbols and messages became popular on Christmas cards. Santa, the star of Bethlehem and other Christmas images decorated the cards. Many of the images were brightly colored and cheerful to capture the joyous sentiment of the holiday.
- Commissioned Artist Creations: Card publishing companies also began commissioning famous artists to create the images as a way to stand out in the market. Norman Rockwell, Salvador Dali, Alexander Calder and Grandma Moses are a few big names who created Christmas card images.
- Modern Variety: Current Christmas cards come in almost any imaginable design. Traditional Christmas card designs are still popular, but you can also find humorous, abstract and modern renderings of classic holiday symbols. Cards range from simple designs to glittered pop-up motifs with ribbons and other embellishments. That modern variety makes it easy for everyone to find a design they like.
To go along with the popular tradition of sending Christmas cards, the U.S. Postal Service started selling Christmas-themed stamps in 1962. The stamps cost only 4 cents and featured a wreath with two candles. The stamps said “Christmas, 1962.” They were more popular than expected. All 350 million of the stamps originally printed sold out, forcing the postal system to order another printing. The total number of Christmas stamps printed that year was 1 billion.
Those Christmas stamp designs continued throughout the years, with design suggestions from customers considered for the annual design. The U.S. Postal Service honored additional holidays over time. A Hanukkah stamp originated in 1996, with additional designs in 2004 and 2009. In 1997, the first Kwanzaa stamp appeared for sale. New Kwanzaa designs also appeared in 2004 and 2009. An Eid stamp went on sale in 2001.
Holiday stamps are a festive way to add postage to your annual Christmas cards. The U.S. Postal Service creates two designs each year: one contemporary and one traditional. The designs change each year and aim to represent the diversity and history of America.
Expansion of Niche Christmas Card Publishers
While large publishers still produce mass numbers of Christmas cards, it’s the niche card publishers who generate innovative designs and ideas in the industry. Those publishers create beautiful new images and designs with written greetings more fitting for modern populations. Many forgo the traditional clichéd Christmas messages in favor of sentiments that reflect the language of today’s society. Some specialize in a particular population, with cards reflective of that culture. This lets that target audience better identify with the cards and send them with pride.
African American Expressions is one of those niche publishers. We are the largest African-American-owned greeting card company in the U.S. with a wide range of cards and gifts, but it all started in 1991 with three ethnically sensitive Christmas card designs. Today, we offer over 500 card designs for all occasions. Our company sells more than 2,500,000 cards each year.
Our African American Christmas cards feature designs to help you honor the birth of Jesus tailored to you. They reflect the pride and joy of being an African American person. Our unique Christmas cards come in a wide selection of styles, from traditional to modern, capturing your sentiments while representing the African American community.
Christmas cards are a great way to show your love, faith and Christmas spirit. Browse our selection of beautifully crafted Christmas cards to find a holiday greeting that represents your heritage and reflects you.