If you celebrate Christmas, you’re probably giving and receiving Christmas cards in the mail or in person. But do you know who sent the very first Christmas card?
In 1843, an Englishman named Sir Henry Cole wanted to send Christmas greetings to his friends, but he had so many people on his list that he couldn’t write letters to all of them. Instead of sending letters, he asked artist John Horsley to create a card. The middle of the card showed a family celebrating the holiday with wine. The left and right sides showed people giving to the poor. The message on the card read “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” Horsley’s card was criticized because the family scene showed a child sipping wine, which was considered “fostering the moral corruption of children.”
Sir Henry didn’t send any cards the next year, but the Christmas card became a tradition in England. By 1847, more people sent Christmas cards to each other and additional artists designed them. Holiday cards became more elaborate. Some were shaped like desserts or bells; some were pop-ups that revealed tiny skaters; others made noise or came in pieces as puzzles.
Americans imported Christmas cards for more than thirty years, until German immigrant Louis Prang published the first U.S. Christmas cards. He held contests for artists to design cards and offered the winners thousands of dollars. Prang produced the winning cards in bulk. The first cards showed only flowers and birds, but Prang’s line of cards began to include beautiful scenes of children playing in the snow and Christmas trees. In 1881, Harper’s Weekly wrote that “the American Christmas cards excel the imported cards this season, and many of them are framed and presented as separate gifts.” The high quality of Prang’s cards made them expensive to produce, and he was forced out of business with the appearance of cheaply made cards.
Although Christmas cards have changed over the years to include cartoon characters and jokes, the tradition of sending cards at Christmas remains popular. Over 2.6 billion Christmas cards are mailed each year—more than the number of Valentine’s Day cards.
So when you gather with your family this Christmas, see if they can guess how the tradition of sending Christmas cards began.