The history of Christmas cards

There’s nothing like getting a Christmas card from friends and family. But where did this custom come from? And how long have people been sending and receiving Christmas cards?

The first Christmas cards

Sir Henry ColePeople have distributed wood prints with religious themes for Christmas since the Middle Ages. But the first Christmas card as we know them was commissioned in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole.

He'd helped introduce the cheap Penny Post public deliveries service three years earlier. His idea was to print a seasonal greeting card that would save hours of handwriting. He engaged his friend, the artist John Horsley, to design the card. The illustration showed a group of people around a dinner table and a Christmas message.

Only 1,000 of these cards were printed and they sold for a shilling each. This made them a luxury out of most people’s reach. But the idea caught on and many children – including Queen Victoria's - started to make their own Christmas cards.

One of these original 1,000 cards, sent by Cole to his grandmother, sold at auction in in November 2001. It raised £20,000. Another example sold in December 2005 for £8,500.

By 1860, the custom of sending Christmas cards was well established in Britain. After the initial problems with price, they quickly grew in popularity and became more accessible. By the late 19th century a whole range of cards were being produced and sent.

The colour of Christmas cards

Christmas card with robins as postmenThe main colour of the first Christmas cards was green. This matched plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe used to decorate homes during the long dark winter.

In the mid to late 1800s, the ever popular robin replaced greenery on the front of cards. This was because Royal Mail’s uniform included a bright red waistcoat to match the red of postboxes. The striking uniform got postmen the nickname ‘robin redbreasts’. The robin on Christmas cards became a symbol of the postmen who delivered them.

Since then, the design of Christmas cards has always reflected the times. The late 19th Century saw the creation of increasingly intricate designs. These often highlighted the celebration of Christmas. 

During the First World War, cards from the Front offered hand-stitched festive greetings. Then the era of rationing was reflected in homemade cards sent during the Second World War. In the 50s and 60s, cards were more simply illustrated, matching the taste of those decades.

From 1980 to the present day, Christmas cards have shifted towards humour and satire. At the same time more contemporary designs have taken over from traditional imagery. But no matter what’s on the front, the basic message of spreading Christmas wishes has stayed the same.