The First Christmas Card

A quick reminder that the last posting dates for Christmas are nearly here! This year, that’s today, Tuesday, 18th December for second-class mail, and Thursday, 20th December for first class.

The Greeting Card Association estimates that in 2017, around 100 million single Christmas cards were sold in the UK. They estimate that an additional 900 million cards were sold in boxes and packs, as well as online, bringing the total number of cards sold to an astonishing one billion in the UK alone.

The First Christmas Card

The first Christmas card was sent in the UK in 1843 by Henry Cole, who today is perhaps best known as a founding director of the V&A.  Henry was a senior civil servant who had been instrumental in reforming the postal system and setting up the Penny Post.

Henry found Christmas to be a busy time, and a pile of unanswered mail was beginning to bother him. He needed a way to wish friends and family the compliments of the season, in a fraction of the time.

Cole got together with his friend John Callcott Horsley, an artist. Horsley designed a card featuring three generations of Sir Henry’s family raising a Christmas toast in a central, hand-coloured panel, with scenes of Christmas charity on the outer panels. 1000 cards were printed and sold for a shilling a piece.

Prince Albert and Charles Dickens

Although initial sales weren’t encouraging, the 1840s were a time of change. Prince Albert was popularising German Christmas traditions such as decorated Christmas trees. And Charles Dickens was putting Christmas and its traditions firmly in the public eye with the publications of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843.

Other early cards featured paper lace (embossed and pierced paper), and cards with layers that opened to reveal flowers or religious scenes. Victorians loved exchanging cards, and this period introduced many symbols of the season which we now associate with Christmas – holly and evergreens, country churches and snowy landscapes, indoor scenes of Christmas rituals and gift giving, and robins. Did you know postmen in Victorian England were popularly called robins, because of their red uniforms?

The introduction of the Half Penny Post in 1894 boosted Christmas card sales – with the ‘postcard’ format being cheaper to buy and to send.

Christmas Cards Today

45% of all cards sent throughout the year are Christmas cards.

In the UK, an estimated £50 million is raised for charities by Christmas card sales every year.

In 2001, one of Henry Cole’s first Christmas cards sold at auction for £22,000.

85% of cards are bought by women.


*Image: Greetings card, John Callcott Horsley, 1843, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


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Fiction Team’s Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 150 years of 'Friend' fiction!