The exchange of Christmas cards – with their familiar iconography of robins, winter scenes, Santa Claus and seasonal rituals – dates to Victorian times. The first Christmas card is thought to have been sent by Henry Cole, a prominent civil servant, educator and director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in 1843. He was instrumental in setting up the penny post, which meant that Victorian households were deluged with Christmas post. His solution to this dilemma was to print a seasonal card, with a design that featured three generations of his own family, which saved time but also satisfied social expectations.
Cole’s idea soon caught on, but early Christmas cards were expensive to produce, and only middle-class households could afford to indulge in this seasonal luxury. It was only in the 1880s, with advances in printing technology, that prices dropped and the custom of sending Christmas cards became widespread. New printing techniques meant that the cards combined colour, die-cutting and metallic inks. Commercial printers produced their own designs, which sold in vast numbers.
The Christmas card phenomenon was part of the Victorian transformation of Christmas. The Christmas tree, a German custom, was introduced by Prince Albert; carols, dating back to Medieval times, were revived by antiquarians and disseminated; Saint Nicholas had been reinvented as a sleigh-riding, gift-dispensing Father Christmas; Christmas crackers evolved from ‘fire-cracker sweets’, first sold by a confectioner in 1847. All of these Victorian innovations have become part of our Christmas repertoire, none more than the indispensable Christmas card.
Christmas cards were invented to be sent as an expression of seasonal good will and should be sent in this spirit. They are not an appropriate vehicle for self-promotion, so cards that feature company logos, or photographs of a ‘perfect’ family, are not in the Christmas spirit.
Choose your cards carefully. Remember that humorous cards, or cards with religious messages inside, may not be appreciated by everybody. It may be a good idea to buy two sets – one for those who will enjoy a light-hearted fun card, and another with a more generic Christmas theme. It is wise when sending cards to those of other faiths to avoid religious iconography and opt for the generic ‘Season’s Greetings’.
The tradition was to give the husband’s name before his wife’s, but this is entirely a matter of personal choice. If you are sending cards to semi-formal acquaintances, you may want to give your surname, but they should be signed with forenames included, e.g. from ‘John and Mary Smith’, not ‘Mr and Mrs John Smith’.
Christmas cards should preferably be handwritten in ink. If bespoke Christmas cards are pre-printed with the sender’s name, then the surname should be crossed through, or a personal handwritten message included for recipients on first-name terms with the senders.
It is fine to include a brief line – such as ‘we must catch up in the new year’ – but avoid writing an essay. Instead, you could include a short, personal letter on a separate sheet to friends or relatives who are rarely seen.
If you miss the post or receive a last-minute card from someone not on your list, then send a brief note, card or postcard with your best wishes. Alternatively, send a new year’s card. It is a matter of personal choice whether you send cards at all but remember that people who send them to you may be surprised not to receive one back.
Try, wherever possible, to post your cards. While it is acceptable (and sensible) to pop cards through your neighbours’ letterboxes in the run-up to Christmas, you should try and put cards to friends and relations in the mail. Even if you know you are seeing the friend in the days before Christmas, posting a card will make it more of an event (everyone loves to find a card on the doormat), and will avoid the potential awkwardness of giving someone a card when they are unprepared, and unable, to reciprocate.
Always stamp your Christmas cards; never use the office-franking machine. It smacks of last-minute panic and thoughtlessness.
Most usually included in Christmas cards, and increasingly manifesting as emails, round robin newsletters are best avoided. Because they are an inappropriate forum for describing difficulties, tragedies or traumas, they inevitably come across as relentlessly self-promoting – a bland and upbeat account of the preceding year for public consumption. True friends certainly deserve better than a ‘newsy’ round-up of the last year, especially if it is a rambling, boastful litany of the family’s achievements. Instead, include a short, personal letter with cards to friends or relatives who are rarely seen.
If you are sending an annual email to little-seen friends or relations, you can certainly copy and paste passages to save time, but it is vital that you top and tail your communication with a personal message, and enquiries about the recipient’s family.
The cost of postage has steadily risen and, if you have a long list of Christmas card recipients, this annual ritual may seem needlessly expensive, especially in these straitened times. Whatever your reason for not sending Christmas cards, it is a good idea to explain that you won’t be doing so, which will avoid people feeling they’ve been overlooked or forgotten.
If you are considering dispensing with Christmas cards, consider the alternatives carefully. Increasingly, e-mail cards appear to be an acceptable option, but before you go down that route consider the simple card-sending equation: the more trouble you have gone to (in selecting a beautiful card, handwriting a short and heartfelt message, posting the card in time for Christmas), the more value your gesture will have to the recipient. Email cards are, first and foremost, convenient, cheap and functional. They serve the purpose of marking the Christmas season, but they do not convey any added value. They are also likely to be a disappointment to members of the older generation, who adhere to long-established traditions.
If you are keen to economise, or streamline, when it comes to Christmas cards, it might be sensible to consider posting a smaller number of cards to a targeted list of people who you know will truly appreciate the gesture and sending email cards, or individual ‘Christmas emails’ to the rest.
If the whole Christmas card ritual feels like a pointless expenditure, or a tradition that you would be happy to reject, consider sending out individual text messages to close friends and family, wishing them a happy holiday season. You don’t want to look like the grinch that hates Christmas…
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