The first Christmas cards were sent in 1843, which was a very important date in the history of Christmas since it was also the year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published.
The cards were sent by a British businessman and inventor called Henry Cole, who commissioned an illustrator called John Callcott Horsley to design a card that incorporated a seasonal message of friendship with a reminder of the plight of the poor. He sent them out privately and then three years later began commercial production, printing a thousand at a shilling a piece. The idea caught on and in 1848 an artist called William Maw Egley created what it is thought to be the second commercial Christmas card, also a reminder of the plight of the poor. After that, Christmas cards became incredibly fashionable and were soon a tradition.
"You can’t display digital Christmas cards on your mantelpiece, and if you don’t send any cards then it smacks of Ebenezer Scrooge."
It’s uncertain whether this was a well-meaning gesture on Sir Henry Cole’s part, or the actions of a canny businessman who spotted a gap in the burgeoning Christmas market. Something else to contemplate is that at the time the British government was looking at ways to promote the Penny Post, which was the standardisation of the British postal rates. Until then different companies had taken post around the country and all charged a different rate for it. That was introduced in 1840 and Henry Cole was very much involved in its development, and given a prize for coming up with ways to publicise it.
Why do we bother with cards in the digital age? Simply because it’s a lovely tradition – even though we might struggle to write them in time for last posting days, and wonder if we’ve heard from people on our lists and whether we should bother to send them one. You can’t display digital Christmas cards on your mantelpiece, and if you don’t send any cards then it smacks of Ebenezer Scrooge – and even he was reformed at Christmas!