Christmas Cards: Love, Art and Holiday Greetings

momlogolihThere’s something wonderfully personal about opening the mailbox and seeing a stack of Christmas cards.  The ones I get are generally from people I’ve known for years, some with new addresses, all with news and good wishes. The cards take me back to different times in my life.  It’s magic to see pictures of kids who grew up with my kids. When did they all get so big?  When did they start having kids of their own?  christmas-card-vintage-tree-mom

Having just moved into a new house, we went for two weeks without a mailbox. It was installed this past weekend, but I spent few days wondering if this year’s batch of cards would find me. I also started thinking about the tradition of sending holiday greetings. How did it get started?  What were the first cards like?

The earliest commercial Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843. You’ve got to give the man credit for being a good businessman. He helped introduce the penny post. Christmas cards gave people something to mail. The first year he offered Christmas cards for sale, he sold more than 2,000 at a shilling a piece.

victorian-christmas-cardEarly Christmas cards didn’t look like the cards we know today.  Rather than pictures of Santa and reindeer, artists created images evocative of Spring. Flowers, birds and fairies were among the most popular designs. Aside from Cole’s venture, Christmas cards were typically elaborate and handmade. They were cut into shapes like bells, birds and candles, and decorated with satin, silk and fringe. Some of the most elaborate ones fit together like puzzles.

Handmade greeting cards were small works of art (kind of like scrapbooking today, I think), but changes in printing and mechanization brought a drastic change to Christmas cards. Cards changed from being personal and handmade to being something people purchased. With the advances in technology, just about anyone could afford to send a holiday greeting.

Cards showed up in America in 1845. They were imported from Europe and expensive.  That changed thanks to Louis Prang. In 1856 he formed a lithograph company with a partner. They produced copies of famous paintings, then ventured christmas-card-pranginto “album cards” depicting landscapes and patriotic scenes. These cards were intended to be collected. In 1874 Prang began selling Christmas cards. The trend caught on. By 1881, Prang’s company was producing 5 million cards a year and the designs changed to include fir trees, children and toys.

Prang’s work stood out because he used the latest multicolor printing methods. His cards, designed by such famous artists as Frederick S. Church and Winslow Homer, had as many as 20 colors on a single card. Neither did Prang skimp on content. The verses in his Christmas cards were penned by such poetic giants as Tennyson, Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant. He also knew how to market his product. He regularly held design contests to find new talent and gave prizes for essays extolling the virtues of Christmas cards.

Prang’s cards ranged in price from 50 cents to $15.  Fifteen dollars was a small fortune then. (It’s still a lot to pay for a card!)  Today Prang’s cards, identified by “L Prang and Co” on the lower margin, are highly collectible.  He had another trademark, one that struck me as romantic. His wife’s name was rose. To honor her, he hid a rose somewhere on his cards.

christmas-card-vintage

It’s no wonder William Prang is sometimes known as the father of the American Christmas card.  His cards dominated the market until 1890s when an influx of cheaper cards arrived from Germany. Rather than cut costs and quality to compete, Prang left the business. christmas-card-horses

Christmas cards are a long and enjoyable tradition. I admit to sending fewer than I used to (postage has gotten expensive!), but I still enjoy them. What about you?  Do you like serious cards or funny cards? Traditional or modern?  Santa on a sleigh or driving a Ferrari? After thinking about it, I’ve decided I like them all!

Merry Christmas a bit early!

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Victoria Bylin is under contract with Bethany House Publishers for two inspirational contemporary romances.Prior to jumping to the present day, she wrote westerns for Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical. Her books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. She and her husband live in Lexington, Kentucky and have two grown sons. You can learn more about Vicki at www.victoriabylin.com

26 thoughts on “Christmas Cards: Love, Art and Holiday Greetings”

  1. Hi Vicki, what a lovely post! Sure puts me in the holiday spirit! I do send cards, but like you, my list gets smaller each year. I love all kinds. For our family I usually chose a card that depicts a nativity scene, as I collect them. And I often draw a family “cartoon” showing what went on during the year.

    One year long ago I did send Christmas post cards and wrote a note on each single card, not just a signature. I remember starting the day after Thanksgiving to give myself time.

    And I totally admit to liking Christmas letters from people even if they brag obnoxiously LOL. Most folks don’t, and it’s a fun way to keep in touch.

    Oh, reminds me. Gotta work on our cards soon. 🙂

    Loved the post, Vicki. Thanks! oxoxoxoxo

  2. Howdy Tanya! I try to write a note in the cards, usually a line or two about each of us. I admit to some bragging about the kids 🙂 They’re both doing great. About those Christmas letters, I like them, too. My sister-in-law does a nice job, and she does them early. She also buys wrapping paper, cards, etc. on Dec. 26th and saves them for the next year. I envy her organizational skills!

  3. Hi Vicki,

    How are you? I love Christmas cards in all forms, but my favorite is my collection of Native American scenes. I collect them and have quite a few

    So if anybody wants to forward me any Native American ones they have please email me
    navajotrust@yahoo.com

    Walk in harmony,
    Melinda

  4. What beautiful examples you gave us to admire! Even when I search the shelves these days, I always gravitate to those antique, 19th century-looking designs. Maybe that’s why I love historical fiction so much – I just long for that simpler time where Christmas meant family more than gifts.

    Have a belssed holiday, Vicki.

  5. Hi Melinda, Your Christmas card collection sounds wonderful. I find myself gravitating to anything western, i.e., horses, mountains, rustic cabins surrounded by snow. Merry Christmas to you a bit early!

    P.S. I’m doing well, especially for someone who moved smack in the middle of the holidays and has a book due in February. Gulp!

  6. I hear you, Karen, on the longing for simpler times. This year is a real change of pace for my husband and I. With the move and all, we couldn’t bear unpacking four boxes of Christmas decorations and repacking them a few weeks later, not after all the moving, so we bought a small tree and rustic / western ornaments. It’s lovely and homey and we’re realling enjoying it. (Gotta get a picture to Cheryl for her Christmas tree tour!)

    We’re also geographically closer to family now, with one exception. My oldest son is overseas. We miss him, but he’s doing well.

  7. I like getting Christmas cards, and sending them. I always do a family picture. I’ve been doing this since my oldest daughter was born. Now I’ve four four adult daughters, two son in laws and a granddaughter and we’re all in this year’s card. It’s not like in the old days when a child would really CHANGE in a year.

    I keep thinking I’ll stop it now, but then a good picture comes along and I think…well, one more years.

  8. I think the old Victorian Christmas cards were beautiful, and so ornate! No wonder they were expensive.
    An attractive card is a gift in itself. I don’t exchange many, but I always look forward to sending and receiving them. I like nature scenes, and anything with animals. I send a Christmas letter with my cards, and enjoy the ones I get form old friends. I got one from my former college roommate last week. It sure makes us realize how fast time flies.

    Merry Christmas, everyone!

  9. Vicki, what a timely subject. And how interesting. I didn’t know exactly when Christmas cards originated. Odd that the first ones showed pictures of spring. Kinda strange. Wonder what prompted that? Also it was sweet that Louis Prang hid a rose somewhere on all his card designs. He must’ve been a romantic and deeply in love with his wife.

    I love Christmas cards of all kinds. I just enjoy getting them and catching up with people I don’t correspond with very often. It’s nice to know what’s going on in their lives. Wonder how long it’ll be before the practice gets too expensive and ends. That’ll be a sad day.

  10. Vicki, what lovely examples and I relly enjoyed reading your post. I especially liked the bit about his hiding a rose in each design as a tribute to his wife – so romantic. I confess I don’t send cards much any more – used to send tons of them out, all with little personal notes, but I fell out of the habit somewhere along the way….

  11. Hello Jennie, It really is nice to hear from old friends. Time *does* fly by. Christmas letters are an awesome way to sum up a year and keep in touch. Facebook, etc. has its place in our world, but there’s something special about getting a letter in the mail.

  12. Hi Linda, Hi Winnie! I was taken with the “rose” symbol, too. We must write romance!

    The “Spring” images on early cards were a surprise, then winter arrived here in Lexington and the temperature dropped to the 20s. I’m toasty warm inside, but if I weren’t, I’d want to see sunshine and flowers instead of snow!

  13. Hi Karen, I’m behind, too. With moving and all, we haven’t bought a single gift yet. I figure I’m doing all right because at least I know *where* the wrapping paper is. I hope to get cards written this weekend.

  14. Unfortunately I don’t know if Christmas Cards are going to be around forever. More and more friends consider it an ordeal and expensive and with the internet they think they can get away with an ecard. I love the older, homemade cards (sigh).

  15. Hi Jeanne, I had the same thought as I wrote this post. Like so many traditions, sending Christmas cards is being overtaken by technology. It strikes as ironic that changes in printing technology allowed the card industry and the tradition to take root, and now the information age is making them comparatively expensive.

  16. Beautiful images and memories, Vicki. My mother used to send about 100? 200? Anyway, a lot of cards, to everyone in town and a lot of distant people. Still don’t know how she managed it, even though it was cheaper than. I send a few to people I wouldn’t otherwise stay in touch with, and I attach cards to some gifts, but that’s about it. Yes, I’m behind. Am I stressing about it? No, Christmas will come whether I’m ready or not.
    🙂

  17. Hi Elizabeth, My parents used to send tons of cards, too. Old high school friends. Relatives all over the country. Co-workers. Even neighbors. It was less costly than it is now, plus my dad enjoyed it. As a kid, I remember seeing stacks of cards in the mail. My favorites were from an old family friend who sent funny ones of Santa.

  18. Hi, Vicki,
    Lovely and informative post. We have not been very good about sending out cards the past few years. Life has gotten so chaotic I’m not even keeping up with what regularly needs to be done. It is a shame. I love hearing from friends who live all over. Often it is a case of touching base once a year, but that is important.
    I like serious cards for the most part. There have been some cute funny ones though. The ones you have in your post are lovely.
    Thanks for the Christmas card history lesson.
    Have a wonderful Holiday Season.

  19. Hello Patricia, I hear about life being chaotic! Is it just me, or does everything seem to be complicated these days? Had to call the DMV today . . . you get the picture!

    My favorite card in this post is the first one. I really loved it : )

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