If you are like most people, you probably wait until the last minute to send out your Christmas cards, along with buying that hard to find gift and stocking up on food. The average person in the United States sends out about 28 cards every Christmas, and in the country as a whole, an estimated 1.9 billion cards are mailed, making it the biggest card giving occasion. But have you ever wondered who sent the first card and why?
The custom of sending Christmas cards dates back to 1843, when Henry Cole, a UK government worker wondered how more people could benefit from the newly formed post office. Along with an artist named John Horsley, Cole designed and printed a card and sold it for the then pricey sum of a shilling. The card depicted a large Christmas meal, with what appeared to be a child drinking a glass of wine. As the post office became more efficient, the price of postage decreased and more and more ordinary people were able to buy and mail cards during the holidays.
By 1870, the cost of sending a Christmas card had dropped to just half a penny, enabling even more people to send greetings to friends and families. By the early 1900s, the practice had spread to parts of Europe, and was especially popular in Germany. These early cards were often elaborate, with different panels that folded out to create a picture, or were shaped like birds, candles or bells. Although seasonal themes such as snow, robins and Christmas gifts were popular, many of these early cards also depicted spring scenes, as a reminder to the recipient that warmer weather would soon be here.
Christmas cards became popular with the wealthy in the United States in the early 1840s; it was not until the 1870s that mass production meant that just about everybody could afford to send cards. In 1915, John Hall founded a card company along with his brothers and the name they chose is still well known today, almost a century later – Hallmark cards. The first Presidential Christmas cards were supposedly sent out by Hoover during the 1930s, although some historians say that Coolidge was issuing seasonal greetings during the 1920s. Hallmark has designed and issued over 30 different White House Christmas cards since the first official ones sent by Eisenhower in 1953.
Older Christmas cards have become extremely collectible, as much for their value as their attractive design. An early card by Henry Cole, who came up with the original idea, was sold at auction for almost $36,000. Some Presidential cards are also valuable and highly sought after by collectors, including the cards signed by President Kennedy before his untimely death in November, 1963. England’s Queen Mary was an enthusiastic collector of Christmas cards; her collection has been display in the British Museum in London. Other people go out of their way to send or receive as many Christmas cards as possible, and the most sent by one person in a year is an estimated 63,000.
Of course, if you are sending cards, you need stamps as well, and most countries now issue Christmas stamps which have also become highly collectible. The first Christmas stamps were thought to have been issued by Austria in 1937, and by the 1990s, approximately 160 countries were regularly issuing Christmas stamps. Designs have included secular themes, as well as religious motifs in an effort to satisfy those who do not celebrate the holiday. If you collect Christmas stamps, the ultimate goal is to have a card that has been postmarked from one of several suitably named places, such as North Pole, Alaska or Santa Claus, Indiana.