Christmas Card Memories

Written by Bob Walden

It’s the holiday season! How about some memories of Christmas cards.

In 1611 the first recorded Christmas card was sent from Michael Maier to James the First of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. With the wording “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612 it was truly a Christmas card.  The wording was written out on paper that was in the shape of a rose.

While Maier’s card is considered the first Christmas card, religious messages weren’t initially connected with the Christmas celebrations. Christmas was considered a pagan celebration of the changing of the seasons. William Bradford, the governor of Massachusetts in 1621 was a puritan separatist. He outlawed the celebrating of Christmas under penalty of fines and imprisonment.

It wasn’t until 300 years later that Christmas was celebrated as a time of joy and goodwill and thanks can be given to Charles Dickens and his novelette “A Christmas Carol”. Dickens book brought the meaning of Christmas Spirt to the people.

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It was a bit of a wait until the first commercial Christmas cards were introduced. However religion wasn’t a large part of the early Christmas cards.  Children, animals and fanciful images were the featured images of Christmas cards. In 1843 Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant in the UK helped set up what was the “Public Record Office” which is now known as the Post Office. Sir Henry was looking for ways to get more people to use the postal service. He and a friend, artist John Horsley worked together to design the first Christmas card. They sold the card for what is the equivalent of 8 cents today. Not inexpensive for the time! The card consisted of three panels. The two outside panels suggested remembering the less fortunate at this holiday time of year.

The inside panel showed a large family enjoying the company and bounty they were privileged to share while not forgetting the less fortunate.

While the early cards did become popular they were mostly handmade and expensive to produce.

Christmas cards were being made in the early 1840’s but were very expensive and not widely used. In 1875, Lewis Prang, a printer from Germany came to America and started a printing firm that made mass produced cards available and finally affordable to the common people. 

In 1823 a poem was published called “A visit from Saint Nicholas” which later became “The Night before Christmas” credited to Clement Moore although there is some who feel the poem was originally written by Henry Livingston Jr. and plagiarized by Moore. Included in the poem was a description of Santa Claus. However it wasn’t until1881 that editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast gave us the modern image now considered the standard vison of Santa.

The Victorian era was the catalyst for a Merry Christmas. Queen Victoria’s husband, German born Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree and gifts into the British homes.

By the early1900’s Christmas cards were being sent by everyone! Christmas cards designs could be simple poinsettias and wreath illustrations with a simple Merry Christmas greeting.

More elaborate Christmas cards would feature artistic illustrated scenes with Santa Claus and children, a favorite theme. This is a great example of the modernizing of the first image of Santa by Thomas Nast. 

Some artists added their own interpretation of Santa. But the themes remand the same. Children, toys and joy!

A poem was often added to Christmas cards, along with a happy Santa and his reindeer!

While the American Christmascard industry was going strong in the early 1900s, many of the Christmas cards were made in Germany. And they were beautiful! Also, they have held up extremely well. This card was made in Germany and sent in Iowa in 1917. That makes this card over 100 years old! The card is in beautiful condition. No fading, discoloring or tears. This card is also embossed giving it a 3D appearance. Ikeep all my treasured cards in archival sleeves. Handling cards are an easy wayto ruin them. Oil from your fingers can leave fingerprints and stains on yourcards. Handling your cards can lead to scratching and tearing of fragile edges.

 This Christmas card was from Germany also. It’s dated 1920. This card is also in beautiful condition. Slight damage from handling and storage before I sleeved it. Notice edge wear and tear at top of card.  

The fronts of old Christmas cards are beautiful treasures. But there is more to Christmas cards then the fronts. The backs can be a genealogist’s dreams come true!

The first bit of information on the back is the date. It can be confusing and not necessarily accurate. Many times the post office date is hard or impossible to read. Keep in mind it was usually only one person sorting and stamping mail. Allwork done by hand. And usually the person was in a hurry. And how many times did a person forget to change the date on the stamp? You also can’t put complete trust in the stamps on the cards. Back then new stamps weren’t issued very often and people would bulk up old stamps for price increases. But the backs of cards are a great starting point. And with this example Susie was kind enough to write the date on the card!

Another card made in Germany. Once again Susie was kind enough to date this Christmas card. This card was from December 1920. Another clue to dating old Christmas cards that are RPPC’s (RealPhoto Post Cards) can be the postage. The one cent postage can give you a clue as to the year it was sent. The card is marked Made in Germany. With some research the German manufacturer could be identified by the unusual graphics of the POSTCARD graphic and the series number. The series number can mean a limited timeframe for this card, giving you a production year. Being able to identify the year or at least a decade of a Christmas card can lead to who lived where and when. Also, the cards can help identify potential relatives at that time or neighbors. Genealogy is like playing detective. Connecting clues used to solve a mystery.

Here is another example of an unusual POSTCARD marking. Not a German card. This card also is a very nice embossing. Many books are available to help identify manufacturers of postcards by their graphics.  

A great illustrated German card. Got to love the muff and baby bottle!

Almost makes a beautiful card just with the embossing. Quality of the German cards was superior to early printing in America. This card was never sent. Even though inexpensive to send at a penny, many were given by children to adults as presents. A Christmas card would be considered a very personal gift to a parent or close relative. These would then be displayed or hung on the Christmas tree.

This card is a bit dark, in my opinion, but the symbols are there.

With the high cost of postage and the cost of the cards themselves, fewer Christmascards are being sent. Also, greetings now can reach the masses by email or social media. And not many people have the time or interest to spend the evening sitting around addressing cards. Sad. Fortunately, many families have these treasures in their storage boxes, shoe boxes and drawers. This is a great time of year to take them out and stir memories of simpler times and great friends and relatives. When the holiday season is over, remember to store these beautiful treasures correctly so they will be available for many years to come. Happy Holidays!

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