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  • Alex Van Goethem

A History of Christmas Cards through the Jesuit Archives

With only a few days to go until Christmas the festive season is officially in full swing. Gifts have been bought and wrapped (we all wish, anyway!) and cards filled with Christmas wishes from family and friends have begun arriving through letterboxes. I decided to take a look through the Christmas cards we possess in the archive to see if and how this friendly festive tradition has changed over the years.

The first modern commercially produced Christmas cards as we would recognise them today were first created and sold in 1843 by entrepreneurial British civil servant Henry Cole, with illustrations by his friend and artist John Calcott Horsley.[1] The card consisted of a three panelled design portraying people helping the poor and a large family drinking and eating a festive dinner.[2] The cards were sold for 1 shilling each, making it relatively expensive at the time. Most likely due to this high price it wasn’t until the 1860’s, that the sending of Christmas cards became truly popularised.

Many early Christmas cards focused on the changing of seasons from winter to spring and thus were often decorated with scenes depicting blossoming flowers and birds.

Christmas card from Eliza to husband Charles Devas 1877 (ref. 47/4/1)

Some early Christmas cards were also much smaller and infinitely more intricate than the cards most of us send to each other today, take for example the card below, which measures at just 5 x 8 cm! For these tiny cards their designers had to be much more inventive in how they portrayed scenes and card senders had to find many ingenious ways to fit as much news in as possible.

Tiny Christmas card from Edith Martindale to Katie (ref. 52/1/6/5)
Writing technique called ‘Crossed letter’; this was a common way of saving on paper and expensive postage charges (ref. 52/1/6/5)

Of course for those who are more artistically inclined designing and making your own Christmas card was as popular back then as now. These homemade cards often served as gifts alone, due to their sentimental value, uniqueness and the thought and effort that had gone into producing them. We have two such examples in the archive.

L-R: Christmas card decorated with a watercolour painting, 1894 (ref. 52/5/3/4); Christmas card from Mary D’Arcy to Fr Martin D’Arcy, 1972 (ref. SJ/21/6/13/143)

Coming from 1894 and 1972 respectively, these two Christmas cards exhibit the development not only in design but also in technology as the introduction of personal photographs in the card on the right demonstrates the dawn of a new era in Christmas card design that to this day still dominates the personalised card market.

Christmas, as we know, is a time of giving, many Christmas cards are therefore sold with some or most of their profits going to a charity organisation. Most of these organisations select artworks from internationally renowned artists and reproduce them on mass to decorate the Christmas cards they are selling. Shown below is an example of such a card; sent by members of the House of Commons the card illustrates a reproduction of a painting by Jan Griffier the Elder in the Cannan Collection in the Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum. Titled ‘Frost on the Thames’ it depicts London in the Great Frost of 1683. Charitable campaigns such as these saw their first rise popularity in 1949 when UNICEF launched its own Christmas card programme.[3] The Jesuit Refugee Service UK also started one such initiative last year and after success chose to repeat it again this year. Called ‘The Greeting Card Campaign’ the initiative consisted of writing messages of hope to JRS accompanies held in detention over Christmas and the New Year to remind them that they are not alone in their situation.

Christmas card from Norman St John-Stevas to Fr Thomas Corbishley SJ

With the increasing popularity of e-cards and the ease of sending messages through social media traditional Christmas cards face an uncertain future. For now, at least, we can enjoy the Christmas cards of the past, treasured within the Jesuits in Britain Archives and countless other archives across the world.

[1] George Buday (1992) The History of the Christmas card 8. [2] Iris Earnshaw (Nov 2003) ‘The History of Christmas Cards’ in Invernloch Historical Society [3] UNICEF Christmas Card Program, UNICEF Philippines.

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