With the big day just around the corner, many people are sure to have been busy sending out their Christmas cards to family and friends (and hopefully receiving some in return!) Over time, Christmas cards have become keepsakes and collectibles and this year Buxton Museum and Art Gallery were lucky enough to have a collection of nineteenth and twentieth century cards donated to us by a local family in Peak Forest. But where did the tradition of sending annual Christmas cards come from and why do they have such staying power?
The first Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, who just so happened to be the founding director of the V&A Museum. Cole was a British civil servant and an inventor who socialised with many figures in the elite circles of the Victorian world. With such a wide network of friends and important acquaintances, Cole faced the challenge of maintaining favour with a very long list of people. At the time it was expected that all mail would be responded to promptly, as a series of reforms in 1839 and 1840 had made the postal service much more affordable and accessible. The UK experienced an explosion in the number of letters being sent and Cole needed a quick, yet thoughtful way, to acknowledge those reaching out to him. To do this he commissioned an artist, J.C Horsely, to illustrate a design and had 1000 copies printed. The print depicted a family enjoying the festivities around a table, images of people giving aid to the poor, and a message that read: ‘A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year’. Just like that, the first Christmas card had arrived.
In the earlier years of their creation, Christmas cards typically depicted the Nativity but during the late 1800s more generic, wintry designs became very popular including snow scenes, robins and sprigs of holly. As the industry developed, many cards began to reflect current affairs and satirical cartoons would often be used to put a smile on the recipient’s face. An example that stands out from the Peak Forest collection was sent during World War One and is dated 1914 (pictured below). It shows a British soldier throwing snowballs at a snowman that is wearing a pickelhaube, a spiked helmet that was worn by German military at this time. Not only is the use of humour in this way a testament to the resilience of the Christmas card tradition, but it also tells us a lot about the strength of the human spirit. Even throughout very dark and difficult periods in history, the Christmas cards of the age demonstrate how people have remained committed to spreading joy and keeping connected with one another.
After the unprecedented and challenging year that the world has had, tackling the impact of Covid-19, this ethos is as important as ever. The sales of Christmas cards have seen a massive boost this year, as many people have been unable organise the usual Christmas celebrations or see family and friends as planned. While the simple act of sending a card does not mitigate this in itself, it is an annual tradition that has offered societies throughout the ages a way of reaching out to each other. They provide a reminder of normality and togetherness and it is perhaps this quality that has awarded them with such staying power.
With that in mind, we’d like to wish our visitors a very Happy Christmas from all of us at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. We can’t wait until we can reopen our doors to you and hope we are able to see you all again in the New Year!