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Why Send Holiday Cards?

The year-end holiday season brings joy to children looking forward to school vacation and lots of “stuff.” Adults, drowning in a deluge of tasks, find joyful anticipation transforming into what I call “the season of eating and drinking” – all calorie free, of course.

By this time, organized veterans of the season have put up their decorations, found the grab bag gifts, outfitted their children in angel outfits for the holiday pageant, and spiked their eggnog. Now is the time to sign those holiday cards. As you look for the proper card, stamps, and addresses, you might wonder who started this custom. It was none other than Sir Henry Cole who commissioned John Calcott Horsely to create the first Christmas greeting card in 1843.

Christmas Card, 1843
US Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons

The cheery picture shows three generations of a generic middle class London family toasting the recipient – I bet all this time you thought Kodak invented the family photo card – I certainly did.  On either side of the colorized happy family you see them providing charity to the “deserving poor.” Mr. Cole printed 2,050 cards that sold for one shilling each.

Victorian Card, 1870
US Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons

Late Victorians preferred more fanciful cards with bits of lace and botanical themes. This card with its lacy border, basket of flowers, and holly sprigs reminds the recipient that spring will return in due course.

Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society
US Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons

This card with it’s parade of marching frogs was created by Louis Prang in 1873. A gentle reminder that Christmas is Dec. 25th.

Santa salutes Uncle Sam
Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons

Cards carry many messages.  During World War II, Uncle Sam and Santa joined forces to advise adults that an album of war stamps was the perfect gift for every young American.

Commercialization took off after World War II.  Cards became a both a business and social necessity. At one time it was expected to send cards to people both near and far.  Christmas card lists were kept – and woe to the recipient who did not reciprocate. Colorful yarn was often strung across the wall so these cards could be displayed for every visitor to see. As if to say, “Look how well connected I am.”  Frequently, the yarn broke and a child was summoned to restring it.

The fashion for sending holiday greetings via snail mail is falling out of use – much to the dismay of the greeting card industry and the United States Postal Service.  Both businesses once anticipated a final end-of-year boost.  It probably still exists, but not on the same scale.

For those of you who just remembered you have to send a few snail mail cards, the mailing deadlines for Dec. 25th deliveries are as follows:

International First Class Mail – oops, you missed it. The last day was Dec. 9.

Domestic First Class Mail – you have until Friday, Dec. 20

Further details can be found on the USPS website:

I like holiday cards, both to send and to receive, as long as they represent good will.  With or without an extra message, those cards tell the recipient. “Hey, when I think of holiday plans, I think of you, and I hope you are enjoying the season.” Isn’t that the real point of sending cards?

Photo by Yukihiro Matsuda, 2006
Creative Commons Attribution
Wikimedia Commons

In Hawai`i, Mele Kalikimaka translates as Merry Christmas.

 How do you feel about the custom of sending holiday greetings? Is it a chore or a joy? Leave a comment.

Featured image depicts Santa, an angel, and a sleeping child. Dated 1900, it is in the US Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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