A bit about Christmas cards

Last updated on December 12th, 2023 at 07:21 pm


The first Christmas card, devised by Sir Henry Cole, drawn by John Horsley

A brief history of Christmas cards

Henry ColeOf course, there is nothing new about the custom of contact at Christmas.  In 1843, Sir Henry Cole (1808-82), a civil servant, inventor and author, was juggling his heavy workload with his habit of writing Christmas letters to his many friends and relatives.  Cole thought that sending a generic, printed, Christmas greeting to everyone would be a lot less laborious than writing individual letters, so he asked a chum, John Callcott Horsley to design one for him.  Horsley came up with a sort of triptych.  The two outer panels show people caring for society’s great unwashed, whilst the central panel is a highly sensitive contrasting depiction of a wealthy Victorian family enjoying their large Christmas feast.  All Henry had to do was fill in the ‘to’ and ‘from’.  The illustration also suggested that children were drinking alcohol, which went down like a lead balloon with the temperance brigade, but it didn’t do our Henry – or his Christmas cards – any harm.  One thousand cards were produced, and sold for a shilling (5p) each.  Incidentally, Henry Cole had assisted Rowland Hill introduce the penny post in 1840; you see, Christmas cards and Royal Mail have been in cahoots from the off! Cole went on to manage the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was instrumental in the profits from this being used for, among other things, founding the Victoria and Albert Museum, the V&A – which has a collection of more than 15,000 old Christmas cards.  It is thought that 30 of Cole’s original cards survive; one was sold not long ago for £25,000.

By way of further trivia, 1843 was the same year that Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The labour-saving idea of Christmas cards steadily gained popularity in Victorian Britain – though apparently not dramatically and it seems the first Christmas card was not introduced to the United States until 1875.  From the 1920s to the present day, Christmas cards have been big business all over the western, Christian, world – and sometimes beyond.

How many Christmas cards are sent in Britain?

Received wisdom is that a good business is one that makes money on Christmas Day.  It could be argued that Christmas cards fall into that category, but, in these digital days, you might be forgiven for thinking that sending greetings cards, like letters, is a custom in decline.  Not according to the Greeting Card Association, who once told me that the British send more greeting cards per person than any other nation.  In 2020, so the GCA says, 80 million individual ‘single’ Christmas cards were sent in the UK at an average price per unit of £2.03 – a total spend of over £162 million.  That excluded cards sold in packs or boxes of cards, for which there are no reliable sales figures.  By 2022, GCA’s figure had reached 116 million individual cards sold at a cost of £172 million.  According the packaging company GWP Group, the Royal Mail delivers an estimated 150 million cards during the Christmas period and, on average, each person in the UK sends and receives 17 Christmas cards. In 2018, the GCA estimated that we send 1 billion Christmas cards in the UK and, according to The Guardian, it is sticking with that figure.  Not all cards are sent via Royal Mail, of course; and some are hand-delivered.  In any event, these are staggering numbers – almost as astonishing as the fact that greetings cards have bandied together to form an association, the little tinkers.  Indeed, members of the Greeting Card Association have been enveloping one another for more than a hundred years.

Christmas cards, the tradition, the history

How much do Christmas cards cost?

So, the Royal Mail estimates that Mr/Ms Average in the UK (population around 67 million) has about 17 friends and/or relatives.  Presumably, senders of seasonal cards exclude infants, non-believers, curmudgeons and people who don’t know what post box is, or how to use one.  Those are all fair points, though I have considerable personal experience of curmudgeons and can reliably inform you that some of us still send Christmas cards (though we tend not to have as many as 17 friends).

Christmas cards for sale

I buy Christmas cards every year, having learned that trying to reuse the ones received previously gets you into trouble.  A boxed selection normally costs between £0.20p and £0.90p per unit, though one drawback is that several of them are usually so naff that even I am embarrassed to send them – including to people on the fringes of the official list, those on the cusp of being relegated to festive oblivion. Charity cards are a good buy – as much as nought nought point two five pence per card goes to a worthy cause – help, perhaps, for those struggling on the bottom tier of society, like ex-government ministers and sacked football managers.

Habitually, a special, single, card is purchased for Head Office.  Despite my best efforts, the price of these has steadily crept up over the years, to more than £1.00.  In fact, between you and me, nowadays it’s hard to find a decent one for under a £2.50.  One year, long ago, I bought a card the size of a small encyclopaedia in the hope that this would be a life-long investment: true, it is lovingly dusted down and displayed each Yuletide; but I still feel obliged to buy another.

Christmas stamps 2021

Christmas postage

I try to avoid posting the Memsahib’s card (it would be a little impersonal, wouldn’t it?), but a good proportion of recipients live further away, and therefore their cards require a stamp.  When I wrote an earlier version of this article, in 2016, the cost of entry-level second and first class postage was £0.55p or £0.64p respectively.  In 2023, that once noble and august body, the Royal Mail, charges a whopping £0.75p or £1.25p to convey what it once amusingly referred to as ‘non-valuable’ items.  Once, in a discussion over why it had decided to stop delivering my mail, I came to appreciate that the term ‘non-valuable’ extended to Royal Mail’s customers.  But now it offers compensation of up to £20 per item, an increase on the six first class stamps offered whenever it lost a letter – if you could prove it.  What you pay for postage depends on whether you are hoping the item will arrive the following day, or when Royal Mail feel like delivering it, as well as the object’s weight and size.  It is not true that you pay extra to have your mail sorted by people who can read; that is a matter of pure chance.  What I do not understand is why overseas Christmas cards have to be sent so early – sometime in October from what I can make out.  Given that you are never that far from an international airport in Britain, and assuming the Royal Mail knows where the airports are, should we believe that places like Australia, France and the USA, which all appear to be reasonably up to date places, cannot organise a postal service at their end? It is a genuine puzzle.

We three sheep, Christmas card.

Anyway, add the cost of postage to the cost of cards and you can see that this market is worth a small fortune.  The profit margins on cards must be immense – almost as high as soft drinks in restaurants.  I was struck with the comparison that Simon Kelner, writing in 2014, made between greeting cards and newspapers.  He observed that a newspaper contains (and I paraphrase) “many, many thousands of words – the same number that you’ll find in an average-sized novel – all carefully chosen, and then edited. …lots of colour pictures, cartoons, jokes, a crossword or two, and all the news that’s fit to print. What’s more, it arrives fresh every morning.”  Quality newspapers in the UK cost around £3.00 these days and sales are declining.  Individual greetings cards, a piece of lightweight board with a picture or two, which might include a little glitter and bonhomie – perhaps also some gushingly awful verse – can cost at least that.

Nativity scene Christmas card from the 1970s

Who sends Christmas cards, anyway?

Whatever anyone says, I find it hard to believe that Christmas card sales are not in decline.  Certainly, sending cards – and using the post – do not seem to be much of a younger person’s thing.  Visit anyone under 35 at Christmas and their home is not festooned with cards to the same degree as an older person’s.  Indeed, with social media so widespread, do we really need to bother with Christmas cards?  Some people eschew Christmas cards on environmental grounds, or profess to give the money to charity instead – and I am sure some of them do.  However, based on absolutely no evidence, I reckon a growing aging population is more disposed than Millennials are to use this medium to stay in touch with friends and loved ones.  Ergo, Christmas cards, like paper chains and the latest Beatles’ album, will become things of Christmas past.  What do you think?  Do you send cards?  Are you aging?  I suspect most of us are…

When I ran a business, I used to send and receive scores of Christmas cards.  Many came from people I had never met and, occasionally, were sent to people I barely knew too.  It was a seasonal sales ritual, a cynical reminder that the product or service was there for the buying and that those behind it were warm, cuddly, real, human beings.  These days, we still receive what you might call unsolicited Christmas cards – which I swiftly put in a drawer, to be displayed when neighbours call and we need to demonstrate how popular we are. But, though somewhat more than 17, the number of personal cards sent to friends and family is considerably lower than it used to be.  Nevertheless, they are dispatched in a genuine spirit of goodwill rather than through any sense of obligation, to people we particularly feel we want to wish well at this time of the rolling year.  How many do you send?

Of course, as already suggested, not everyone indulges in this festive contact ritual.  The friendless, the Christmas killjoys, Scrooges and those who have another or no faith might give it a miss.  The greeting card industry already caters for other faiths’ festivals, such as Eid; so it could surely take the opportunity to market a few anti-seasonal greetings cards, along the ‘Bah, humbug!’ vein.  There you go, Hallmark; don’t forget my percentage, will you?

Christmas card from the 2000s

How to send Christmas cards

Let us be honest: if you are a proud member of the 17+ club, writing Christmas cards can be a chore.  It therefore calls for a little organisation.  I highly recommend maintaining an address spreadsheet and performing a mail merge to produce address labels. That way, writing Christmas cards can actually be immensely enjoyable.  Sit down with your labels and cards, a comfortable pen to write a little note inside the cards, some festive music in the background, perhaps a little glass of something – and off you go.  As the labels are peeled off and stuck to the envelopes, you can see how you are progressing and also make sure no one is missed.  Some people enclose a printed Christmas newsletter with their cards – what is known as a ‘round robin’ in the UK.  This is a fabulous opportunity to gloat about holidays, describe the latest medical ailments and home improvements, recount every minor achievement of offspring and, once that’s done, move onto the adventures of pets.  Don’t think I haven’t noticed that some of these creatures, including the occasional goldfish, are so smart that they put their names at the bottom of Christmas cards.  We live in incredible times.

Christmas card designs

Christmas cards in wartime

It is fun to look at the different designs over the years.  Nativity scenes (unsurprisingly), robins and snow seem to predominate.  Some are nostalgic; some humorous.  These days, almost anything goes – particularly with the advent (Ho! Ho! Ho!) of computer-generated graphics.  We have mentioned ‘corporate’ cards, but not ‘official’ cards sent by monarchs, presidents, prime ministers and even some pretentious acquaintances.  They have their place; and I certainly would not mind being on His Majesty’s Christmas card list.  It is easy to criticise the practice, but dropping a few lines to those we genuinely care about can’t be anything but good, can it?  Yes, we should all stay in touch more throughout the year; but doing so once, at a special time, is far better than not being in touch at all.  Surely, a card has the edge over a quick message via WhatsApp, Facebook or the medium formally known as Twitter?  I have a couple of cards my father sent from North Africa to my mother during World War Two (example above) and can only imagine what receiving these must have meant – and probably still does in similar circumstances.

So – off you go – pour yourself a tipple, put some seasonal sounds on the gramophone, and write your cards if you haven’t done ‘em yet!

Christmas 2018

71 thoughts on “A bit about Christmas cards”

  1. I loved reading this post AND then reading the comments. I appreciate your mix of information and humor, Mike, ie: “a good proportion of recipients live further away than I can walk in a day and therefore require a stamp.” My partner paints a new holiday card each year in June (as soon as he is done with his responsibilities as a graphic design professor at a local college). Then he writes a lovely paragraph or two to accompany/explain the card. Last year he painted his parents as angels based on what they looked like when they first met during WWII. This year he painted one of his grandmothers, who raised four children and then took care of many of her own siblings as they became ill and died. She also took care of a chihuahua and a monkey which one of her sons gave to her (when her son was an impudent but beloved adult). Each December we send out 150+ cards to friends and family. I am a fan of handwritten cards in general. I send thank you cards all the time to friends and family members as well as people who hire me to sing at their library, retirement community, coffee house, etc. Hurrah for the postal services in our countries, however poorly they may run! Thank you for another great blog post, Mike.

  2. Last year it cost me £45.00 or thereabouts in second class stamps, so I decided not to send any this year, and with good intentions of sending ecards and a charity donation. On Facebook I announced my intention, but I have a problem, lots of cards have arrived from those who do not use Facebook, and some senders may not even have the means of receiving electronic communications. So, I’ll still have to send cards!

  3. Do non-Christians send Christmas cards? Unfortunately, yes, this one does. Following family tradition, I’ve always looked for cards that say “Season’s Greetings” (don’t assume you know what the recipient celebrates), but they’re harder to find in Britain than in the US. We wouldn’t have bothered at all–or I wouldn’t have, anyway–only the village tradition is to sneak up to people’s doors and push cards through the slot and as outsiders we felt we had to do the same. Which of course guilted some people who hadn’t given us cards into giving us cards and so the thing spirals upwards endlessly.

    This year, given courage by friends who are bailing out of the card potlatch this year, we’re not doing it. If only we can stay strong for another few weeks.

  4. I am one who still sends Christmas cards too. I drag out my list from last year, cut out all the address labels and tape them in place. And then I sign the cards. Occasionally I do write a nice short note inside the card. Don’t think I’ve received your card yet this year and I seem to have miss placed your address. So I’ll wish you Merry Christmas right here!

  5. I think the people who are sending Christmas cards to this house are competing to find cards that have as little to do with Christmas as possible. Looking at that dreadful first Christmas card, I can see that they’re maintaining a tradition. I wonder what people thought when they received it. Is it ironic? Is it social commentary? Is it middle class gloating? I have no idea.

  6. Fun and interesting Mike. I’m one of the ones who still does send a card or two (or 110 this year) and if I had your address I’d send you one to, for all the info I’ve gleaned and fun I’ve had reading your blog. Some are more detailed than others in terms of thoughtful missive (it all depends — is it someone I’m in contact with relatively frequently, online or in person? or a once-a-year, golden oldie?) but all are good. And I have to admit, I love getting mail that doesn’t come in a window envelope or ask for a donation! The history is interesting here, but then I’d expect no less from you in the telling! Merriest!

  7. I think that most people love to receive Christmas, even those who pretend not to. It means that someone cares about you.

    We have made our own for many years (printing them on the home printer), most recently using photographs we have taken. I sometimes wonder if the recipients might think this is a bit naff. But whenever I doubt myself I am reminded by a little exclamation of Joy at receiving a personally made card.

    Card writing is a ritual with music and a little festive spirit in a glass and yes printed address labels make card writing fun 😉

  8. I have to admit to being rather a curmudgeon when it comes to sending cards, and so my mailbox isn’t overflowing with any incoming ones anymore. But that’s okay because so many were accompanied by the overly-informative CHRISTMAS LETTER, and I’d rather suffer thumbscrews than read those.

    I thought I was in the majority about my no Christmas card stance, and now your post tells me that I’m not. Well, that’s good because the Greeting Card Association would be very upset if I were.

    In any case, have the merriest of Christmases with cards or without.

  9. I think the most Christmas cards I ever sent were definitely in primary/early secondary school. Who you sent cards to, and who you received cards from, were fraught matters of great social importance. I remember being distinctly terrified of leaving anyone in my class out in case they took badly.

  10. I love cards and you really don’t know how lucky you are in England, the cards there are very beautiful. Guess what, when I visit England, I bring back birthday cards, anniversary cards, get well cards, Christmas cards…you get the picture!
    I like to buy the ones for different charities, such a good idea.

  11. Christmas cards are so much a part of our Christmas traditions and festivities that I’d hate to replace them with greetings by email! As you say, they’ve become a part of our Christmas decorations – and I love sending them as much as receiving them. We also try to buy mostly charity cards in the hope that the tiny amount of money they make per card will mount up if enough of us do the same.
    The first card you show is my favourite here. I know the younger generations would pull their faces at it, but I love the card’s olde worlde appeal. I’ve seen pictures of Henry Cole’s card several time before and find it intriguing, for want of a better word. Alcohol for children…! I doubt that the outer panels would have put too many richer folk on a guilt trip, but it would be nice to think that a few of them reflected on the plight of the poor.
    Lovely, seasonal post.

  12. Hi,
    We make our own card each year. A fun photo card and I write a letter. Our letter wraps up our year. I write it in a fun way adding quotes or songs that go with what we have to share.
    I do hope the Christmas card tradition continues for my boys generation. Receiving that card is special in my opinion.

  13. I enjoy making and receiving handmade cards each year.
    Like Marcia, I do keep a list of “received/ sent cards”.
    I do have a pet peeve: mass produced family pictures with no hand written note, not even signed! To those, I want to shout “don’t bother!”

  14. Pleased to say I mailed all our cards last week. And I had them printed locally with one of my own pictures. Better to stay in touch once a year than not at all.

  15. I made my own this year and had great fun doing it. Of course they’re Yule cards because I’m not a christian and never really was ( in spite of being sent to sunday school) so the commercial ones don’t suit me any way.

      1. I’m getting on a bit and still send cards, less each year as people who are no longer with us get crossed off the list. Seems to be about two each year. I always hand write a little note inside the card but I do look forward to getting the ’round robin’ letters some people send with their cards. It is interesting to find out what people are doing each year:)

  16. Oh yes, the Royal Mail customer service levels. I am pretty sure that they are striving very hard with their service levels. To be as awful as they possibly can!!! At least that is the service that I receive, but perhaps that is just me!! I have two great books about round robin letters, I will try and remember to post on the blog about them this week sometime, I am sure yo would find them very amusing, lots of Tamsins and Tarquins!!

  17. Very nice! I haven’t started my card-writing yet, a job I find a bit of a chore really, but it’s a way of keeping in touch with so many people and I like to receive them too….

  18. Another spot on post. I agree with many of your observations. Each year I have been cutting down on cards mainly due to the expense of the cards and postage. Also we are in touch with friends more often now with emails and social media. I tend to send my cyber friends a Christmas email or digital card and to the snail mail friends I send cards. Must go do them now.

  19. Only 15 friends to send cards to?? I sent out 110, and with extra postage on them too…but some of our friends do not have computers. I made all my own cards. I enjoyed seeing all your old cards! 🙂

  20. Good to read your post.

    I love sending and receiving Christmas cards and I get the Charity ones.
    It was always tradition in our house (a few years back now) sitting at the writing desk with a glass of sherry and the first mince pie of the season … starting to write the Christmas Cards.

    Now, I tend to sit at a computer table with a cup of tea … or perhaps a glass of chilled white wine. I do enjoy writing the cards and including little notes, but then have to confess I’m of the older generation!!!

    Anyway cards are all done now, so onto the decorations this weekend!

    Wishing you a good weekend and a wonderful Christmas season.

    All the best Jan

  21. I love purchasing Christmas Cards in England. This year during my trip there I stopped in a charity shop and I succumbed to a face of a lovely sheep, named Baaarney. And so my purchase went to Cancer Research UK. And I’m sure those who receive my cards will enjoy this sheep peeking out from the mantel, table, bookcase, around a door or wherever the receiver displays Christmas Cards. Thanks for your post.

  22. I find sending Christmas cards keeps me in touch with friends around the country that I don’t email or text. Yes I know I should but I don’t. Cheap cards are fairly easy to find but the postage is outrageous. Enjoyed your post. Gave me a laugh. Please treat this comment as your card. Merry Christmas Mike.

  23. We receive only a tiny proportion of the cards that we used to get – however, I am quite relieved, it is one less chore for me to do.
    I am still using stamps that I bought about four years ago when they went up by a huge chunk, however, their end is nigh.

  24. I love Christmas cards, and birthday ones, and “just for fun” ones – I just love getting cards. Of course I know that in order to receive some, I need to send them, too. And when I put my heart and mind to it, I really enjoy sitting down with a pile of cards, my list of names and my address book, a favourite pen and a candle on the kitchen table.
    This year, while I was writing, a pot of carrots-and-spuds soup (with ginger and freshly ground nutmeg) was bubbling away on the stove, and I knew that I was going to eat it as soon as the last envelope would be closed over the last card.
    My handwriting is really horrible, and I make a huge effort to write in a legible manner. Therefore, writing cards is really a big thing for me, and I hope my friends and relatives appreciate that I am doing this because I love them.
    From the moment the cards begin to arrive, I display them on one of the two sideboards in the living room. Right now, there are 8 or so, while I have sent out somewhere close to 20, I think. The ones I like best are kept in a box, and the following year, will be displayed under the glass panel of the desk in the Third Room.

  25. I send cards that I have made. I enjoy doing it. But the number I receive in return has definitely dwindled through the years. I keep track of who I send to and who I receive from and stop sending if I fail to get one after a number of years. The exception to that is relatives. The young ones don’t bother with cards and the ancient ones are no longer capable of sending them. I keep sending to them anyway.

  26. It’s always nice to receive a card in the mail. I try and make sure any elderly relatives or friends get a card as I have heard them express it’s a joy to be remembered. This is a cheap trick but when the cards go on sale after Christmas, I pick up boxes of them for the following year. Have to cut costs where I can.

  27. Hi Mike – I always love most Christmas cards … granted not the ‘naff’ ones. I may only send a few this year … rather hassly life going on …

    South Africa – don’t send cards … they won’t get there … the post is maggots, as are most services … I have been reliably told … so email – I don’t like that … but there we are.

    I do enjoy Christmas – and thanks for all that history … cheers and happy writing … Hilary

  28. I do send out Christmas cards. That is one tradition that I really stay with. It is the time of year when I catch up with old friends and make new ones.

  29. In my experience quite a lot of non-Christians send cards too. I’ve received them from Muslims, Buddhists and followers of the Hare Krishna movement over the years. Even miserly curmudgeons like me send out a few cards (small ones obtained at knock-down prices).

  30. Thanks for your post and you have a ‘Magical Christmas’. We have received some cards here in France with postage of £1.05 on as I suppose that that is the Euro rate. To the UK we are charged €1 for an awful stamp with not only Marianne but a barcode-y thing on nasty just about self adhesive thin paper. The 1st class stamp with the great robin is lovely this year and so much better than any of the ‘I drew this and I’m four years old’ ones. Our cards worked out at 39p each plus the charge of sending them from the RBL to us in their packets.

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