Last Updated on 15th December 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
It is always a good idea to get into a business that makes money on Christmas Day; and it could be argued that Christmas cards fall into that category. You would think that sending 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’s more than one for every man, woman and child. Those statistics exclude cards sold in packs or boxes of cards, for which there are no reliable sales figures. However, as a presumably educated guess, the GCA estimate that we send 1 billion Christmas cards in the UK. The numbers are staggering – almost as astonishing as it is to find that greetings cards have bandied together to form an association, the little tinkers – but doubt me not, for here is the Greeting Card Association’s website, and you’ll see that they’ve been enveloping one another for more than a hundred years.
How much do Christmas cards cost?
If the population of the UK is around 67 million (see a bit about British people), this would mean that each one of us has almost 15 friends. Ah, you say; but we should exclude infants, non-believers, curmudgeons and people who don’t know how to use a post box. Those are all fair points, though I have considerable experience of curmudgeons and can reliably inform you that some of them still send Christmas cards (though they tend not to have as many as 15 friends).
I usually buy Christmas cards, having learned that trying to reuse the ones received the previous year 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 – even to people on the fringes of the official list, 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 Members of Parliament forced to take second jobs because they are unable to exist on a basic salary of £82,000.
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, don’t tell, but nowadays it’s hard to find a decent one for under a £2.50 – rather more than the GCA’s average. 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.
I try to avoid posting the Memsahib’s card (I feel it’s nicer to deliver it personally), but a good proportion of recipients live further away than I can walk in a day, and therefore their cards require a stamp. That noble body, the Royal Mail, currently charges 0.66p or 0.85p (up 5 pence and 15 pence respectively from when I last looked) to convey entry-level cards and letters – what it used to refer 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 they used to offer when they 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 seem to be reasonably up to date, cannot organise a postal service at their end? It is a genuine puzzle.
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 £2.20 or more 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.
Who sends Christmas cards, anyway?
You might think that people are sending fewer cards than they used to. Certainly, sending cards – and using the post – do not seem to be much of a younger person’s thing. I researched this thoroughly by texting my favourite daughter and one of my favourite nieces (see what I did there?). With social media so widespread, do we need to bother with Christmas cards anymore? 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, the GCA suggests that Christmas card sales are not in decline. Is this indicative of a growing aging population more disposed to use this medium to stay in touch with friends and loved ones? Surprisingly, the GCA also says that 18-34 year olds are sending more cards than they used to. 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 ritual – bluntly, a sales opportunity, a reminder that the product or service is there for the buying and that those behind it are 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 loved we are. But, though somewhat more than 15, the number of personal cards sent to friends and family is certainly 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, 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?
How to send Christmas cards
Let’s be honest: if you are a proud member of the 15+ club, writing Christmas cards can be a chore. It therefore calls for a little organisation. I highly recommend maintaining an address spreadsheet and doing 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 inside the cards, a little festive music on the gramophone, perhaps a 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 our holidays, describe our latest medical ailments and home improvements, recount every minor achievement of our offspring and, once that’s done, move onto the adventures of our 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. It is incredible.
A history of Christmas cards
Of 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 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. He 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 good collection of old Christmas cards. It is thought that 30 of Cole’s original cards survive; one was up for sale recently and was expected to fetch between £5,000 and £8,000.
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.
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 Her 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 Twitter? I have a couple of cards my father sent from North Africa to my mother during World War Two and can only imagine what receiving these must have meant – and probably still does in similar circumstances.
So – off you go – write your cards if you haven’t done ‘em yet. Those greetings card execs need to eat.