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The Christmas card


Blending fascinating facts with famous fiction, The Rev’d Selina McMahon from Resource Church St Paul’s, Ipswich tells us about the history and origins of the first Christmas card

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Marley was dead! This year there would be no Christmas card from him for his erstwhile business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge. Miser that he was Scrooge, was firmly of the opinion that, although he’d never send one himself, one day Christmas cards would be used by prince and pauper alike to pass on the compliments of the season to their friends and neighbours both near and far. “Humbug!” he muttered as he glanced up at the single card he’d received from Marley the previous year resting gently on his mantelpiece, and reflected that “‘twas not always so…”

As the fire crackled, keeping the harshness of the winter night at bay, Scrooge dozed, dreaming. As he slept, he was suddenly aware of being seized by a strange figure, a white-haired bearded man whom Scrooge instinctively knew was the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge was aware of the passing of years as the ghost took him to a time before Scrooge was born.

Throughout his unexpected journey, Scrooge was aware of exactly who each figure was in the various events that unfolded before him, as if some unnatural narrator was detailing each incident purely for his benefit. He watched in fascination as the date rolled back to the year of Our Lord 1611, as the physician and counsellor to Rudolph II of Hapsburg, one esteemed Michael Maier, sent to His Majesty King James I of England, a simple card wishing him “a greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King”. Scrooge instinctively knew that he was witnessing the first recorded Christmas card ever sent – one that would also be the last for 232 winters.

At the snap of the ghost’s fingers Scrooge was propelled forward to 1840, when, with Queen Victoria still relatively new to the throne of England, the Uniform Penny Post came into being. Scrooge remembered (or was he being spectrally told?) that hard-working citizens could now send any letter from any address in the United Kingdom to any other for the uniform rate of one penny per item, to be paid by the sender. This removed the embarrassment and stigma from the recipient who, until then, may have found that they had insufficient funds to pay for the transaction – something that Scrooge had secretly enjoyed in his years of business. He recalled how that winter, his budget for the following year included, for the first time, ‘postage’ since he would have to pay to send bailiff’s letters henceforth.

The Ghost of Christmas Present arrived, a young woman with long white hair and piercing blue eyes. She took Scrooge by the hand to show him the year he had commenced his unexpected journey – 1843 – the same year that Scrooge’s story was written by that blaggard, Charles Dickens. Scrooge saw that people were sending many more letters now and, as custom dictated, it was impolite not to write in return. This was causing consternation for citizens such as Sir Henry Cole, whom Scrooge recognised as a prominent educator and patron of the arts. It was he who had helped set up the new postage system and was seeking to identify ways that people could use it more. In addition, as something of an A-list celebrity himself, Cole was in receipt of a great number of letters and fretted over how he would be able to respond to them all.

Scrooge watched as, in a moment of Christmas inspiration Cole asked a friend of his, John Callcott Horsley, to design an image depicting a family at table raising a glass of wine to toast the card’s recipient. On either side of this central image were charitable illustrations, with food and clothing being given to those living on society’ margins. Along the top of each card was the salutation “TO ___” which allowed Cole to fill in the recipient’s name, and at the bottom was the greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You.”

The Christmas card had been born.

Without warning the Ghost of Christmas Future, a shadowy figure Scrooge couldn’t quite focus on, took Scrooge by the scruff of the neck and took him on a journey through time. Scrooge marvelled at the images of the Christmas cards and how they had changed over the years. He chuckled at the designs of just a few years hence, with their grotesque and morbid imagery. In particular, he appreciated the image of Santa kidnapping naughty children, along with the one of a mouse riding a lobster. As he moved into the 20th century, he noticed, however, that the cards took on a far more religious tone – nativity scenes and wise men were more popular than in the Victorian period. English country churches with snowy landscapes suddenly proliferated and instead of a simple “Happy Christmas” cards were far more likely to contain Biblical phrases such as “Unto us a Son is Born”.

As he moved into the 21st century, Scrooge watched as electronic letters were now the norm, but still marvelled at the billions of Christmas cards still being posted throughout the world. Turning to the spectre he asked, “Spirit, how many trees were felled to make all of these cards?” At once the shadowy figure showed the vast forests that were consumed in humankind’s propensity to send greetings at the end of each year. In fear and trembling Scrooge asked, “Mighty Spirit, what will happen to the planet if we simply discard the used cards once Christmas is over?” Scrooge looked again at the warming climate and the huge areas of landfill that covered vast areas of the world.

And then he awoke, still seated by the roaring fire, but cloaked in a cold sweat. He looked up again at the card that Sir Henry Cole had sent him and resolved to find some way to reuse or recycle it once the season was over, and to try and persuade his business acquaintances to do the same. He reached into his bag of black and white striped mints, extracted one and smiled.

“Ahhh, humbug.”

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