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Occasions for greeting cards


The practice of sending or giving Christmas cards as a gift, along with the images preferably chosen and printed on the cards, is difficult to understand without comprehending the history leading up to Christmas.

The death of Jesus Christ and also of the early Christian martyrs had a great impact on the lives of Jesus’ early disciples, more so even than his birth or life. Around 220 C.E. based on the Biblical account, Iulius Africanus calculated the date of Jesus Christ's impalement to be on March 25th and subsequently set this date to correspond with the date of his conception. According to this calculation, his birth would have to occur nine months later on December 25th. In any case, the late Chronograph of 354 C.E., which refers to year 365 C.E., and which was composed under the direction of Furius Dionysius Filocalus noted in the directory of the Roman consuls the following: "Christ is born on a Friday, the 15th day of the moon phase, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus Caesar […]".

The baptism of the Roman Caesar Constantine on his deathbed, in 337 C.E., gave rise to the supremacy of Christendom in the Roman Empire and was later elevated to state religion by Caesar Theodosius I. The Christian church built up the structure similar to the one of the Roman Empire. Although, it opposed and very quickly superseded the religion of the dominant antique sun god Sol, it adopted its festivals, worship and imagery. According to the Julian calendar, the 25th of December was the shortest day of the year.

The emperor Aurelian (270-275 C.E.) thus dedicated this date to the birthday of the sun god, who would grant the world, with his ascension, sunshine and warmth. Subsequent emperors minted coins in honor of this god, where he was displayed in a standing posture as the ruler of the world, with the corona and the globe. But for the Christians, it was Jesus, who represented the sun and the dominator of the world as expressed in John 8:12, "I am the light of the world…" and further in the Biblical book of Malachi 4:2, "But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings;…[New American Standard Bible]". It only seemed natural to transfer the birthday of the sun god and to apply the celebrations of December 25 to the birth of Jesus Christ, particularly as it coincided with the earlier calculations. Thereby, now, the Christian holiday concurred with the pagan celebration of Midsummer Night, Roman Saturnalia and with the Scandinavian Yule festival; all celebrated with great joy and associated with invitations, feasts and gift giving. It is not certain whether it was planned this way from the beginning, but the sun-hungry population living in dark Middle and Northern European regions gladly accepted the practice.

The word "Christmas" originates from and consists of the German expression "wiha", which means holy or to consecrate, and the German "naht", which stands for "Nacht" or "holy night". The earliest and quite precarious evidence shows that this holiday has only been celebrated in the German-speaking world since the 7th century. The holiday symbols such as the manger and singing of Christmas carols was not added until the Middle Ages. The custom of gift giving can be ascribed back to Martin Luther, who intended to redirect the tendency for children to worship Saint Nicholas to the worshiping of Jesus. Prior to this, presents and gifts were only given on St. Nicholas' Day (December 6th).

Although, it had already been a custom in the pre-Christian era to decorate one's door with branches of evergreens or trees, to demonstrate a strong will to live, the first Christmas tree allegedly appeared in Alsace in the 16th or 17th century. Still in those days, there weren't many fir or spruce trees to be found. The pine tree was presumably used as the first Christmas tree and December 24th was dedicated to the progenitors Adam and Eve. It was observed by playing games which evoked ideas of the Paradise. In order to demonstrate the sin, the tree was decorated with apples and later, candles were added.

Before the period of Reformation and depending on the territorial ruler, up to five Christmas Days were celebrated in the independent European countries as a festival. December 26th does not constitute a statutory holiday everywhere, though. Predominantly in the Catholic countries, it is mainly commemorated to recall the first Christian martyr Stephen.

The Christmas festival with its Christmas tree as celebrated today was established in the 19th century. In 1868, Harper's Magazine in the US first published a drawing of Santa Claus which actually referred to Sinterklaas, who was first brought into the country by Dutch immigrants. Sinterklaas, in turn, is based on an unverified legend containing very little information about Christendom's priest, Holy Nicholas of Myra (304-345 C.E.), known also as the patron Saint of children and Russia alike. On his name day, also called Saint's Day, children in many lands placed their boots in front of the door in expectation of sweets and presents from the man with the white beard. The “reindeer pulled sleigh” constitutes an American tradition as well. The person of Santa Claus in numerous versions represents one of the most popular motifs for Christmas cards around the world.

It happened in December of 1843. A young British public official named Henry Cole made the usual time before Christmas to write a few long letters to quite a number of his relatives and friends. Either because he had little time or because he just felt like it, it was for this reason he contracted the illustrator and draftsman, John Callcott Horsley, to develop for him a Christmas card with the following text: "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year". Horsley, inspired by the form of a picture of an altar, composed a 57” x 33” picture of a family festivity and framed it with branches and vines to convey joy and charity to the viewer. Henry Cole, once the owner of a lithographic academy, printed hand-colored edition 1,000 cards and sold these for 1 Shilling per piece; in those days, an exorbitant price. It is assumed that Cole's contracting Horsley heralded the start of the Christmas card, a custom which is still greatly popular all around the globe today, 150 years later. Thereafter, Henry Cole became the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This prominent position created for him an opportunity to promote his own project of the Penny Post which contributed to the breakthrough of the new practice to send Christmas cards. The UK magazine "Progressive Greetings" awards each year a prize for the best Christmas card design. In honorable memory of Henry Cole, the award in form of a cup is called the "Henry". The Penny Post and the first stamp from 1840 were launched in UK during the same year. Most of the population enthusiastically accepted the invention and almost instantaneously utilized the opportunity at Christmas. The invention of a Christmas card which followed was just a corollary. Because of the great demand for large printing editions in 1850, it was soon possible to sink the prices to an affordable level. The Christmas card thus became a rewarding business for many publishing houses and various levels of the distribution chain. Lumber jacks, paper manufacturers, artists, printers, transporters, wholesalers, retailers and postmen all found work thanks to the card. The motifs changed with the spirit of times: decorated fir trees, hollies, snowball fights, winter sceneries, sledding and robin redbreasts have always, remained attractive throughout the times. Sophisticated art, religious or Japanese styles as well as humor and Santa Claus images were captivated on the Christmas cards as well.

Amidst the 19th century in Albany, NY, USA, one general store owner produced a Christmas greeting card with the following inscription: “Pease's Great Variety Store in the Temple of Fancy”. Because it was quite unusual to send Christmas greetings in those times, it was not until 1874, when a German immigrant named Louis Prang discovered in Boston the opportunity to introduce the Season's Greeting card to the American market. Until then, the custom was only widespread in Great Britain. Louis Prang is therefore considered to be the father of the American greeting card. Since 1988, the American Greeting Card Association donates each year in his memory a prize, the so-called “Louis Award”, for the best designed greeting card of the year. Prang improved the color printing and used up to twenty different colors in manufacturing his Christmas cards. He introduced all the formats, which have become well known ever since, and organized competitions with considerable prizes for the best artistic designs of Christmas cards. The high quality of his products and the touching expressions in each card made him a successful entrepreneur. In 1880, he manufactured more than 5 million greeting cards per year. In the late 80's of the 19th century, the US was inundated with cheap imports from Germany. In 1890, Prang had to give up, but shortly after the turn of the century other American publishers were able to recapture the North American market for themselves, mainly due to the growing demand for cards. Although Germany evidently produced huge amounts of Christmas cards for export, it was unusual to exchange such cards back home. In the second half of the 19th century up until World War I, at Christmas, the custom rather called for so-called "wish-leafs" that were presented as a gift. The wish-leaf was basically a letterhead with printed ornaments around the edge and often also included a picture, where both could be inscribed with the greeting or a piece of poetry. During the heyday of the picture postcard between 1890 and 1895, for the first time, industrially mass-manufactured Christmas cards appeared on the market, both open and enveloped. Christmas greeting cards remained separate from New Year's greetings until before World War II. Further, the conventional vehicle for Christmas greetings in the way of the open picture postcard became less and less important and, in time, with increased welfare and the desire for more individualism, was forced to subside in order to make way for the enveloped card.


1. Burney, Jan (1995). Graphis Ephemera 1. New York, N.Y.: Pedersen Design. 
2. Fink, Joanne (1992). Greeting Card Design. Glen Cove, N.Y.: PBC International. 
3. Pieske, Christa (1983). Das ABC des Luxuspapiers. Berlin: Reimer Verlag.

1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1998)

Text: Günter Garbrecht 2005, amended 2010
Translation: Marcel Valtr, 2011

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