Today, December 20th, the last postal date before Christmas, 2nd class at least, according to Royal Mail. (It’s tomorrow for 1st class, and as for Amazon Prime – well I think they’ll turn up on Christmas Day if you want.) It means that TODAY is crunch time for ordering my Christmas book in time for December 25th, whether as a pressie for someone, or dinner table trivia.
But more importantly for this blog, it gives us a chance to dwell on all things postal in the history of Christmas. So that means cards, greetings and – hey – Merry Christmas everybody…
THE CHRISTMAS CARD!
Sir Henry Cole was a classic Victorian innovator and a very busy businessman. He wrote books on art, edited and published children’s books, as well as having jurisdiction over the Great Exhibition, the London Museum, and various public properties that would become the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal College of Music. Oh, and public toilets. So frantic was he, that Prince Albert once punned, “When you want steam, you must get Cole!”
Sir Henry was instrumental in introducing the Penny Post, possibly even designing the world’s first stamp, the Penny Black. For the first time there was a new possibility for communication: the affordable mass mail-out. Industrialization had encouraged families to live further apart. Trains had made it possible to deliver such letters all the speedier. Yet in a fast-moving world, one of those fast-movers found no time to write these greetings. Sir Henry’s overflowing postbox was a daily reminder of how bad he was at replying to his many friends and colleagues, who had used the postal service that he’d co-invented to wish him well at Christmas.
As a patron of the arts, Sir Henry asked a favourite member of the Royal Academy, John Calcott Horsley, to design a Christmas card for him, just for personal use. It would bear the greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”, with a main picture of a family getting very merry on red wine. They raise a toast to the person viewing the card, and even the young children are having a good swig of the wine. That’s right – the world’s rst Christmas card promoted underage drinking.
Sir Henry was so impressed by the product that he had 1,000 printed – and he didn’t have 1,000 friends. So he took his share then sold the rest alongside illustrated children’s books in the Old Bond Street shop – the very same week that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, written just a few streets away from Cole’s shop.
THE FIRST PERSONALISED CHRISTMAS CARD:
…was sent by Annie Oakley. Yes, of Annie Get Your Gun fame. In Scotland in 1891 for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West tour, she was the world’s most famous female sharpshooter at the height of her fame, with deep pockets but unable to buy an airfare home (due to the lack of planes). There’s no business like showbusiness – and that meant spending Christmas in Glasgow, sending selfies back home. After all, anything Henry Cole’s Christmas cards could do, she could do better.
Possibly the earliest recorded use of the greeting was in 1565 as “Mery Christmas”, though the more satisfying fuller phrase, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”, first appears in a 1699 letter written by an English admiral. Another early use of it was in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, sung door-to-door in the mummers’ tradition of performing for money (or figgy pudding). No one quite knows when that song came about, but it certainly helped add the Merry to Christmas.
‘Merrie Old England’ was certainly a well-known Christmas concept too – mostly merry thanks to the drinking.
Dickens popularised its usage in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge eloquently takes against his nephew’s greeting of “Merry Christmas!”:
“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
With Henry Cole’s first Christmas card featuring the same greeting the same week, the Merriness of Christmas was secured. You might even have seen Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St Nicholas conclude with St Nick wishing us: “A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!” – but that’s a later version then, altered after Dickens and co pinned the phrase to our hearts with that stake of holly. Dr Moore’s original poem – written twenty years before A Christmas Carol – ended with “A Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”
Whether you’re happy, merry or otherwise, get those Christmas cards in the post today then folks…
(…and while you’re at it, you know what to order)