They can be small and glittery, have Three Wise Men following a star, a Santa stuck down a chimney or a well-fed Robin perched on a tree, surrounded by snow. Pretty much anything goes when it comes to Christmas cards these days.
Like putting up the stocking or sticking baubles on the tree, sending festive greetings to family and friends is an integral part of every year.
On average two billion Christmas cards are posted in the USA while the UK sends a more modest 900 million. But with postage in Britain rising from 76 pence to 85 pence per letter next year and an average of 50 cards per household -saying a festive hello is becoming an expensive indulgence in an age of social media and emails.
But when did the tradition start?
The first recorded Christmas card was sent in 1611 by German physician Michael Maier to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.
Discovered in 1979 by researcher Adam McLean in the Scottish Record Office, it incorporated Rosicrucian imagery with the words of a greeting being laid out to form a rose.
“A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612”.
However it was Henry Cole, a prominent civil-servant and the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum who, having helped reform the British postal system in the 1840s helped encourage the sending of season’s greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards.
Christmas was a busy time in the Cole household and with unanswered mail piling up, a timesaving solution was needed. He turned to his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley for help.
An entry in Cole’s diary for 17 December 1843 records, “In the Evening Horsley came and brought his design for Christmas Cards”.
The design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand-coloured panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity.
Cole then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalised with a hand-written greeting. Horsley himself personalised his card to Cole by drawing a tiny self-portrait in the bottom right corner instead of his signature, along with the date “Xmasse, 1843”.
Cole’s Christmas card was also published and offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop.
But the 1840s was going through a period of change, with Prince Albert introducing various German Christmas traditions to the British public, including the decorated Christmas tree.
Cole may have been ahead of his time, however the commercialisation of Christmas was on its way, prompted by developments in the publishing industry. More affordable Christmas gift-books and keepsakes were aimed at the growing middle classes, and authors responded to the trend.
Not least Charles Dickens who published A Christmas Carol in 1843. By the 1870s the Christmas trend was firmly established.
All of it is a long way from the E-cards that are becoming increasingly popular for generations brought up with mobile phones and texts rather than hand- written notes.
While the sentiments within them may be the same, modern technology is going to have a tough time competing financially.
In December 2005, one of Horsley’s original cards sold for nearly £9,000 while the Christmas card that holds the world record as the most expensive ever sold was one commissioned in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. In 2001 an anonymous bidder bought it for £22,250