Saturday, 2 May 2015

Greetings from a Victorian Legacy

Christmas Cards and Nativity scenes - 23 Dec. 2015 (photos: Horsley, 1st card)

Several elements of our Christmas celebrations date from Victorian times, such as having crackers, sending Christmas cards, and having a Christmas tree - a German custom that became popular when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert included it in the royal Christmas.  The origin of Christmas cards, once so prevalent in our December post before the option of sending email greetings, involved the artist John Callcott Horsley, brother-in-law of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

It was in 1843, the year that Charles Dickens’s book ‘A Christmas Carol’ appeared, that Sir Henry Cole of the Victoria and Albert Museum asked Horsley to design the first commercial Christmas card.  The central picture depicted three generations of a family raising a toast to the card's recipient, with scenes of charity on either side - food and clothing being given to the poor.  The message beneath the picture was ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’.  Some people with temperance leanings were not pleased at the depiction of the family drinking together - and young children apparently holding wine glasses!  Nevertheless it was a good commercial undertaking, with over 1,000 cards printed, selling at a shilling each, and it took advantage of the penny post that had been introduced three years earlier.  When postage was reduced to a halfpenny in the 1870s for postcards and unsealed envelopes, the sending of cards flourished.  During the mid-nineteenth century the sending of Valentine cards had been popular (as tragically in Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’), and many printers and publishers of Christmas cards had started by producing Valentine cards.

Christmas card distribution was aided by the growth of the railways, and it was estimated during Christmas week 1880 that Christmas cards accounted for most of the 11½ million extra letters posted.  Nowadays the sale of charity Christmas cards constitute a considerable and worthwhile part of this industry.

Illustrations on several cards may depict a snow-covered scene, a robin, stagecoach, or Santa driving his reindeer, with seasonal greetings and wishes for joy and peace, but the familiar Nativity scenes depicted on some cards may take some liberties with the truth.  Would shepherds really have been out with their flocks at night-time in late December in Israel (the birth probably occurred in September)?  We are all familiar with depictions of the scene in the stable, with shepherds and Wise Men, and various farm animals around: but the Biblical accounts make no mention of a stable or of farm animals – it is merely that the baby was ‘laid in a manger’ that leads people to such conclusions. 

Were the Wise Men even there so soon after the birth?  The Biblical account states that they arrived at a house not a stable, and encountered a child not a baby, which suggests that considerable time had elapsed on their journey from when they first saw the star.  This could be why Herod demanded the murder of not merely newly-born babies in Bethlehem, but of any infant up to two years old.  The actual number of Wise Men (or kings, or astrologers) is not given, though three types of gifts are mentioned.  The Wise Men may have been from the diaspora or dispersion of Jews beyond the land of Israel, from the 8th century BC onwards. 

Nevertheless parents and grandparents enjoy seeing children dressed as Wise Men and shepherds at school and church carol services, and we continue to send and receive Christmas cards, religious and otherwise - aware that tradition has somewhat embellished the Biblical account of when God became a human being and lived on earth.                                                                                   

Incidentally that 1843 card produced by John Callcott Horsley and commissioned by Sir Henry Cole was sold in 2001 at auction, for a record breaking £22,000.        


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