Cards and Crackers

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Many Christmas customs have their origins lost in history or legend. But one which we can be sure about is the invention of the Christmas card. The modern Christmas card was invented in Britain in 1843. People have always sent Christmas greetings to one another, but a Victorian businessman called Henry Cole decided he wanted to send out printed cards. He commissioned a well-known artist called John Calcott Horsley to design a greetings card which showed a family Christmas dinner and carried the words ” A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”. The card created quite a stir in its day because it had on it a picture of a woman giving a young girl a drink from a wineglass. People criticised Cole and Horsley for promoting drunkenness. Even so a thousand of them were told for the extravagant rise of one shilling.

Henry Cole was a businessmen who believed in products that were beautiful as well as useful and his was followed by many others, all designed to decorate the house as well as to send greetings. Cole himself went on to organise the Great Exhibition of 1851, to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, and even to design an award-winning tea set!

By the 1860’s Christmas cards were popular but they were mainly sent by better off people. In 1870 the halfpenny stamp for cards made sending them cheaper, and by the 1880’s everyone was sending and receiving Christmas cards. An article in the Times in 1883 welcomed this new tradition. It said that sending cards was now “the happy means of ending strifes, cementing broken friendships and strengthening family ties.” All that in one little Christmas card! Each year we in Britain spend £250 million on Christmas cards and the send one and a half billion cards to each other each year.

Another Victorian invention was the Christmas cracker which was born just three years after the Christmas card. Tom Smith sold sweets in London and in 1844 introduced the first French bob-bon into Britain. As he was sitting by his fireside one evening he heard a log pop on the fire and the idea came to him of wrapping up his new sweets in paper with two handles which detonated a little firecracker. His crackers were more popular than his sweets so he put a small gift inside instead, and later a paper hat.

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