Cards at Christmas: 150+ years of tradition

I’m not always the best at sending Christmas cards, but I managed to mail a few to friends and family this year.  My parents have always sent out a Christmas letter to their friends—a tradition that I would like to some day adopt.  We also often receive family photographs from others during the holiday season, especially from families with young children.

During some recent research, I found that the tradition of exchanging cards at Christmas dates to 1843.  During the Victorian era, the combination of new printing technologies and the low cost of postage made sending cards an affordable way to celebrate the holiday season.  However, our modern cards look very different from those that were exchanged 150 years ago.

The Filson has a number of Christmas cards in its collection, including many Victorian ones from the late 19th century.  Christmas cards from this time period look strikingly different from the cards we exchange today.  Many Christmas cards contained imagery that we associate with spring—flowers, birds, insects and the like.  The proximity of Christmas celebrations to the winter solstice, which marks the lengthening of daylight hours and the approach of spring, helps explain why such imagery appears on Christmas cards of this time period.  Cards were also illustrated with a diverse color palette—not just the reds and greens that we associate with this time of year.

I hope you enjoy a few of these Victorian Christmas cards from the Filson’s collection.  Happy Holidays from the Filson!

Many Victorian Christmas cards feature flowering plants that herald the approach of spring.

bird's nest

This card features bird's nest surrounded by leafy greenery and flowers.

girl with grapes

Prior to the convenience of modern supermarkets, fruits such as these grapes were not widely available at certain times of the year.



Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer is an Associate Curator of Collections. She received a degree in History from the University of Louisville and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. Jana specializes in arranging and describing the Filson's manuscript collections. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and hiking with her husband and three-legged dog, Rascal.

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