Bah Humbug! The weird and wonderful world of Victorian Christmas cards

Posted on: 23 December 2021

By Dr Clare Clarke, Assistant Professor, School of English

Bah Humbug! Famous words spoken by Mr Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – one of the most famous literary works associated with the festive season and the work that is perhaps responsible for the common assertion that Dickens invented Christmas as we know it.

Christmas had of course been celebrated for centuries before the publication of A Christmas Carol. At the dawn of the 19th century Christmas was celebrated, but not in a way we would recognise today. Many businesses didn’t consider it to be a holiday and gift-giving was traditionally a New Year activity. But, by the end of the century, Christmas had become the biggest annual celebration in the British Empire. Victorian advancements in technology, industry and infrastructure – as well as having an impact on society as a whole – made Christmas an occasion that many more people participated in.

Christmas card, circa 1890s, from the Conan-Strahan Collection Scrapbook Album, Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Alongside the publication of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, 1843 was the year that saw the production of the first Christmas card.  The Victorians were also responsible for the introduction of crackers, exchanging gifts, Christmas shopping, and indoor Christmas trees. The idea of an indoor Christmas tree originated in Germany, where Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert was born. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published an engraving of the royal family celebrating around a tree bedecked with ornaments. The popularity of decorated Christmas trees grew quickly, and with it came a market for tree ornaments in bright colours and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter in the candlelight.

It was Sir Henry Cole, the inventor of the penny post, organiser of the 1851 Great Exhibition, and first director of the V&A museum, who introduced the idea of the Christmas card in 1843. Cole commissioned an artist to design a festive scene for use in a seasonal greeting card. It was intended as a time-saving device sparing him from writing individual letters at Christmas to his family, friends and business colleagues. His cards were printed lithographically, then hand-coloured with a message: “A merry Christmas and a happy new year to you.” Cole had a thousand printed and sent the first one to his parents. Only 21 of these first Christmas cards survive, one of which is on display at the Dickens museum in London.

In 1846, Cole decided to publish his Christmas card on a larger commercial scale, printing two batches of 2,050 cards. The cards were advertised with the slogan “first published, a Christmas congratulations card; or picture emblematical of old English festivity to perpetuate kind recollections between dear friends”. Each card was put on sale for one shilling each at Felix Summerly’s Treasure House on Bond Street, London. With common labourers earning, on average, 3s. 9d. a week, this particular card was well out of the reach of the lowest earners in Victorian society.

As well as the brightly-coloured scene of the family drinking wine in the centre of the card, the card also depicts two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked”. Cole believed Christmas greeting cards that could be posted for only a penny could raise consciousness about the London poor.

Later in the century, improvements to the lithographic printing process made buying and sending Christmas cards affordable for everyone. After the abolishment of a tax on paper in 1861 – commonly known as the ‘Taxes on Knowledge’ – it was possible for companies to mass produce Christmas cards. For example, the publisher Prang and Mayer, who began publishing Christmas greetings cards in 1873, were publishing five million Christmas cards each year by 1880. Mass production and the removal of taxes on paper brought down the price of the card – and the price of postage, which dropped to half a penny.

In 1896, the newspaper The Social Review, published an interview with one of London’s biggest card manufacturers, Raphael Tuck and Sons, about the relatively new trend for sending Christmas cards. He said: “Cards are, without doubt, the most popular form of gift at Christmas-time… Its popularity lies in the fact that it is the cheapest way of keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances. …Nowadays a lady – and, after all ladies are those who do send most – will think nothing of sending fifty, sixty, or even 100 cards.”

Christmas cards nowadays tend to have a fairly common set of visual images – winter scenes, nativity scenes, holly and ivy, snowmen, Santa Claus – but Victorian Christmas cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead they mainly featured humorous and often downright weird images of animals. The Victorians saw Christmas not as a particularly Christian celebration, but as a time of good humour and fun.

Christmas Card circa 1876, Arthur Conan’s Christmas Scrapbook, courtesy National Library Ireland.

So, just as today we share on twitter or facebook cute images or videos of cats, Victorian cards often featured cats and kittens. In fact, a common type of Victorian card featured anthropomorphised animals. We might compare this to our enjoyment in seeing animals dressed up in outfits, but it may also be a more serious reflection of Victorians’ post-Darwinian understanding about the closer links between humans and animals than had previously been thought. In my research I have come across Victorian cards featuring sledding chickens, ice-skating frogs, a portrait-painting kangaroo, clams waving off absent friends, a frog dancing with a cockroach, a mouse riding on the back of the lobster and  a group of turkeys preparing to cook a man!

This leads me on to my final category of Victorian cards – the downright bizarre and disturbing. Popular themes included children baked into pies, scary snowmen and kidnapping Santas! One Victorian card features the disturbing image of a family of mice about to tuck into a cat and another features a puppy with a shotgun. There were also a multitude of  Christmas cards with dead birds on them. These cards were particularly prominent in 1880s Britain which also saw the popularity of elaborate mourning rituals and posthumous portraits of dead relatives: so death was visually present in daily life.

Hunter Oatman-Stanford at Collectors Weekly noted that the birds are often robins and wrens, and that “killing a wren or robin was once a good-luck ritual performed in late December”, specifically, on St Stephen’s Day – known as ‘Wren Day’ in Ireland with a traditional hunt of the bird. So receiving a card with the little prone bird, feet curled in rigor mortis, could be meant to wish nothing more than good luck and banishment of evil from the new year.

We may not know precisely why Victorians enjoyed such dark and disturbing Christmas images, but in some way it goes to show that the Victorians weren’t the repressed, humourless people that they are often characterised as in the popular imagination—rather, like us, they had a sense of humour, which was often dark or bizarre and Victorian Christmas represented a time of celebration and fun.

Cover image: Christmas card featuring robins, circa 1876, Arthur Conan’s Christmas Scrapbook, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

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