The History of Christmas Cards

11 December 2020

Have you ever wondered how Christmas cards became one of the most steadfast aspects of Christmas festivity? Our Curatorial Intern, Ffion Boyd, explains below!

The sending of Christmas cards is a well-established custom for the festive period, having been commercially established by Sir Henry Cole, the founding director of the V&A Museum, in 1843. Cole commissioned his friend, John Callcott Horsely, to design an illustration for the card and had a thousand printed soon after. Horsley's design sends a message of celebration and charity, with a central image of the Cole family raising a toast, surrounded by images of giving.

Greetings card, John Callcott Horsley (1843). Museum no. MSL.3293-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Commercial Christmas cards transformed over the years, and by the 20th century was a fully established tradition. Unlike the Christmas cards we share today, it was not necessarily traditional to depict winter or religious themes, rather images of nature in the run up to spring. In the Burgh House collection is this seasonal postcard with a warm, sunny image of the viaduct at Hampstead Heath, dated 1905. With the advancement of photography and printing technologies, postcards saw a ‘golden age’ between 1890 and 1915, and this is a beautiful example of the type of festive cards people would be sending in early 20th century Hampstead.

The Viaduct on Hampstead Heath Postcard (c. 1905), accession no. 2014.15 © Burgh House.

Today, the sending of Christmas cards is a great way to show our loved ones we are thinking of them, especially with friends and family more spread over the country than they would have been in the 19th century.

This year, however, we all find ourselves in an unusual situation, with many unable to see their loved ones. This has made it difficult to maintain wellbeing; with our recent online exhibition, Art in Adversity, exploring how creativity can help us overcome difficulties in time of adversity, it seems apt to encourage our community to turn to creative pursuits during this abnormal festive period.

Making Christmas cards can not only be a creative activity to improve personal wellbeing, but the sending of them can help show those in isolation how much they mean to us when we can’t see them in person. Horsely’s Christmas message of celebration and charity has not wavered over the years, and at times like this it’s important to do what we can to bring joy to those around us.

With this in mind, our Curatorial Intern, Ffion, has made a tutorial of how to make your very own Christmas cards using recycled ribbons and any other bits and bobs you can find around the house!


Find the tutorial here


We hope you enjoy getting creative – tag us in your creations @burghhouse1704!