Putting it on paper

The digital age has largely done in Christmas cards, but there’s a long history connected to the tradition

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Social media and email mailing lists make it quick and easy to share holiday greetings today. For a century and a half before the emergence of the Internet, however, we relied on printed Christmas cards and even postcards for sharing best wishes with others.

The ritual of writing out cards, addressing envelopes, affixing stamps and dropping a bundle into the nearest postal box already seems antiquated after just a generation. The rise of technology contributed to a rapid decline a tradition that dates back to the middle of the 19th century, as more people opt to send e-cards, e-mails, or publish family portraits on social media rather than send Christmas cards through the post.

In fact, traditional cards are already something of a piece of history.

“Because of Facebook and social media that we have today, it’s easy,” said Karen Richardson, curator of the Haldimand County Museum. “Just put that picture up on Facebook, wish everybody a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and you know everybody’s going to see it. All your family and friends, because they’re all connected now.”

The instantaneous and cheaper method of social media has made posting more convenient for the average person. But historically, expressions of goodwill were sent through different mediums.

The creation of postcards goes all the way back to 1840 when writer Theodore Hook sent one to himself  in London. The more traditional Christmas card, specifically wishing ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’, was developed shortly thereafter in 1843 by English illustrator John Horsley.

Tom Reitz, the former longtime manager of the Waterloo Region Museum, notes that those historical mementos echo modern-day text messages.

“For those who do have their own messages, whether they’re Christmas cards or any kind of card, they kind of read like text messages today that people send,” said Reitz. “They’re quick – ‘Coming on the noon train. Meet me.’  or ‘Merry Christmas.’ Sometimes there are long message, about health or life on the farm or whatever’s going on. But at the same time, they do seem to be these really quick messages.”

“They’re always brief, but they say a lot,” added Richardson.

The cheap cost of these postcards made them globally popular, with the emergence of the “Penny Post” in the 19th century.

“They were about a penny to buy and penny postage to send within the country,” said Reitz. “Two cents across the border. So I think it was one of those things – it became this popular thing to collect and to send.”

“With the coloured lithographs, it was cheaper to produce, so that made it more affordable for everybody,” added Richardson. “It was very popular between the 1890s, 1900s right up until lately when the Internet kind of took over.”

In fact, postcards were so popular that some decided to keep and collect them as a hobby, rather than to mail them out. There is an entire subculture dedicated to those who collect and study postcards, known as deltiology. The phrase was coined in the 1940s and is the third-largest collecting hobby after stamp and coin collecting.

“They might have tucked them in a gift, they might have put them in an envelope,” said Reitz. “Or, they just collected them because it was a fad, kind of like baseball cards or hockey cards. People collected postcards.”

Businesses were even created to profit off of the postcard craze.

“There were specifically postcard stores,” said Reitz. “Racks and racks of postcards – every kind of postcard you can imagine. Because people collected and traded them, there was a market for that kind of store.”

What was featured on these postcards was wide-ranging. Some had simple generic expressions of goodwill; others had the whole family accompanied by the life updates of each member in the past year, or children posing with a mall Santa.

The First World War (1914-1918) and Second World War (1939-1945) eras came with their own unique, specially designed set of postcards.

“It was a very popular time to send postcards overseas because it was something simple, and easy and could put it in their packages and that kind of thing,” said Richardson. “They actually developed a whole series of World War I postcards for Christmas.

“Sometimes they were from the battalion. For example, we have here the 114th Haldimand Battalion. There was a specific card made that would say ‘Seasons Greetings from Haldimand 114th.’ Almost every Battalion all across Ontario did that.”

Other times a card would be sent towards a spouse in the military, wishing them goodwill during the difficult period. Furthermore, the exact dates of each postcard could be tracked using a feature online.

Postcards do still make an appearance in the present-day, although not as frequently in the traditional sense. Many libraries, historical societies, and genealogical societies collect postcards, as it provides a little snapshot into the past; painting a picture of how a specific area once looked.

Though largely supplanted by digital alternatives, the classic Christmas card still makes an appearance, along with the other paper-based trappings of the holiday – Canadians spent $98.7 million on stationery, office supplies, cards, gift wrap, and party supplies as recently as December 2016.

Displayed on mantles and perhaps tucked away in a shoebox for posterity, the traditional greeting card is likely to have a place, if only as a connection to the past and as a glimpse of our history.