You might think that Christmas cards have been around forever, and the annual card writing marathon seems to last an eternity almost as long. 

But you’d be wrong. And neither did they begin in Lapland!

The tradition was started in 1843 and was inspired by the British Post Office – more specifically, London based Sir Henry Cole who had helped set up the Post Office and was looking at ways to give it wider use for the general population. 

John Horsley (1817–1903), English painter

Sir Henry Cole (15 July 1808 – 18 April 1882)

Designed with artist friend John Horsley, the first card cost 1 shilling (5p) and immediately managed to offend a number of people for the depiction of a child being given wine. C’mon…it was Christmas!

C’mon…it was Christmas!

First card designed by Henry Cole and John Horsley

It cost 1 penny to send your card by train or a half penny if you were to risk the envelope going unsealed. There is no practical operational reason why unsealed should be cheaper, but as the sender you halved the price by doubling the risk! 

Approximately 1,000 were printed by Cole and Horsley but by no means were all posted. It might have been a slow start for the embryonic Christmas card, but in 2010 2.2 billion cards were sent in Britain and the USA alone!

So when you are wading through packets and boxes of Christmas cards this December, you can thank an English civil servant who thought it would be a good way to test out the new British Post Office. 

An English Heritage blue plaque can be found at his place of residence and work at 33 Thurloe Square, South Kensington, opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

33 Thurloe Square, South Kensington

The blue plaque at 33 Thurloe Square, South Kensington