Leftovers: The fine art of the holiday card

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The first Christmas cards were printed in 1843 in a solo run of one thousand. They were commissioned by a prominent Victorian educator and arts patron named Sir Henry Cole, who coincidentally (or not) co-developed the fairly new penny post, which enabled people to send letters quickly and en masse. With Christmas approaching, Cole was distraught over stacks of letters on his private desk that remained unopened and unanswered. Hence, the idea of a greeting card that could expedite the task without losing its personal touch came to be. 

Natalie Haberman-LaddThirty years later and across the pond, Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, created the first American Christmas card. Unlike Cole’s version, which depicted a scene of people sharing a meal and helping those less fortunate, Prang’s cards didn’t have a Christmas or holiday image. Instead, it was a vivid reproduction of a floral painting and a simple message that read, “Merry Christmas.” 

The holiday card trend caught on, unfolding over the years to include sketches of nativity scenes and religious artifacts. Specific messages and graphics were modified as greeting card production became big business. By the 1950s, family Christmas card collections were displayed in baskets or propped up on fireplace mantels and tabletops. Digging out the address list of snail mail card recipients became as much a part of Christmas preparation as untangling lights and hanging mistletoe. 

With the advancement of technology, Christmas card exchanges (along with everything else involving human communication) changed. Electronic greetings saved even more time, could auto-fill names and email addresses, and arrived within seconds of pushing the send button. Families could still share their “What Happened This Year!” pre-social media newsletter. But now they might include a digital roll of cute baby pictures. Or a cranky pet cat’s head could be photoshopped over a reindeer’s face, saying Happy Holidays from my Humans.  

1843 Christmas card
The first commercial holiday card was printed in England in 1843.

Maybe any greeting is better than no greeting, but the old school-handwritten-sign-and-mail card aficionados began to feel the soul of the process was lacking. Interestingly enough, Gen Z and Millennials are reported to feel the very same. As Jura Koncius of the Washington Post put it, they might just be the ones to save the card business.  

Anna Konings, 36, is a greeting card designer and multimedia artist who sells handmade, small-batch cards on Etsy and at local events around New England. A new wife and online graduate student living in Ogunquit, Konings believes her generation is “scroll-weary” and looking for authenticity not found in boxed cards on the shelf at Walmart. Calling her peers a segment of people who value the little touches and messages of sincerity, her cards reach for a kind of humor previously deemed tacky. She also makes her own paper out of recycled materials, citing the importance of the environment to her “tribe” who are willing to pay for her efforts.

“A few years ago, I lost a pregnancy,” Konings shared with me. “The sympathy cards were of butterflies or cliché red birds or had religious symbols that infuriated me at the time. With all the cards out there nothing visualized or expressed how awful I felt. After all, cards are meant as balm for the person who gets it. Then, that realization expanded when people asked me to make Christmas cards.”

Konings knew she hit the mark when a customer emailed, telling her that she had given each recipient a picture frame to hold their card once they read the handwritten message. 

One great thing about the fusion of technology, accompanied by a possible return to a simpler time, is that we have options to reach out this holiday season. Personally, I’m with the Gen Zers and Millennials and have learned from Anna Konings. I’m going to mail out environmentally friendly cards with beautiful nativity scenes to my Christian friends who celebrate. The card isn’t for me; it’s fully intended for them. But since the card is from me, their handwritten messages may be irreverent (yet loving). 

Sir Henry Cole and Louis Prang would likely be touched by the baskets of cards from all our years gone by, and would be in disbelief over thumb drives full of saved holiday photos and messages. With the rising costs of postage, I can’t say what direction future generations will take Christmas cards. 

But the holidays are upon us and thankfully we have texting and phones too, if so inclined. I’m looking forward to reaching out this year, and hope you are too. If need be, buy bulk cards or send out electric ones. Call or text. Or simply share your Christmas regards with family and friends by wishing them the best in your finest penmanship. 

If the spirit moves you, that is. 

Natalie Haberman Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].

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