The cards that endure in a virtual world

Pricewatch: A little Christmas cheer from Charles Dickens has grown into the present-giving, card-writing traditions of today

In an age of TikTok, Snapchat, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, not to mention WhatsApp and the old-school text message, is it any wonder the Christmas card is not what it used to be? But it hasn’t gone away and, in fact, research published last year points to the mental health benefits of sending and receiving cards.

A study carried out in the University of Limerick (UL) led by Prof Stephen Gallagher, director of the Study of Anxiety Stress and Health Lab, linked the sending of Christmas cards with lower levels of depression. Researchers have also suggested that a change of habitual card sending could be a red flag that someone may be struggling over the Christmas season.

But where did it all start? You could say it began with Father Christmas himself, Charles Dickens. Up until he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the season was anything but jolly. The zeal of the 17th century puritans had put something of a dampener on the season while the Industrial Revolution did not do a whole lot for Christmas spirit either.

Dickens wrote his story in just six weeks and, in doing so, created great expectations of Christmases future. He gave us the phrase “merry Christmas” and made presents the norm.


December 25th became “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time... when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”.

Without all that, we’d not be sending cards today. But Dickens did not invent them. They actually date back to 1611.

“A greeting on the birthday of the sacred king, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the birthday of the lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612,” read the earnest message on the card sent by a chap called Michael Maier to James I of England. He was ahead of his time.

It wasn’t until 1843 – a big, big year for Christmas presents – that the first card, as we might recognise it, was sent.

The man widely credited with creating the modern tradition is Sir Henry Cole who also founded the Victoria and Albert Museum. His first cards produced in 1843 featured merry folk drinking wine and were considered quite risqué. Wine! On a card? Shocking.

It took another 30 years or so for cards to become a real feature of Christmas. They still are today.

While the An Post workers work hard in the run-up to Christmas, spare a thought for the postal workers of the 19th century who were expected to deliver cards on Christmas morning.

In 1875, a canny American printer called Louis Prang, brought Christmas cards – or at least the sale of them – to his hometown of Boston and within six years he was printing more than five million of them.

The cards of times past looked more like postcards and it wasn’t until early in the last century that two brothers called Hall decided to introduce cards with a fold in the middle. Their company later became known as Hallmark, you may have heard of it.

The great God of Google tells us that the most popular Christmas card design features the angels that were heard on high while merry Christmas and season’s greetings are the two most common messages to be found on them. Happy holidays is also pretty popular in the US but the less said about that the better.

Many billions of Christmas cards will be sent all over the world this year and the production comes at a cost. About 3,000 cards come from one tree and if 5 billion cards are sent each year, more than 160 million trees will have to be felled to meet demand.

A man called Werner Erhard of San Francisco set a world record by sending 62,824 Christmas cards in December of 1975. Why? Who knows.

Women are the main drivers of the card game, buying and sending more than 80 per cent of them in any given year.

An Post handle well over 100,000 letters to Santa in the run-up to Christmas. Not only do all those letters get to where they need to be, replies will be sent to many of the children as well, with elves drafted in from some of the most unlikely places – including Ballymount – to help the big man with the responses.