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Dead robins and murderous mice! The dark origins of the Victorian Christmas card

Hold on to your lobsters: Victorian Christmas cards favoured the surreal
Hold on to your lobsters: Victorian Christmas cards favoured the surreal - Hulton Archive

The year 1843 was a good one for Christmas. Dickens’s legendary festive tale, A Christmas Carol, was published and the first commercially produced Christmas card was launched. Today, an estimated one billion cards are sent each year in the UK alone. By the time December 25 comes around, mantelpieces across the country are bedecked with images of chirruping robins, snow scenes, angels and, of course, Father Christmas himself. But such festive creations are a far cry from their Victorian forebears, which seemed more designed to shock than to spread festive cheer.

It all started harmlessly enough. Henry Cole was an upstanding member of 19th-century society and, among other things, a civil servant, educator, inventor and first director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Not surprisingly, he didn’t have much time for the traditional letters that were exchanged between friends and family every Christmas and New Year. He therefore asked his artist friend John Callcott Horsley to design a card that he could send out instead.

The central illustration showed three generations of the Cole family raising a toast, while around the border were scenes depicting acts of giving. Inside, there was space for a personalised, hand-written greeting. Satisfied with the design, Cole had a thousand copies printed and offered for sale. An advert for the cards in the Athenaeum newspaper read: “Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.”

Cole, a model of Victorian enterprise, hoped that these cards would in turn boost the Uniform Penny Post, which he had helped to establish. But at a shilling a piece (the equivalent of about £3 today), his cards were too expensive for the average pocket and were judged a commercial flop. They were controversial, too, because the design included several younger members of the Cole family enjoying what appeared to be glasses of wine along with their older siblings and parents. At a time when temperance was encouraged, Cole’s card was thought by some to encourage underage drinking.

As with all great inventions, though, it was just a question of timing. In the years that followed, Christmas became big business. Developments in the publishing industry made Dickens’s festive stories more affordable for the growing middle classes, who were already lapping up new Christmas traditions inspired by Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert. These included bringing a tree into one’s home and decorating it for the festive season. Then Victoria herself sent the first official Christmas card and Cole’s idea came back with gusto.

Cherub army: another bizarre Victorian Christmas card
Cherub army: another bizarre Victorian Christmas card

New printing processes and techniques made the second generation of Christmas cards more elaborate. They were still expensive, though, and were sold in bookshops and stationers to a decidedly bourgeois customer base. All of that changed in the 1870s with the importation of cheaper cards from Germany and advances in British printing and publishing technology.

As the popularity of Christmas cards grew, Victorians demanded more novelty. Scenes of festive merriment and charity no longer cut the mustard. What the clientele demanded were designs that prompted shock, surprise, disgust and even outrage. They had to start conversations, not just send season’s greetings. In an age before computer games, TikTok and the EastEnders Christmas special, cards were an important source of festive entertainment.

And what better entertainment than armies of black and red ants battling it out under a banner offering “The Compliments of the Season”, lobsters sniping at children or Christmas puddings in human form? “May yours be a joyful Christmas”, reads one card from the late 1800s, along with an illustration of a dead robin. Another shows an elderly couple laughing maniacally as they lean out of a second-story window and throw water onto a group of carollers below. “Wishing you a jolly Christmas”, it declares.

Soggy carollers: one of the many provocative designs
Soggy carollers: one of the many provocative designs

So far, so bizarre. But things took a darker turn in the later 1800s. Competitions organised by card publishers offered cash prizes for the best designs, sparking ever more outlandish, often shocking, themes. Eager to have the edge over their rivals, card companies would commission prominent artists to produce new designs. Murderous mice, flies crawling over a sugar cube, a clown hitting a policeman with a dead goose (captioned “A little sauce with his goose”), anthropomorphic frogs, bloodthirsty snowmen and Santa kidnapping children all featured in Christmas cards towards the end of the 19th century. Others championed nudity, racism and class distinction. Each season, newspapers would review the latest offerings, like books or films today.

The Victorians so loved this new breed of festive greetings that they judged them too good to throw away. Collecting Christmas cards became a middle-class passion and some people had them framed and hung on their walls all year round.

As well as having a taste for the macabre (posing with dead relatives was de rigueur throughout the period), the Victorians, contrary to their reputation, loved to be amused.  Alongside novelty cards, mechanical fold-out or pop-up creations became increasingly popular and were often paired with pranks and hidden messages. There were puns a-plenty, too. One card featured a cat with a pipe cleaner for a tail and carried the caption “Ye Christmas Tale”. Another showed an unfortunate man falling through the ice. Hilarious.

With the compliments of the season: roast rat
With the compliments of the season: roast rat

Riddles and hidden messages were also popular, such as the card that showed a teacup with the greeting “With best wishes” concealed in the tea leaves. On the back was a verse warning against the perils of alcohol.

Then, as now, Britain was a nation of pet-lovers. Dogs, cats and rabbits wearing oversized bows or posing in festive settings were popular features, as were animals with human characteristics. Such designs may have been inspired by Charles Darwin, who in 1859 published On the Origin of Species.

Strangely, given the Victorians’ reputation for piety, religious images had no place on their Christmas cards. This was also true of the first known card to be given at Christmas, back in 1611. Michael Maier, a German physician, presented it to King James I and his son Henry, Prince of Wales. It was rather wordier than its modern-day counterparts. The message, which was laid out in the form of a rose, read:

“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.”

A Merry Christmas: demented snowballs
A Merry Christmas: demented snowballs

Unfortunately, the new year proved anything but. The Prince of Wales died of typhoid fever at the age of just 18, plunging the kingdom into crisis.

Fast forward 300 years and the onset of the First World War in 1914 led to a profound change in the theme of Christmas cards. Out were the macabre and humorous; in were the nostalgic, religious and patriotic. During the decades that followed, folding cards took the place of the traditional postcard format, which allowed more room for cheerful or sentimental messages inside. By the 1950s, Santas and snow scenes had taken the place of clowns and dead robins. Such images still predominate today – although, like the Victorians, we’re not averse to the occasional violin-playing cat.

But will the traditional Christmas card soon be a thing of the past? The advent of e-cards and the rising cost of living (not to mention stamps) has seen a decline in the number of cards exchanged over the festive season. Given that Christmas cards account for almost half the volume of greeting card sales in the UK, the industry must be quaking in its boots. Perhaps it’s time to bring back an aggressive lobster or two.