Symbols & Meanings of Christmas: Christmas Cards & Stockings

Each day between December 1-25, we will look at one of the traditional symbols of Christmas, what these symbols mean and how they tell the Christmas story of our Savior’s birth.

Christmas Cards

WhyChristmas.com writes the following history for Christmas cards:

People have been sending Christmas greetings to each other for hundreds of years. The first recorded use of ‘Merry Christmas’ was in a Christmas letter sent in 1534.

1611 – Card to King James I of England

The first known item that looked a bit like a Christmas card was given to King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland) in 1611. This was more like a large ornamental manuscript rather than a card as we think of them today. It was 84cm x 60cm (33″ x 24″) and was folded into panels (it might have been folded so it could be carried around). It had a picture of a rose in the centre and a Christmas and New Year message to the King and his son was written into and around the rose. Also on the manuscript were four poems and a song – so rather more than are on cards today!

Sir Henry Cole’s first card

The custom of sending Christmas cards, as we know them today, was started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. He was a senior civil servant (Government worker) who had helped set-up the new ‘Public Record Office’ (now called the Post Office), where he was an Assistant Keeper, and wondered how it could be used more by ordinary people.

The First Christmas Card

Firstchristmascard“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas Cards with his friend John Horsley, who was an artist. They designed the first card and sold them for 1 shilling each. (That is only 5p or 8 cents today(!), but in those days it was worth much much more.) The card had three panels. The outer two panels showed people caring for the poor and in the center panel was a family having a large Christmas dinner! Some people didn’t like the card because it showed a child being given a glass of wine! About 1000 (or it might have been less!) were printed and sold. They are now very rare and cost thousands of Pounds or Dollars to buy now! The original cards were advertised with the slogan: “Just published, a Christmas Congratulations Card; or picture emblematical of old English festivity to perpetuate kind recollections between dear friends”!

The “Penny Post”

The first postal service that ordinary people could use was started in 1840 when the first ‘Penny Post’ public postal deliveries began (Sir Henry Cole helped to introduce the Penny Post). Before that, only very rich people could afford to send anything in the post. The new Post Office was able to offer a Penny stamp because new railways were being built. These could carry much more post than the horse and carriage that had been used before. Also, trains could go a lot faster. Cards became even more popular in the UK when they could be posted in an unsealed envelope for one halfpenny – half the price of an ordinary letter.

Read more about Henry Cole’s first Christmas card here.

Mass production

As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became much more popular and were produced in large numbers from about 1860. In 1870 the cost of sending a post card, and also Christmas cards, dropped to half a penny. This meant even more people were able to send cards.

An engraved card by the artist William Egley, who illustrated some of Charles Dickens’s books, is on display in the British Museum. By the early 1900s, the custom had spread over Europe and had become especially popular in Germany.

The first cards usually had pictures of the Nativity scene on them. In late Victorian times, robins (a British bird) and snow-scenes became popular. In those times the postmen were nicknamed ‘Robin Postmen’ because of the red uniforms they wore. Snow-scenes were popular because they reminded people of the very bad winter that happened in the UK in 1836.

Christmas Cards in the U.S.

Christmas Cards appeared in the United States of America in the late 1840s, but were very expensive and most people couldn’t afford them. It 1875, Louis Prang, a printer who was originally from German but who had also worked on early cards in the UK, started mass producing cards so more people could afford to buy them. Mr Prang’s first cards featured flowers, plants, and children. In 1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hallmark Cards, who are still one of the biggest card makers today!

First Personalized Christmas Card

The first known ‘personalised’ Christmas Card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. She was in Glasgow, Scotland at Christmas 1891 and sent cards back to her friends and family in the USA featuring a photo of her on it. As she was in Scotland, she’s wearing tartan in the photo! Annie reportedly designed the cards herself and they were printed by a local printer.

Home Made Christmas Cards

In the 1910s and 1920s, home made cards became popular. They were often unusual shapes and had things such as foil and ribbon on them. These were usually too delicate to send through the post and were given by hand.

Christmas Cards Today

Nowadays, cards have all sorts of pictures on them: jokes, winter pictures, Santa Claus or romantic scenes of life in past times.

Read more history about Christmas Cards here.

Christmas Card Infographic

An infographic has been created by printing company moo.com and they used some of the information from the WhyChristmas.com page to make it! If you want to see a bigger version, click on the graphic.

MOO Christmas Cards

Christmas Stockings

From a post on December 29, 2017, The Vintage News reported the following history to Christmas stockings:

There is no single account that defines it, there are a few legends that illustrate the custom of hanging Christmas stockings.

Nicholas

The tradition of Christmas stockings originated in the generous deeds of a nobleman named Nicholas who was born in 280 A.D. in Asia Minor. Nicholas dedicated his life to following the principles of Jesus Christ, using his wealth to help impoverished and suffering people. He became the Bishop of Myra in his young years, and was immensely popular for his kind, generous heart. Living a lifetime of celibacy, Nicholas never married or had children, but he loved children and thus often regaled those who lived in his hometown. This practice provided him with the epithet “the gift-giver of Myra.” Interestingly, his nobility never prevailed his modesty, so he always gave his presents late at night in order to protect his identity. He didn’t like the children to know who their patron was, so they were often told to go and sleep or otherwise he wouldn’t visit them.

Help for a wealthy merchant and his daughters

One of the legends regarding Christmas stockings takes us to a small village where the destiny of the once wealthy merchant and his daughters changed overnight when they fell into poverty. The father was worried about the future of his children and afraid that he wouldn’t be able to provide dowries for their marriages in the future. At that time, this meant an almost humiliation due to the impossibility of wedlock. While the now-famous St.Nicholas traveled, he passed through the village and heard the sad story about the merchant and his daughter, learning from the locals that he would not accept any gifts of charity.

One night, while he was riding his gorgeous white horse, he stopped at the merchant’s home and threw three bags filled with gold coins down the house’s chimney. The bags fell down right into the girls’ stockings which were hung by the fireplace mantle to dry. The next morning, the daughters and their father discovered the coins and jumped for joy.  The young women married happily and prosperously, so, obviously, their story had a happily ever after. The details of their story spread among the villagers, whose children began hanging their stockings by the fireplace, hoping to receive presents from St. Nicholas.

Christmas stockings in Dutch folklore

Another amusing legend that explains the tradition of Christmas stockings derives from the Dutch folklore. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus, called “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, and his fellow assistant Black Pete or “Zwarte Piet” annually dock in the harbor of a different city. When they disembark, Sinterklaas and his pal travel around upon a white steed and a mule. The children impatiently wait for their arrival and prepare special treats of hay and carrots which they place in their wooden clogs.

On the day of the arrival, the horse, the mule, and Sinterklaas would enjoy the children’s treats and then reward their devotion and care with small presents such as candies, ornaments, nuts in shells, miniature toys etc. When the Dutch settlers immigrated to America, they introduced Americans to many of their traditions. After a while, Sinterklaas became known as Santa Claus and, allegedly, the wooden clogs were replaced by stockings.

Today, numerous children around the world await the chunky, white-bearded man’s visit to their homes, and when they see the stockings, they know that the joy of finding new small presents inside is getting closer with a day.

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