Although it could not compete with the speed of email today, the 1800's nevertheless experienced a revolution in communication that played an important role in creating the tradition of the Christmas greeting card. Helped by the new railway system, the public postal service made corresponding a popular past time. In England, Sir Henry Cole recognized the advantage of a more efficient mail service and initiated the practice of sending Christmas greeting cards to friends.
The first formal Christmas card was designed by J.C. Horsley in 1843 as a commercial endeavor. It was lithographed on stiff, dark cardboard and depicted in color, a wealthy family enjoying a Christmas feast as they all toast the festive season with glasses of wine raised over the words "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you." The scene was set within a woody, rustic border hung with ivy, grapes and vine leaves.
One thousand copies were printed sold in London, and soon others followed suit. An English artist, William Egley, produced a popular card in 1849. Louis Prang, a German born printer, working from his shop in Roxbury, Massachusetts, printed his first American cards in 1875. Even more important than his printing was the fact that he did more than anyone else to popularize the cards by instituting nationwide contests for the best Christmas designs, which were awarded cash prizes.
Adding to the popularity of Christmas cards was the "penny post," created by the British Postal System. This resulted in an inexpensive way to correspond with large numbers of friends, and as printing methods improved, Christmas card production increased. The custom of sending Christmas cards caught on because at that time in England one could mail greetings for only a penny each.
From the beginning the themes have been as varied as the Christmas customs worldwide. Many cards were extremely elaborate with gilded, embossed, shaped, pop-up and pierced forms. Very few of these early Victorian Christmas cards illustrate the religious meaning of the Christmas holiday, and they rarely show landscapes blanketed in snow or warmly clad skaters on ponds or even reindeers pulling Santa's sleigh over the countryside which are all so common today on our cards Traditionally, Christmas cards showed religious pictures - Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, or other parts of the Christmas story. Today, cards often portray humor, winter pictures, Santa Claus, or romantic scenes of life in past times.
Americans typically exchange in excess of 2 billion cards each year. According to Hallmark Cards, the all-time favorite sentiment on a Christmas card is "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You!"