New York has important associations with the formation of what is now considered a traditional American Christmas. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (a.k.a. “Twas The Night Before Christmas”) was first published in the Troy Sentinel in 1823; The Albany Evening Journal ran an advertisement on December 17, 1841, that is believed to be the first time Santa Clause was used to advertise a store; and America’s first Christmas card was published in Albany in 1850/51.
Recently two rare printings of the first commercially printed Christmas card, published in England, have been announced for sale at auction. The cards depicts a family toasting with glasses of red wine. Commissioned by Henry Cole and designed by John Callcott Horsley, it carries the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
Appearing in 1843, the image caused controversy. It nevertheless set a precedent and helped unleash a passion for Christmas cards (and the plateful of pudding-flavored platitudes associated with them).
Before Cromwell, Christmas Day was an English public holiday. Churches, public buildings, and private houses were decorated with holly and ivy. People visited family and friends to exchange presents. The rich distributed “boxes” with goodies to servants and the poor (hence Boxing Day).
Food and drink were consumed in large quantities, including turkey and beef, mince pies, plum porridge, and specially-brewed Christmas ale. Taverns did a roaring trade. It was a period of glut, of singing, dancing, gaming, and staging plays (pantomimes did not emerge until the eighteenth century) – not to mention drunken orgies and sexual immorality.
Puritans in England condemned Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs, and carried those attitudes to New England. an English pamphleteer Philip Stubbs, writing in the late sixteenth century, complained that more “mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides.” Festivities were seen as an excuse for excessive drinking, eating, gambling, and disorderly behavior.
In the early 1640s power passed from Charles I to Cromwell’s regime. The clamping down on Christmas celebrations began. In January 1645, the Long Parliament produced a Directory for Public Worship prescribing that festival days were to be spent in contemplation. Prohibition remained in force until the Restoration of 1660. It was only then that the Twelve Days of Christmas could be enjoyed again.
From the beginning of recorded Christmas celebrations, there has been tension between religious content and secular revelry.
Fashions & Fancies
In January 1845 Eliza Acton published her Modern Cookery for Private Families in which she supplied her readers with a recipe for traditional plum pudding – Acton is believed to have been the first to present the dish as “Christmas Pudding.”
In December 1846 the widely read Illustrated London News published a picture on its cover showing Queen Victoria with her German husband and cousin Prince Albert and their children surrounding a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. Albert introduced to Britain a Nordic tradition of bringing trees indoors and decorating them. For those who could afford it, a fashion was set.
In America, New England Puritans had tried to stamp out the “pagan” mockery associated with Christmas, penalizing any frivolity that would desecrate the event. In 1659, the colony of Massachusetts made feasting an offense punishable by a five shillings fine. People continued to work on Christmas Day. That all changed by the mid-nineteenth century.
Mass migration from German states intensified the Christmas sentiment. Immigrants brought their traditions and carols with them. The tune of “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber. Translated in 1859 as “Silent Night” by John Freeman Young of New York’s Trinity Church in Wall Street, it became a best-selling Anglo-American soundtrack.
Up to the 1840s, many Americans still rejected the Christmas tree as a “heathen” symbol. By 1856, the tree tradition had become so ingrained that President Franklin Pierce erected one in the White House for the first time.
Department stores began to stay open late on the days before Christmas and ornaments for trees sold well. Popular excitement was stirred by entrepreneurs, not by preachers or ministers.
Publishers encouraged the commercialization of Christmas. Gift-books and keepsakes were produced and authors responded to a growing market. Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843. By the mid-nineteenth century a trend was set in motion. As printing methods improved and posting costs decreased, cards were produced in large numbers from about 1860.
Henry Cole was a prominent civil-servant and the first Director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1843, he commissioned John Callcott Horsley to design the first commercial Christmas card. It would start a mania of sending of seasonal greetings – but not without initial controversy.
Cole’s card shows two acts of charity (“feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked”), but these images are overshadowed by a jolly family scene in which three generations (including children) are raising their glass in celebration. The depiction of youngsters drinking wine led to protests by members of the British temperance movement who had declared war on the nation’s boozing habits.
Using the pseudonym Felix Summerley, Cole founded Summerley’s Art Manufacturer in 1847, producing hand-colored Christmas cards that were printed lithographically in runs of 1,000 copies. They were advertised with the slogan: “A Christmas Congratulations Card; or picture emblematical of old English festivity to perpetuate kind recollections between dear friends.”
The dispute between Cole and his critics highlighted the simmering tension between religious message and seasonal merrymaking. The fun factor would gain the upper hand and cards became fashionable. Content and design would change with the arrival of a German immigrant.
A Prussian in East London
Raphael Tuck was a Jewish immigrant who had brought his wife and seven children from Prussia to East London. In 1866, he started selling pictures and frames from premises in Spitalfields. Five years later he turned his attention to printing Christmas cards, entrusting the venture to his son Adolph who had joined the business at the age of sixteen. Tuck’s designs were mainly secular, featuring scenes of the season’s gaiety.
Well-known painters were commissioned to design cards. In 1880 the firm held its first Christmas card competition with substantial prizes for the best designs submitted. An exhibition was held in Dudley Galleries, Piccadilly. The spectacle gave considerable impetus to the trade. In 1883, Queen Victoria granted the firm the Royal Warrant of Appointment.
The appeal of Christmas cards was international. Having opened a branch in Paris in 1882, the company decided to take on the American market with an offer of greeting cards, calendars, paper dolls, jig-saws, and picture postcards. In 1895, Raphael Tuck & Son established offices at 368 Broadway, relocating to 122 Fifth Avenue in 1900.
Raphael died in March 1900 in Highgate, London, leaving the running of the company to Adolph Tuck who was raised to the British Peerage in 1910. Having begun his career as a Talmudic scholar, Raphael left a card-selling empire. The irony is that an orthodox Jew became the international champion of Christmas cards.
There is another irony. It has been estimated that more than 40,000 different pre-war picture postcards were printed and sold in many thousands of editions. This is just a guess as the firm’s records were lost in December 1940 when German bombs destroyed Tuck’s offices.
A Prussian in Boston
When Christmas cards began to appear in the United States they were exclusive and expensive. It would take a few decades before the card habit became popular. Here too, there was Prussian intervention.
Louis Prang was born in March 1824 in Breslau. Of fragile health, he missed much of standard schooling and became an apprentice to his father, a textile manufacturer, who taught him printing, engraving, and calico dyeing. In 1848, he got caught up in revolutionary upheavals and was forced to flee Prussia. In 1850 he packed his bags, left Europe, and moved to Boston. By 1856, he had established himself as a publisher of lithographs, specializing in prints of buildings and monuments in Massachusetts. In 1864 he made a trip to Europe to familiarize himself with the latest developments in (German) lithography. On his return, Prang produced high quality reproductions of famous works of art. As a popular side-line, he created series of album cards (natural scenes, patriotic images, etc.), advertised to be collected into scrapbooks.
The real success story began in 1874 when he started to trade and mass produce Christmas cards featuring an imagery of flowers, plants, and children. Just like Raphael Tuck’s undertaking in London, Prang organized competitions, offering financial prizes for top designs (among the winners were Elihu Vedder, Edwin Blashfield, and others). Designer Louis Comfort Tiffany was one of the judges. By 1881, Prang was reportedly printing five million Christmas cards a year.
The former revolutionary agitator was dubbed the “Father of the American Christmas Card.” Ironically, the massive import of cheap cards from Germany eventually forced Prang out of business by 1890. Since 1988, the Greeting Card Association (GCA) has organized the annual Louie Award, honoring Prang’s memory.
Illustrations, from above: First Xmas card by John Callcott Horsley, 1843 (Victoria and Albert Museum); Raphael Tuck and Sons publishers; Tuck Xmas postcard, 1909; Illustrated London News, December 1848: the Royal family surrounding a Christmas tree (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images); Christmas card by Louis Prang, 1876 (Bella C. Landauer Collection); Christmas card by Louis Prang; and Elihu Vedder’s winning design for Prang’s Christmas card contest, 1881.