Loads of people are asking me that all important question this year: “Why are all these old cards so weird?” So many have asked, in fact, that I wrote it all out so I can just link to my answer. I love to educate, but I’m also lazy.
Why, then, were the Victorians in particular (but also the Edwardians, Americans, basically anyone pre WWI) so seemingly hell-bent on filling Christmas cards with images of murdering frogs, dead birds, talking animals, animate puddings and other ambulatory foods, and just general non-Christmassy insanity?
The answer’s actually pretty simple. So I’ll take a long time to explain it:
First, take that phone out of your pocket. Who am I kidding, you’re probably reading this on your phone. Or at the very least, it’s sitting within reach as a second (or third) screen to use while you’re on a computer. Point is: that phone is instant visual stimulation, right? Instagram alone survives off of our desire (and, the more we use it, the NEED) for new, new, new, new, new things to look at.
Now imagine, if you can, a world without phones. But TV! Ok, imagine a world without TV. But magazines/newspapers! Ok, imagine a world where those were more expensive and much more time-intensive to make.
Now you’re getting closer to the Victorian situation. They had the same desire for visual novelty we have with only a fraction of the ability to satisfy it.
Then, around 1843, two things happened. First, the UK postal system introduced the “penny post”, allowing anyone to send a letter anywhere else in the country for just a penny. AND, Henry Cole, a guy who was too nice not to write back to all the people who were sending him letters, came up with the idea of a reproducible “post card” that he could use to reply to people without having to write a long-ass letter to each and every person.
The postcard craze was born overnight. Within ten years, postcard printers couldn’t even pretend to keep up with demand.
But what really captured peoples’ imagination wasn’t the ease of communication. It was how these cards offered more than a distraction by way of words and listening to your sister bitch about her lame husband. They offered art, or a close approximation. And it was always new! You never knew what someone might send you on a postcard.
At the time, people often kept letters they received for years, so it wasn’t a stretch to start keeping the cards, too. But people didn’t just lock them away in a desk drawer. They organized them in boxes, books, and even on walls. They went to friends’ houses and browsed their postcards. They started to recognize companies’ and printers’ styles and had their favorites, even keeping up with fashions and knowledge about new series or editions that came out and hoped that they’d receive their favorites from friends and family.
Postcards were cheap and plentiful visual distraction in a world where that was mostly hard to come by. And new images could arrive at your door every day, even twice a day. Sure, you could always go buy a book or a magazine or newspaper, but postcards just magically…arrived. They were as cool as the first time little boy Craig Kringle got to watch Star Wars at home in the 80’s.
So Christmas, or any holiday, really, was just another excuse to buy, write, send, and receive more postcards. Volume counted because volume meant variety. And you didn’t want to send a bunch of the same boring versions of the same boring picture over and over — you certainly didn’t want to receive the same thing. And even when it came to highly ritualized topics like Christmas, that didn’t keep people from wanting something surprising and different.
The fact was: people would put anything on a Christmas card. And the reason was that it wasn’t first and foremost a CHRISTMAS postcard. Instead, it was a POSTCARD that happened to come at Christmas. I mean, Christmas gifts aren’t all Christmas-themed — they’re just gifts you get at Christmas. Same with postcards. Furthermore, the cards were things to keep, look at over and over again, even in a lot of cases treasure. So while it was certainly fun to have some pictures of Father Christmas giving a kid a toy, why waste your chance to send/receive new eye-candy by sending out a hundred versions of the same picture?
That’s why the printers would slap “Seasons Greetings!” on any card they had in stock, whether it seemed to go along with the sentiment or not. They would sell, and in a lot of cases, they might sell better than yet another manger scene or holly wreath or Father Christmas.
Variety was more essential than being on-message.
We don’t think that way because Christmas cards are a very ritualized tradition with expectations, both good and bad. The good expectation is that you’re probably going to get something tasteful you can add to your decorations for awhile or at least a picture of folk so you can compare how well/poorly you’re aging. But the bad expectation is that you’re likely going to toss them in the bin a week or so after Christmas. Really, how often in August do you pull out your collection of the last ten years’ Christmas cards and admire the art? If you belong to the vast mass middle of humanity, precisely never. But the Victorians would. So they wanted to keep it spicy. And the best way to do that was to offer as much variety as possible, especially at Christmastime when everyone was excited to send and receive as many cards as they could.
Now, that’s not to say that they didn’t also go nuts with traditional Christmas-themed Christmas cards. In fact, one could argue that postcards were essential to the ways the Victorians invented and de facto regulated what counts as “Christmas-themes” in ways we still follow today: red and green, holly, evergreens, Father Christmas getting older and redder (it happened way before Coca-Cola), and on and on. Postcards were also the original Christmas kitsch — hell, they defined the stereotypes. But… that was only one part of the story. The rest was about fun, variety, and adding to the overall mild insanity of the Victorian obsession with postcards showing any and everything you could imagine.
That’s my very long-winded answer to the question. I’ll try to sum it up, tho:
Xmas cards used to be one more excuse for people to get as many postcards as they could to use all year as visual distraction. They didn’t expect them all to be “Christmassy.” They just had to be unique. Christmas was an excuse to get more postcards whereas we see Christmas cards as part of a special practice with its own traditions and rituals we have to follow.
If you’re deeply interested, the best place to start is George Buday’s 1954 book The History of the Christmas Card. It’s no longer in print, but it’s not impossible to find. Most other research is just adding footnotes to what he said, and I think he mostly gets the story right.
There’s also plenty still to find out about specific cards and what certain images mean. The dead bird cards, for example, are something that obviously doesn’t translate as something we’d be interested in looking at every time we open a scrapbook, but if it relates to a ritual that was well-known, like Wren Day, then that’s an interesting story. And other things, like the huge number of harlequins on the cards, are an item that in fact ARE very Christmassy for the Victorians because they were an iconic part of Christmas pantomimes.
And I also can’t deny that their sense of “whimsy” was simultaneously darker and more saccharine than ours. That’s why you can get nauseatingly pastel images of fairies on lily pads and pictures of slices of meat dancing to their deaths. They were… different from us.
But at the same time, a lot of the humor and fascinated confusion we get out of looking at these things and going HOW IN GOD’S NAME DOES THAT RELATE TO CHRISTMAS!?!? is a reaction that they just wouldn’t have. Anachronism is a powerful tool, and it fuels my whole… approach. If I couldn’t take things out of their proper context to make you marvel at how weird they are when you look at them in a way that the Victorians themselves would think was weird… well, Weird Christmas would not exist.
In other words, I hope you keep getting history wrong, just like I intentionally do all the time. It makes everything so much more enjoyable.
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