Did artist John Calcott Horsley have any idea what he started when he agreed to draw a Christmas card for Sir Henry Cole in 1840? Almost certainly not.
Three years later Sir Henry saw the potential and exploited it. One thousand cards were printed using the same print. One of the originals he sent to his grandmother fetched a mere £8,469 in 2005.
There’s reassurance to be found in the motivation Sir Henry Cole had in commissioning that first design. The idea of writing letters conveying best wishes for the season seemed demanded a more efficient alternative.
Henry Cole was pragmatist. With only a pen a paper, the prospect of writing letters to all his friends must have seemed like way too much work for him. I’m inclined to agree.
I look on the first Christmas card illustration with surprise. There’s a space for the recipient and a space for the signature with a fairly cold “A Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you” in between. Compared to writing a letter, all Cole had to do was write two names. Quite a cold process.
It’s not entirely dissimilar to the experience I have today.
Christmas cards loom over me in the first few weeks of December. It’s a task which absolutely needs to be done, seems like the nicest, easiest thing to do at Christmas and seems like the most daunting Christmas-related task of all. All that writing. All that organisation. All those addresses.
Year after year I try hard to trim down the Christmas card list. Ever since the heady days of school, I’ve strived to edit the recipients. Back then it was about receiving what seemed like year long tokens of friendships from contemporaries. Now, it’s about sharing heartfelt wishes amongst those I feel most close to. The fewer the better. It’s not that I hate people. I just rather like the idea of not being seen as too shallow. If I like I’ll wish you a happy Christmas to your face. If I don’t I won’t.
The problem comes as we get closer to the big day. What started off as pragmatic and cost-effective list of recipients quickly develops into a long guilt-fuelled list of people I’ve forgotten or callously crossed off. I don’t like that situation arising. I always feel so very dirty come Christmas Eve when the inevitable stragglers on the list of names stare up at me. “There’s no chance now,” I’ll think, “maybe I could send them a new year’s card instead?”
Better to start the process early. Get the cards distributed as early as you can to the beginning of December. And yet, do that and you risk imposing the same sense of guilt on your recipients. Maybe, you’re someone who relishes the thought of your friends and associates scrabbling around like mad in the run up to the final posting day as they desperately try to avoid any Christmas-related guilt. Whilst I might occasionally be fuelled by bitterness and resentment there aren’t any people I’d wish that on.
In years gone by I have, I confess, followed the easy path – the one established by Sir Henry Cole. Pictures of cats padding through the snow or stylishly crafted cards from WHSmith normally hit the spot. Set aside two or three evenings to write the cards and envelopes (factoring in a good week to source the addresses) and the job is done. But is there any joy in it?
There isn’t. Merely sitting down and writing the recipient’s name before signing my own name and dutifully passing it on to my partner to sign his makes the process a long and drawn out affair.
Surely, if I’m going to this trouble to send season’s greetings to people I haven’t been in contact with the rest of the year, shouldn’t I be going to the trouble of personalising the message? Otherwise, what exactly am I doing? And for whose benefit exactly? The card will be opened, blue-tacked to the wall for the Christmas season and then recycled (if you’re lucky). A year will pass before the next communication and so it will continue year in, year out.
Over the past few years I have gone to the trouble of making my own cards. Like pickling, there is an undeniable pleasure in constructing your own, especially when the subject of the card is one of your own cats. But having read over the results of a few other, slightly more organised Christmas crafters and considerably more labour-intensive card creations, I’m fearing the prospect of homemade Christmas cards may be one task too many this year.
Unless of course I could make use of a few tasty pictures I’ve found from Flickr today. Keep an eye out for your mail. I am making a list and will be checking it twice before the holiday season is over.