Seasons Greetings: the history behind the Royal Christmas card

2 December 2013 - 08:34pm
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Will this year's card feature Prince George?

Will this year’s card feature Prince George?

Sir Henry Cole fancied sending something different to his colleagues other than the typical Christmas letter. In 1843, he decided rather than writing individual letters which took some time and patience due to the amount of letters sent, why not task an artist to fashion some drawing in which he could send en-masse with a short note alongside. It was then  – 170 years ago – that the Christmas card was born.

John Calcott Horsley was commissioned by Sir Henry to create the initial card. Horsley was an artist living in London at the time, and was somewhat established in his own right.

The original card was illustrated on both sides and featured pictures of the poor being fed and clothed. The centre of the card was a picture of a cheerful family partaking in drink and merriment at a Christmas celebration. The inside of the card read ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.’

Of course, not everyone was keen on the cards’ illustration. The Puritans were upset at the people toasting and drinking to Christmas. Their protests though were ignored, and the card began to circulate among Cole’s colleagues. 1000 copies of Cole’s card were produced and sold for one shilling apiece.

Historians believe that the first card began in Germany a few centuries prior, but it was Cole’s card that began the time honoured tradition.

In 1851, Cole was one of the organisers of the Great Exhibition. He also founded the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1852 and was knighted for his contributions.

It was Queen Victoria who began the tradition as the first Royal to send holiday cards. The Royal cards usually portrayed the Royal Family in a portrait during that time. As the decades went on and the advent of photography became popular, photographs of the family began to appear on the yearly card.

The Royal cards would even make newspaper stories. In the 19 November 1927 edition of the now defunct Tasmanian newspaper The Mercury, a description about King George V card as well as Queen Mary’s card was published:

“LONDON, November 17. The King’s passion for yachting finds expression in his Christmas card, on which there is a reproduction of Mr. B.F. Gribble’s picture of Britannia, showing the King’s yacht bending under a stiff breeze at Cowes. The Queen has chosen a reproduction of Miss Flora Pilklington’s picture ‘In lovely summer-time,’ with a beautiful garden in full bloom, under which are Longfellow’s lines: The sunshine, the delicious air, the fragrance of flowers are there.”


With the amount of cards that are sent, the Royals begin writing their cards out months in advance. Her Majesty alone sends over 800 cards to Commonwealth leaders, heads of state, friends, family and others. The inscription in each card signifies the standing of the recipient. Political figures will receive the formal signature of Elizabeth R.  However, her and Philip’s closest friends will have a card with Elizabeth and Philip, commoners and Royal household members will usually find their cards stamped and not signed. The more personal signature of Lilibet, Her Majesty’s nickname as a child is reserved for cards to cousins such as the Kents and the Gloucesters.

In 1953, the Christmas card contained a photograph of the royal family, taken on Coronation Day; it shows them standing together in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace. Resplendent in her coronation dress, robes and crown, Her Majesty was pictured with Prince Philip in uniform along with Prince Charles and Princess Anne, who are both dressed in white.

In 1955, the card had a bit of a more relaxed feel to the photograph. Taken by Scottish photographer James Reid at Balmoral Castle, it had The Queen and Prince Philip sitting on a stone wall along with Charles and Anne on either side with two of the family corgis.

The photo was featured as part of the exhibition: “The Queen: 60 Photographs for 60 Years”, which took place at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse from November 2012-February 2013.

“ This relatively informal photograph, at one of Her Majesty’s favourite residences, must have been particularly well liked to have been used on The Queen’s Christmas card. The wonderful thing about this exhibition is that it presents us with a portrait of The Queen in her many roles, as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and Head of State, both at home in the United Kingdom and during some of her many travels around the world,” Exhibition curator, Lisa Heighway, commented in 2012.

Photographs of the family highlighting an event of the past year have been used by the Royal couple since 1952.

A family photograph is usually chosen for the Christmas card. The House of Windsor has changed through births, marriages and divorces; so too has the face of the holiday card. In 1996, the year Prince Charles and Andrew were divorced, the card featured just Her Majesty and Prince Philip sitting atop a Western Isles hill.

For one wondering if Prince George will be featured this year, perhaps the 1988 card featuring The Queen, Queen Mother and baby Princess Beatrice Elizabeth Mary of York who was born that August is a subtle hint, maybe.

Interesting Facts:

In 2005, one of the original cards sent in 1843 to Miss Mary Tripsack was sold at auction for £8,469.

The robin has been associated with Royal Mail going back to Victorian times when postmen were nicknamed ‘Robin Redbreasts’ after the red waistcoats they wore.

The same year the first card was sent in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

1000 cards were created and delivered in 1843. 744 million cards were delivered by Royal Mail in 2005.

photo credit: Mikepaws via photopin cc

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