Sunday, 2 November 2008

My Christmas List

I decided that I would, for once, begin my Christmas list on 1st November. This is something I have always planned to do in the past but which always gets put off until mid-December by which time it’s too late to do a newsletter to tell people what has happened to the family during the year; I’ve forgotten half the people to whom I should send cards; I have a last minute panic looking for addresses that have gone missing; and I miss the posting abroad dates. So far the list has three names on it but it’s a start!

The next job will be to go up in the loft and find all the boxes of left-over Christmas cards. Every year I mean to use up the old cards (both an economy gesture and an environmentally friendly one) but by the time I get them down from the loft I’ve bought new ones.

Marilyn, a friend of mine has taken the brave decision to stop sending cards and makes a donation to charity instead. The only concession I have made – and it’s one I have done for about twenty years – is to cut up the cards we get to make gift tags for the next year. Mind you, I now have enough gift tags to put ten on every present I’m likely to give this millennium.

What is believed to be one of the first mass-produced Christmas cards - dating back more than 160 years - can be found among the extensive special collections of Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology. The lithographed card caused a controversy in some quarters of Victorian English society when it was published in 1843 because it prominently featured a child taking a sip from a glass of wine.

Approximately 1,000 copies of the card were printed but only 10 have survived to modern times. Bridwell Library acquired its copy in 1982. The card was designed for Henry Cole by his friend, the English painter John Calcott Horsley (1808-1882). Cole wanted a ready-to-mail greeting card because he was too busy to engage in the traditional English custom of writing notes with Christmas and New Year's greetings to friends and family. The card pre-dated colour printing so it was hand-coloured. Cole printed more cards than he needed so he sold the extra ones for a shilling each. Bridwell Library's card was signed by Cole and addressed to the engraver of the card, John Thompson (1785-1866).

Widespread commercial printing of Christmas cards began in the 1860s, when a new process of colour printing lowered the manufacturing cost and the price. Consequently, the custom of sending printed Christmas greetings spread throughout England.

Perhaps one set of cards hardest to understand today were produced in the 1880s in a series by Raphael Tuck named "Silent Songster". They showed dead robins. At the time, the series was very popular and was imitated by several other firms in subsequent years. Even the accompanying inscriptions are strange. They read "Sweet messenger of calm decay and Peace Divine" or "But peaceful was the night wherein the Prince of Light His reign of peace upon the earth began". One can only surmise at their purpose. Perhaps it was a mixture of shame for the slaying of a robin or wren over Christmas (Hunt the Wren was a seasonal activity!) and a compassion for birds during the cold winter months.

Nowadays, by contrast with the late 19th century, cards are relatively expensive, postage is ridiculously so and we are now writing newsletters to go inside them - thereby returning to the traditional English custom of writing notes but with the added bonus of an expensive - often environmentally unfriendly - card.

To return to the subject of my preparations. By the end of the week my list of who I need to send cards to should be complete. Unlike my friend Liz, whose card will arrive on 1st or 2nd Decemeber, I shall no doubt then sit back and leave writing them and everything else to mid-December and curse myself for being late again...

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