‘I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings
To find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card
I received this morning.’
George Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody
The tradition of sending Christmas cards by post has declined, though in a 2017 survey British respondents said they still preferred paper to texts or emails, while self-styled experts on etiquette dismiss the electronic ‘card’ as vulgar. Most of the cards I receive now come from charities soliciting donations or estate agents promoting retirement homes, nevertheless…
Sole example of a proto-Christmas card, a Rosicrucian manuscript on folded paper, decorated with a rose-sceptre, was presented to King James VI of Scotland and I of England at Christmas in 1611. It was inscribed as follows…
‘…a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate…’
New year cards wishing health and happiness were exchanged in Bohemia in the early 19th century but the invention of the modern Christmas card is usually credited to Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper of the British Public Record Office, who in 1843 collaborated with John Calcott Horsley, a narrative painter, to produce seasonal cards to be sold for one shilling each (then a considerable sum of money) and sent for just a halfpenny through the Post Office which Cole had helped to found three years earlier.
Though all authorities still credit Cole, in 2018 the TLS announced that a Timothy Larsen of Illinois had discovered an earlier reference to cards much like those with which we are familiar. In the December 7 issue of the Hampshire Chronicle, in 1829, was the following notice:
We learn that the “Olde Winchester” Christmas and New Year’s greetings, designed by Mr A. Clements of Northgate Studio, are receiving a most cordial welcome from Christmas card buyers, sales already nearing the 2,000 mark.
19th century cards introduced motifs invoking celebration, family assemblies and compassion and charity, together with stock phrases which we are still familiar with. Queen Victoria’s family adopted the custom almost immediately and by the 1860s cards were being produced and sold in large numbers by printing companies.
Though Victorian cards in particular might feature surprisingly morbid or unsettling images, and more modern examples sometimes favour humour (cheeky messages appeared in the USA from the 1940s) and wordplay (puns being a British speciality) messages have typically relied on a small repertoire of words and expressions intended to inspire and cheer…
Glad tidings combines the Old English word for bright or cheerful, from an Old Germanic term for smooth, with the Old English and Old Norse words for happenings, occurrences, tidung and tiðendi , which derive ultimately from the IndoEuropean root *di-ti, meaning divide, as into time-frames. The -tide of Christmastide or Yuletide has the same source.
Noel was nowel in Middle English, an anglicisation of French noël, from Latin natalis, shorthand for birthday. Latin nātīvitās, birth, became Old English Nātiuiteð, one of the earliest names for Christmas, and gives us modern nativity.
Yule, yole in Middle English, is from Old English ġéol or ġéohol, names for the Christmas or midwinter period, but related to words in Old Norse (jol) and 4th century Old Gothic (jiuleis) which denoted pagan winter festivals and feasting.
The word Christmas first appears in written records as late as 1038 in the form of Old English Crīstesmæsse – ‘Christ’s mass.’
A particular favourite, thought for several centuries to describe an essence of Englishness, is of course
Merry /mɛri/ adj
- joyous, cheery, gleeful, of good spirit
- mirthful, convivial, affected by gaiety, as by festive spirit
- Colloq tiddly, squiffy, somewhat inebriated, as if by seasonal spirits
ME merye, from OE myrige, delightful, pleasing, sweet, from Proto-Germanic *murg(i)jaz, fleeting, from Proto-IndoEuropean *mreg(h)us,short
- make merry behave in a frolicsome, boisterous, unconstrained manner, eg dad-dancing, shattering wine-glasses during toasts, communal bellowing of sentimental songs, flirting at the office party (syn: ‘attempting to pull a cracker’) etc.
- Slang merry-bout an act of copulation (1780) merry-got a bastard (1785) merry-legs a harlot (19C) merry old soul an arsehole (20C rhyming)
The first evidence we have for the phrase ‘mery Christmas’ is from 1565; coupled with ‘..and a happy New Year’ from 1699.
Finally, a little puzzle. Instead of inscriptions I used these images on the Christmas card I sent a few years ago in the hope that recipients would decode them, Almost nobody did…