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Merry Christmas! A short history of Creepy Victorian Christmas Cards

3 min read

Have a creepy Christmas to Yule all!

If you think this Christmas time is weird, its nothing compared to the Victorians and their surreal, strange and bizarre Christmas cards, here are a few classics!

In the 19th century, before festive Christmas cards became the norm, Victorians put a darkly humorous (and macabre) spin on their seasonal greetings.
Some of the more popular subjects included anthropomorphic frogs, bloodthirsty snowmen and dead birds.

“May yours be a joyful Christmas,” reads one card from the late 1800s, along with an illustration of a dead robin.
Another shows an elderly couple laughing maniacally as they lean out a second-story window and dump water onto a group of carolers below.
“Wishing you a jolly Christmas,” it says the image.

Well, morality and a strict code of social conduct embodied the time period of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), but the Victorians still had their fair share of questionable practices. They thought nothing of posing with the dead or robbing graves and selling the bodies, and their holiday customs evolved with just as much curiosity.
Clowns, insects and even the Devil himself had a place in early holiday fanfare.

Actually Christmas didn’t gain momentum until the mid-1800s. In 1843, the same year that English author Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol, prominent English educator and society member, Sir Henry Cole, commissioned the first Christmas card.
Even with an impressive print run of 1,000 cards, of which 21 exist today, full-fledged manufacturing remained only a sideline to the more established trade in playing cards, notepaper and envelopes, needle-box and linen labels and even valentines, and It took several decades for the exchange of holiday greetings to catch on, both in England and the United States.
Postal reform and advances in printing technologies were the two factors that really pushed Christmas cards into the mainstream.

The Postage Act of 1839 helped regulate British postage rates and democratize mail delivery.
A year later, with the passage of the Uniform Penny Post law, anyone in England could send something in the mail for just one penny.
Then, in October 1870, right before the holiday season, the British government introduced the halfpenny, making mail service affordable for nearly all levels of society.
The first mass printing of Christmas cards occurred in the 1860s.
As the popularity of Christmas cards grew, Victorians demanded more novelty.
By 1885, unique and even bizarre cards with silk fringe, glittered attachments and mechanical movements were popular, but the more common Christmas card motifs related to flora and fauna, seasonal vignettes and landscapes.
Among the bizarre were a large collection of dark and outlandish designs.

But why did Victorians exchange such eccentric and even macabre holiday cards, and what do they mean?
Folk customs influenced the design of many Victorian Christmas cards.
In British folklore, for example, robins and wrens are considered sacred species. And I guess these dead birds on Christmas cards may have been bound to elicit Victorian sympathy and may reference common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas. Maybe…
In any case, an English legend popular during the Victorian era said that St. Nicholas recruited the Devil to help with his deliveries. Together, they determined which children had been naughty or nice.
The Devil, who appeared under various guises, kidnapped the disobedient kids and beat them with a stick. Santa is in fact the creepy antihero on a variety of Victorian-era holiday cards, where he can be seen peeking through windows and spying on children. The Devil is disguised as Krampus on some, making off on sleds and in automobiles with the children deemed naughty.

Interestingly, still today, despite the rise of electronic communication and social media, billions of Christmas cards are bought and exchanged around the world each year.

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