Why Do We Send Christmas Cards?

A Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There's a reason that Christmas is the busiest holiday season for the U.S. Postal Service everyone is mailing out their holiday greeting cards. But from where did this tradition originate?

People have been sending each other letters and cards wishing each other well and marking special occasions since mail carriers rode stallions and carried swords, but specifically, the Christmas card custom began in early 19th-century England.

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During that time, it was common for British students to send their parents progress reports of sorts as Christmas approached. They boasted about their good grades and showed off their penmanship , composition and artwork, according to "The Complete Christmas Book" (F. Watts, Inc., 1958). The students hoped that the joyful, flashy letters would entice parents to give them presents and money as rewards for the year's efforts.

These letters served as an early combination of today's bragging Christmas newsletters ("This year we accomplished this and that...") and pleading letters to Santa ("I've been good this year! Give me the presents I want!"). But Christmas cards only began to truly come into fashion after they began to be printed and marketed as such.

"In 1839, shortly after the introduction of the penny post in England, the true Christmas card tradition of sending cards to friends and relatives developed," according to "Holiday Folklore, Phobias, and Fun." "One thousand copies of the card designed for Sir Henry Cole were sold. Usually regarded as the first of its kind, it was made by J.C. Horsley, a member of the Royal Academy."

Billions of Horsley's card designs were sent out in the years that followed, and reprints of his famous holiday greeting cards can still be bought to this day.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.