I’m writing this blog in between writing my Christmas cards. This set me thinking about Christmas cards and their use and significance to a novelist.
This was the first commercial Christmas card, commissioned in 1843. It featured a jolly family celebration, snow scenes and Nativities came along much later. The first cards were expensive, 1/- a throw (which was a lot of money in those days), but the introduction of the Penny Post three years earlier meant at least sending them was cheap and Christmas cards were here to stay. It took the introduction of the postcard to make Christmas card sending really popular. Soldiers sent embroidered, patriotic cards from the Front in the First World War. Many families, including mine, kept these carefully preserved in albums, the thick paste board covers ensuring the colours stayed sharp and bright.
In the UK, Christmas cards account for almost half of the volume of greeting card sales, with over 668.9 million Christmas cards sold in the 2008 festive period (or so it says on Wikipedia). Cards are a ubiquitous part of our Christmas preparations, they are also among the most ephemeral, sent and received in a matter of a week or two, displayed for perhaps a fortnight more before being taken down and put into the re-cycling once the Christmas period is over.
Although their presence is fleeting, they carry a record of passing time, the cycles of our lives. As we get older, addresses change, people become lost to us, or names are crossed out of the address book as elderly relatives die. Friendships that were once important, a vital part of our younger lives, are reduced to a few lines in a card, ‘Must write!’, ‘Must keep up!’ although we know that we won’t put pen to paper until another year rolls round. E cards are even more ephemeral, nothing to put up, display, or keep and I always feel rather foolish sitting in front of a computer, watching a tree illuminate itself, or some other Christmas scene unfold. Round Robins are far more interesting, a glimpse into other people’s lives, a record of their year gone by, as well as providing valuable insights into character: what kind of person sends one in the first place? And why would they say that?
Few Christmas cards are kept, but those that are can be hugely evocative and very useful to a novelist. They act as a passport back into our own past lives: the design, the signature, the message inside, take us to a particular time, to friendships forgotten, reminding us of who we were then. They can also provide a way in to the recent past. A single card found in amongst a pile of family papers. There is no personal message inside, just names that you don’t recognize, but the card throws up a whole list of questions, heavy with possibilities. Who kept this card? Why? Who is it from? When was it sent? What does it signify? For a writer, these questions are highly redolent, rich with potential. When there is nobody to ask any more as to the provenance, we are free to make up the answers ourselves. There could be a novel in there, no doubt, but I haven’t got time to think about that now. I’ve got cards to write.
Thanks for this excellent post, Celia. I love Christmas cards but have never kept any....or at least, I've cut out the really beautiful ones and thrown them in a box with other beautiful pictures which I find I rarely look at. When I die, people will find boxes of IMAGES...
But nowadays they are very useful. I keep the unwritten on side in a pile to make lists on. They can keep me going for many mamy months. How green is that! ??
I am the saddo who has kept Christmas cards going back 30 years!!! Love to look at the bright daubs of my children done in their nursery days to the first attempts at writing their names. Glad you mentioned the WWI Celia. I browsed through a whole collection of these in Edinburgh Castle, some embroidered by soldiers convalescing in hospitals near the Front. Very moving.
I always intend to take my old cards into Tesco and recycle them, but never get round to it. I often think of the Tesco workers, though, going through the cards and reading all the comments. What a wealth of stories between the lines...what a wonderful job for a nosy person.
We just managed to prevent my mother-in-law chucking out her mother's and her sister's postcard albums, which we now have. They are fascinating collections of ephemera, with Christmas cards, Valentines (some of them very raunchy) and cards just used to send messages, in those days before phones and emails. I must blog about those albums sometimes. David's Gran was quite a lady, she seems to have had admirers in scads..
I have finally started scanning all our old family photos and documents (some 100 years old) into the computer as many are very faded and will be "lost". I have exactly the same embroided Christmas card as shown in your blog written by my grandfather in 1915 to my grandmother and lovingly kept by her, passed on to my mother and then to me. He hopes the war will settled soon and sends his love.
This is such an excellent post Celia. Christmas cards, together with other cards, I consider them treasure. i love to look at them and read those christmas card messages once in a while, when Im doing nothing, it's relieving the memories and thoughts. Very nice.
Happy holidays' everyone!
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