When English painter and illustrator John Callcott Horsley designed in 1843 the first ever Christmas card to be printed, perhaps the last thing he expected was to offend Victorian sensibilities and scandalize the puritanical temperance movement of his day. Commissioned by British civil servant Sir Henry Cole, printed lithographically, and then hand-colored, the three-paneled card depicted two acts of charity on the outer sections – feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. It was the center panel design, however – a family partaking of Christmas dinner and sipping wine with the children – that riled up conservatives who criticized the card for its outrageous “promotion of underage drunkenness.”
A thousand of Horseley’s cards were printed and sold each for one shilling (approximately Ps 0.44 in 2021 currency), but only twelve are known to exist today, mostly in private collections, including the one he sent to his grandmother. In December 2020, The Guardian reported that one such card, released by Cole in the same month in 1843 that Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Story” was published, was expected to fetch over US$ 10,000 at an auction at Christie’s.
Less than 50 years later, the American celebrity sharpshooter Annie Oakley, international star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, sent the first personalized Christmas card to family and friends in the US, which featured her photo while on a tour of Scotland. This would be the precursor of today’s family photo cards, as we shall soon see.
And in 1915, Joyce Clyde Hall and his two brothers created “Hallmark Cards,” ushering in the era of mass-produced, single-message (often, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” or its variations) cards that could be mailed en masse. These pre-printed greetings precluded the need to send personalized greetings or the handwriting of letters. National Book Store would acquire the Hallmark license in 1974, and the late Circus Band balladeer Richard Tan’s “No One Throws Away Memories” would hit the airwaves in 1979. If you guessed that this was a Jose Mari Chan composition, you’d be absolutely right.
Unbeknownst to many, Manuel Rodriguez, Sr., considered “The Father of Contemporary Printmaking,” created the first truly Filipino-themed Christmas cards in the 1950’s, featuring the quintessential motifs of local holidays – the church plaza during the misa de gallo, carolers in native costumes, stalls with puto bumbong, faroles hanging from nipa huts, and roasting pits of lechon.
In the 1960’s, I sent to, and also received, Christmas cards from my grade school classmates. In those pre-Hallmark days, local book stores like Alemar’s (they also distributed “Fiesta” and “Gibson” cards), National, and Goodwill printed their own, with covers that ranged from bucolic and rural themes, native dances, religious imagery, historical spots, and nativity scenes.
Curiously, the senders of these cards wrote the perfunctory salutation and signature using our surnames, which seemed to be a thing among prepubescent boys in that decade. Back in December 1964, my classmate Jose George Tejada handed me a Christmas card just like this. Why we were all communicating on a last name basis at the time still baffles me.
The occasional card with first names came from best friends, and were treasured accordingly. Armand Joseph Verde addressed me with my formal first name, and signed off with his, in this December 1965 card.
And sometimes, a succinct, but equally sentimental, note on a retail shop’s own card was enough. In the Christmas of 1969, my father bought a present for my mom from the perfumery Chiok’s along fabled Escolta, Manila, and dedicated it with a simple “With all my love” on the store’s gift card.
Over the years that followed, however, there was a gradual, if inexorable, decline of the Christmas card tradition. Technology and social media, coupled with a generation schooled without the benefit of handwriting subjects, have reduced it to an anachronism of time past. And it doesn’t help that environmental issues over printing and mailing cards on paper stock have convinced millennials that sending electronic greetings – sometimes animated, or even musically scored – represent the ecologically correct choice. Hundreds of websites offering a massive variety of free pre-designed greetings have reduced the once tedious but pleasurable task of buying cards from National Book Store, writing an appropriate message, and snail-mailing it long before the Christmas rush, to a simple stroke of the “Send” key.
Thankfully, a gradual comeback seems to be in the offing. A revival of the paper crafts, a resurgence of interest in fountain pens and the calligraphic arts, and advances in digital photography to allow creative designs on personalized greetings, have all given the bygone Christmas card a new lease on life. The card as an artistic endeavor is suddenly fashionable, and along with hand-made, D.I.Y. gifts, millennials and the middle-aged alike now see it as a way to avoid the crass commercialism associated with mass-produced greetings.
Through the 1990’s and even up to today, our friends from North America have sent cards through the post, many of which are the typical family photo cards (remember the sharpshooter Annie Oakley of the late 1800’s?). Mass-printed but still containing short personal messages, they also provide a silent, but no less eloquent, timeline of their lives – the newly born, the ageing, the departed.
In our home, we have continued Amie’s custom of making hand-crafted Christmas cards for the season. No longer with us, but certainly around in spirit, Amie spent countless hours in a quiet corner of the house, using her deft fingers and a variety of embossing machines and cutting folders to produce, elf-like, hundreds of cards that she wrote dedications on, and gave as gifts to our friends, a marvelous thing even today. Lica and I still produce electronic greetings based on the current year’s popular Netflix movies just for fun (her photography, my script), but it is the hand-pressed, multi-colored cards that remind us of her as we write wishes for a blessed year to our closest friends. That tradition marches on, and I’m pretty sure that’s how she would have wanted it.