Yowling cats and murdered frogs: The bizarre Victorian origins of Christmas cards

The tradition of sending Christmas cards came together in the Victorian era, although — as cultural historian Ainsley Hawthorn writes — many of those early cards were strange and sometimes downright morbid.

Many early cards were strange, and sometimes downright morbid

Breakfast in bed may cost extra, but what’s money to a vacationing chicken? From TuckDB Postcards, 1908. (Public domain)

Much of Christmas as we know it — with its indoor evergreens, family dinners and visits from Santa Claus — came together during the Victorian period.

Some Victorian holiday traditions, though, are more difficult to understand from the vantage point of the 21st century than others, like the era's bizarre and sometimes downright morbid Christmas cards.

While today's seasonal greetings generally feature winter scenes, holiday moments and religious tableaus, their Victorian and Edwardian counterparts could just as easily sport pictures of dancing insects, vengeful puddings and even dead birds.

Why do 19th-century card designs seem so strange to us?

The first thing to keep in mind is that Christmas cards themselves were a relatively new concept.

By the end of the 19th century, card collecting was a common hobby, especially for women and children. (Library of Birmingham/Public domain)

Sending letters to friends and family with personal news and best wishes for the coming year was a long-standing holiday tradition in Great Britain, and it only grew more popular with the 1840 introduction of the Penny Post. Under the new system, standard letters could be mailed anywhere in the United Kingdom for just one penny, about a quarter of the previous price.

Mailing cards became affordable

At a time when literacy rates were on the rise thanks to public education, the discount dramatically increased the volume of correspondence. In the first year of the Penny Post, the number of letters sent in the U.K. more than doubled.

While the postal service's new affordability had many social benefits, it also posed some personal challenges. Social butterflies and public figures began to receive more mail than they could keep up with, particularly over the Christmas season.

The first modern Christmas card, commissioned by Henry Cole and designed by John Callcott Horsley in 1843, shows a seasonal feast flanked by scenes of Christian charity: feeding of the hungry and clothing of the naked. The card was not without controversy because it depicts children drinking alcohol, presumably in a toast to the recipient. (Library of Birmingham/Public domain)

Not wanting to appear rude by ignoring the reams of messages sent to him, civil servant Henry Cole devised a novel solution.

In 1843, he asked an artist friend, John Callcott Horsley, to create a festive illustration with a generic greeting and "To:___" and "From:___" fields where Cole could add some simple personalization. Cole had a thousand copies of the card printed, and, not only did he use them himself, he made them available to the public at a cost of one shilling each.

Cole's time-saving approach to Christmas correspondence soon caught on, and other printers began to sell ready-made Christmas postcards.

Two turkeys, a Christmas pudding and 'Sir Loin' turn the tables on a would-be chef in this card likely produced in the 1890s. (Courtesy Mary Evans Picture Library/Public domain)

There were, of course, no established norms for what Christmas cards should look like, and much of the artwork seems, to our sensibilities, to have little to do with Yuletide.

Nature was a common motif, but images were often unseasonal, showing grassy pastures and elaborate floral arrangements.

Other cards reveal a sense of humour darker, more absurd, and more violent than we associate with Christmas today.

Who is wishing a merry Christmas to whom in this scenario? This card was produced around 1880. (Public domain)

But perhaps the most surprising recurring theme was death. Greeting cards with cheery mottos were adorned with paintings of killer frogs, carnivorous mice and lifeless birds.

Shifting from bawdy to the sedate

Over the course of the 19th century, Christmas celebrations were in transition from bawdy medieval revels to the comparatively sedate, child-centred celebrations we know today. In many ways, the humour in Victorian greeting cards is a holdover from the high spirits of earlier Yuletide traditions.

Time for the annual flinging of the infant. This card features Punch, of traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows, who was known for violent slapstick like throwing his baby out the window. From around 1880. (Library of Birmingham/Public domain)

During the medieval and Renaissance periods, Britons of all social classes spent the 12 days of Christmas feasting, drinking and making merry.

Carollers performed raunchy song-and-dance routines, the powerless swapped roles with the powerful, and the pandemonium of the season regularly led to vandalism, theft and assault.

The original Jingle Cats? Some howling cats capture a man's attention on Christmas night, in this card from 1880. (Toronto Public Library/Public domain)

Greeting card art that showed animals behaving like people, food attacking the feaster and other topsy-turvy hijinks fit in seamlessly with the disorder of traditional Christmas festivities.

Scenes of death, meanwhile, evoked the bleakness and menace of the winter season.

For centuries, Christmas, not Halloween, was considered the spookiest time of year, and families spent their Yuletide evenings gathered around the hearth weaving yarns about death and the supernatural. It's no coincidence that the essential Victorian Christmas fiction, A Christmas Carol, is also a ghost story.

What could be more jolly than the face of a sobbing toddler? (TuckDB Postcards/Public domain )

Cautionary tales of the poor dying in the December cold were also widely circulated during the 19th century to inspire charitable giving.

Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, which recounts a street urchin's visions of Christmas bliss as she freezes to death on New Year's Eve, was published in December 1845.

This scene straddles the awkward line between sinister and festive. (Manchester Metropolitan University Library/Public domain)

Seen in this light, images of mortality on Victorian Christmas cards may have been intended to move the recipient to charity or to remind them to be grateful for their own health and good fortune.

Depictions of dead birds in particular probably also drew on traditions of killing a wren or robin on St. Stephen's Day (Dec. 26) for luck.

Corpses have somehow lost their charm as greeting card covers. (Tea Tree Gully Library/Public domain)

The echoes of this custom have survived in Newfoundland communities like Colliers, where children make artificial wrens out of paper or wood and carry them door to door, blessing the occupants of each house in return for spare change or sweets.

While we may never be able to fully understand what the Victorians saw when they looked at some of their more bewildering Christmas card designs, there's no doubt that we can still find humour in these festive greetings centuries later.

'Paint me like one of your French storks, Jack.' This whimsical card dates from 1883. (Sydney Living Museums/Public domain )

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