The Source Of Season's Greetings

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Editor's note: The following is the first in a six-part series examining the origins of Christmas traditions and customs. Stan Brown is the historian and archivist for the Rim Country Museum, a columnist for The Rim Review and a retired pastor.

Christmas has become America's favorite holiday season, even though it's nearly divorced from its origins. One could almost call it a national pastime rather than a Christian festival.

Secularists as well as Christians and those of other faiths will freely use Christmas symbols and traditions from Thanksgiving to New Year's. But it's worth reflecting on the origins of such symbols as the evergreen tree, the lights and the star, as well as the customs of sending cards and giving gifts.

How, for example, did this business of sending Christmas cards get started?

The writing of Christmas letters is a very old custom, but until the middle of the 19th century, it was a luxury reserved for the few people who could afford to send them.

Then four things came together in 1843 to make the sending of Christmas greetings possible for almost everyone.

An act of the British Parliament, the improvement of the printing press, the active mind of a worker in a British museum and the inventiveness of a 16-year-old boy all combined to chart the course of our seasonal preparations.

Words of inspiration

As Sir Henry Cole trudged home from work at the museum one day in 1843, he was feeling anxious over the many letters he wanted to send. That year he especially wanted to encourage his friends to be generous with the poor, even as God was so generous to each of them.

How could he deliver his burning message to so many with such limited time? Henry Cole remembered that a 16-year-old apprentice engraver, William Egley, had designed a card the year before with a simple greeting on it to send to his friends.

Cole's imagination put that idea together with a recent law that had been passed allowing a piece of mail to be sent anywhere in the United Kingdom for a penny. Furthermore, the printing press had recently been improved making it less expensive to make multiple copies. By the time Sir Henry reached home that evening, he had solved his greeting card dilemma.

The next morning, he commissioned an artist, John Horsley, to illustrate a scene on a triptych a three-fold card. It opened to reveal a picture in the center panel of happy family members embracing each other and toasting the reader with a cup of good cheer.

Under the picture it read, "A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You." On the two side panels were scenes of poor and destitute people being given food and clothing.

Cole had 1,000 of the cards printed, and those he didn't use, he sold to cover the cost. They were an instant success. The practice spread to the continent, and became especially popular in Germany.

An age of innovation

By the 1860s, there was a wide selection of Christmas cards throughout Europe, and Louis Prang, a German immigrant to the United States, brought the idea with him.

He was a printer and the inventor of the lithograph process, by which paintings could be duplicated in five colors. Prang commissioned artists to design holiday greeting cards for America, the first of which were printed in his Boston shop in 1874.

By that time the federal postal system was sophisticated enough to handle the huge bundles of seasonal mail this innovation produced. Prang's presses were turning out 5 million cards by the year 1881, and soon the market was flooded with imitators.

Shoebox greetings

I took down from the closet shelf several shoeboxes full of cards received in the past few years, trying to decide where to put them next until I could make that scrapbook. Opening the boxes, I began to read the cards again.

Then I reached for my note pad, because I was curious about the words with which we bless our friends at Christmas. On nearly every card were the phrases "May you," or "We wish you."

What is it that we wish for one another?

"The joys of Christmas," "The spirit of Christmas," "The beauty of Christmas," "The meaning of Christmas."

Wonderful phrases, but their real impact came in a series of other words on those cards, such as "joy, beauty, happiness, friendships, hope, peace, goodwill, contentment, cheer, love, wonder, light, health, gladness, pleasant memories, blessings."

What a marvelous smorgasbord of good wishes we send one another.

Sly, silly or sentimental

It was great fun to select those greetings which were different and especially appealing, like this one:

"Peace on Earth, goodwill to turtles and balsam pines and owls and daisies and snails and frogs and whales and men and poinsettias and lions and women and sequoias and elephants and iris and seals and cattails and timber wolves and children and cactus and lady bugs and iguanas and moss and pumpkins and salmon and robins and pandas and ducks and to you, too!"

Henry VanDyke also had some special words on a card we received:

"I am thinking of you today because it is Christmas. And I wish you joy. And tomorrow, because it is the day after Christmas, I shall still wish you joy ... Clear through the year, without pretense, I wish you the spirit of Christmas."

A more surprising quote was from Mark Twain: "It is my heartwarming and world-embracing Christmas hope that all of us the high, the low; the rich, the poor; the admired, the despised; the loved, the hated; the civilized, the savage may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest, peace, and bliss except the inventor of the telephone."

That rascal's surprise ending reminded me how each year we have sent blessings to many, except certain ones we chose to leave off our lists for one reason or another.

"Peace and goodwill to you, and you, and you, but not you." It is that exception that may throw a discordant note into the angel's song. Who knows what harmonies would be restored if we sent a card with those beautiful wishes to someone who was left off our list.

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