The Art of the Christmas Card

For many in this country, December rolls in not just with snow but with an avalanche of holiday cards. Some of these are greeted with delight; others, with puzzlement at how exactly one came to be included in the sender’s mailing list. But in many households, the card avalanche has become one more seasonal ritual—as unremarkable as steaming hot chocolate, last-minute gift shopping, or endless rounds of “Jingle Bell Rock” blared over department store sound systems.

Because a new attribute or call to action establishes itself in our yuletide culture seemingly every year (e.g. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday), it’s easy to think of the culture itself as new. Magazine editor and art critic Gleeson White was already experiencing holiday-card fatigue by the end of the nineteenth century. He estimated that at least 200,000 Christmas-card designs had been published in England alone at that time. “How many thousand patterns have passed under my eye,” he sighed in the introduction to his pamphlet Christmas Cards and Their Chief Designers, “I dare not estimate.”

The pamphlet is a fascinating find, not least because of its own history. It was published in 1894 as a special supplement to The Studio, an art magazine founded just one year earlier by White and his associate Charles Holme. The Studio would soon become an artistic tastemaker. But at the time, the magazine was unusual. Where other art periodicals stuck to “fine art,” it highlighted decorative and applied arts alongside high-brow masterworks. The Studio was the sort of magazine, that is, that would analyze an object as quotidian as the Christmas card.

Indeed, the supplement contains dozens of pictures of Christmas cards. Many designs are less than familiar. Some cards picture flowers or children. Others are peopled by toga-clad Romans lounging in rather summery-looking forests or dancing with plump cherubs. No Santa Clauses, reindeer, or sleighs are in sight.

Yet other designs feature some more recognizable themes. One card depicts a fireside tableau. In a few others, wintry landscapes stretch out before the viewer. White devotes an entire page to cards that wish you a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” and another to greetings that quote “in excelsis deo.”

Most familiar of all, though, are some of White’s amusingly Grinch-like remarks on his object of study. Of the typical Christmas card, he proclaims: “Its sentiment — excellent in itself — is worn threadbare by repetition. Its ‘original poetry’ is rarely original, still more rarely poetry; its ideals are, as a rule, peculiarly conventional.” Another delightfully sardonic passage also calls to mind modern-day grievances about “Hallmark Holidays”:

All this vast industry is to afford a way of expressing one’s goodwill to one’s neighbours; to send out, not with too personal a meaning… the assurance of renewed amity; to say as it were, ‘all through the year we have not met, and may not do so…yet at this season…I would you should feel I bear you no ill-will.’

Hardly a warm endorsement.

Still, set all White’s cynicism aside and some insights about the value of studying overlooked art come to the fore. White closed the piece by reminding his readers that he chose cards “not necessarily for their artistic merit alone, but as a representative series of typical examples of the best designs in many different styles.”

Like the Grinch, one could say, White’s prickliness receded; in the end, he did not intend to demean the art of the Christmas card but to honor it in some small way.