Christmas Greetings

Neil Armstrong (Teesside University)

Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley for Sir Henry Cole, 1843. V&A Museum no. L.3293-1987

In 1908 the writer George Sturt reflected in his personal journal that Christmas had the peculiar power to transform personal behaviour. Couched in the language of an emerging psychological understanding of the self, Sturt asserted that ‘[f]or three or four short silly days we encourage the activity of idea-powers which during all the rest of the year are rather strongly suppressed; with the result that for that brief period we are a different people, more amiable than usual, if rather less wise’. Furthermore, this tendency towards amiability and perhaps even the expression of the true self was almost involuntary:

Most curious is it, how these ideas take possession of the mind, almost against ones will. One walks about with a silly notion that it’s “Christmas” and somehow different from ordinary times … And one knows that every person one meets is similarly obsessed. In all the brains, something unaccustomed is going on: a pleasant silly fermentation of ideas.[1]



Born in 1863, Sturt had grown up in a culture which had increasingly celebrated Christmas as a signifier of the importance of affective relationships. In the first half of the nineteenth century, significant literary figures emphasised the emotional and transformative dimensions of the festive season. In an account of Christmas in the north of Germany first published in 1809, Samuel Taylor Coleridge revealed the potential for inter-generational gift exchange to produce tears of joy.[2] In the early 1820s Washington Irving, via the persona of Geoffrey Crayon, articulated how Christmas could intensify the emotions:

our thoughts are more concentrated, our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart, and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms.[3]

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit John Leech 1843

Sturt’s private ruminations on Christmas during the Edwardian period suggest both enjoyment of Christmas sociability and acceptance of its fleeting nature. However, the early Victorians were taught the seriousness of Christmas sentiment when Charles Dickens made the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge exclaim ‘“A merry Christmas, Bob!” … with an earnestness that could not be mistaken’.[4]

These foundational texts of the modern Christmas emphasised to contemporaries and subsequent generations that festive social interactions could and should engender heightened feeling amongst family, friends and other significant relationships. But how sincere could the formulaic platitude of the Christmas wish or greeting be, particularly when applied to the acquaintance or stranger? The seasonal greeting pre-dated the re-orientation of Christmas towards family and childhood in the Victorian period, and had already gained a reputation for insincerity in the eighteenth century. For example, in the notorious letters of the Lord Chesterfield to his son, first published in 1774, we are informed that on New Year’s Day ‘people reciprocally offer and receive the kindest and warmest wishes, though, in general, without meaning them on one side, or believing them on the other. They are formed by the head, in compliance with custom, though disavowed by the heart’.[5] Such cynicism, the product of Georgian politeness, might seem incongruous when considering the Victorians, yet the growing popularity of Christmas cards in the second half of the nineteenth century raised concerns about insincerity, and the demise of the custom of was frequently forecast. Whilst the Christmas card had the advantage of conveying sentiment to friends and relations it was not possible to see during the festive season, it was not always used in such a fashion. As one Bristol resident complained to The Times in 1877, by sending Christmas cards, people were bringing ‘up from the depths of their consciousness the names of people they know little, and for whom they care less…in order to swell out the total number they may despatch as forming a ground of boasting’.[6]

Victorian Christmas card. Design features a text panel set amongst flowers on a gold background. Text reads 'Wishing you and yours a Happy Christmas'. On reverse is message in ink - 'With (illegible)s best wishes. Xmas 1876' from Bolton Museums

However, the success of the Christmas card, both in the Victorian period and subsequently, was due in part to people’s ability to both ascribe meaning to it and recognise its limitations. Two examples from the papers of the aristocratic Wood family of Hickleton, South Yorkshire, demonstrate this. In 1875, Mrs Pilgrim, a former servant who had left the service of the household in 1863, wrote to Lady Agnes Wood enclosing a Christmas card, commenting ‘I thought the sentiments on the card so expressive of my own feelings only expressed in such a much nicer way that I could not resist the temptation of sending it’. Conversely, in 1894, Lady Agnes’s sister-in-law, Emily Meynell-Ingram, wrote to her Aunt Georgiana Grey, noting: ‘I do not send you a Christmas card to wish you all the good wishes and happiness that Christmas can bring for none can express that as I wish to do’.[7]

The emergence of the Christmas card as a mass form of gift exchange enabled a range of meanings. Undoubtedly for some it became a tiresome obligation, and for others it fulfilled the need to acknowledge and maintain social relationships which were necessary but not heartfelt. But the Christmas card could also play a role in the affective transformation of the self for both the sender and receiver, and the production of ‘a pleasant sill fermentation of ideas’.

Neil Armstrong is senior lecturer in history at Teesside University, and the author of Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester University Press, 2010).

[1]British Library, Western Manuscripts Collection, Journals of George Sturt, Vol. XIX ,8 July 1906- 1 July 1910, Add. Mss., 43467.

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Christmas within doors, in the north of Germany’, in The Friend: a Series of Essays to and in the Formation of Fixed Principles in Politics, Morals, and Religion (3rd edition, London: William Pickering, 1837), vol. II, p. 250.

[3] Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other Stories, ed. William L. Hedges, (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 149.

[4] Charles Dickens, Christmas Books, ed. Ruth Glancy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 90.

[5] Philip Dormer Stanhope, The Works of Lord Chesterfield, including his Letters to his Son (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838), p. 497.

[6] The Times, 28 December 1877.

[7] University of York, Borthwick Institute for Archives, Hickleton Papers, A2.126; A1.8.12.

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