Although the discovery of a Rosicrucian greeting sent to James I in 1611 can technically be regarded as the first Christmas greeting message, Christmas cards in a form we would easily recognise have a more credible origin in 1843. Clearly not someone who liked to leave it to the last minute, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the printing of 2,050 in May of that year. They all sold for a shilling each and a festive tradition (and a new industry!) was born.
In fact, Cole’s new idea was rooted much more firmly in commerce than sentiment – he had played a significant part in the introduction of the Penny Post just three years earlier. The design by John Horsley was a typical Victorian trope: three generations of a family joyfully toasting the health of the recipient. While subsequent years would build on the idyll of large, happy – and often very wealthy – families celebrating together in front of an extravagantly fuelled fire, there were a number of very unusual, even dark, offshoots which would surprise us today.