Thursday, December 18, 2014

Creepy Christmas Cards: Bizarro Victorian Holiday Greetings

  The first Christmas card was sent by a wealthy English businessman in 1843. Needless to say, these first holiday cards were only for the affluent. By the 1880s, after the custom had been well established in Germany, Canada and the U.S., as well as the U.K., many thousands of cards were being sent out. In parts of Britain postmen delivered them on Christmas morning.
The first Christmas card, with lines to add the sender's and recipient's name.
 While looking for photos to use in a holiday blog post, I became enthralled by the images of Victorian Christmas cards posted online.  What struck me immediately is that they are overwhelmingly secular and sometimes quite bizarre.  Most of them are romantic images: a hooded Father Christmas, rosy-cheeked little girls pulling sleds, flowers and greenery, angels, a well-heeled couple with their children admiring the tree.
  However, what interests me is not these beautiful visions but the weird, bizarre, and sometimes disturbing Victorian cards. Here is a selective sampling:
Juvenile delinquents gleefully pelt a police officer from behind with a snowball, "with the compliments of the season."

"May yours be a joyful Christmas," says the deceased bird. This type of card showing beautifully drawn dead birds was quite popular in the late 1800s. WTH? (This dead wren probably represents the disturbing custom in Ireland of boy-beggars killing these songbirds on St.Stephen's Day. See comment below.)

A posh "kindly robin" drops a berry into the hat of a crippled beggar-bird.
As with today's food marketing, in this card, animals are eager to be eaten. A turkey and a plum pudding (?!) ride pigs in a "dead heat for the plate."
A strangely dressed boy with a body like a woman's cracks the whip at a poodle riding a pig with a collar in "Hearty Greeting."
"A Merry Christmas to you," with a stab in the heart.
A dead chipmunk for you, master. I know that's what you wanted for Christmas.
Peter Rabbit wishes you a happy Easter, er, "Xmas."
A girl pulls a rickshaw while the one of the slacker boy passengers whips her on, "with loving Christmas greetings."
Look out! An emu brings "unwelcome Christmas greetings" in this Australian card.
A cautionary tale? Four frogs (who are prone to violence and mishaps in these cards) have taken a tumble on the ice, dropping their pipes. Don't smoke and skate?
My hands-down favorite: A mouse rides a (boiled?) red lobster, wishing the recipient "Paix, Joie, Sante, Bonheur," or "Peace, Joy, Health and Happiness."

 Merry Freakin' Victorian Christmas!
('Hope you weren't too creeped out.)


  1. A jolly assortment for Xmas 2014. Thanks for adding some spice to the holiday.

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  4. Very interesting! Weird cards have apparently been around from the beginning. In The Pickwick Papers (pub. 1836)Dickens describes a valentine "a highly-coloured representation of a couple of human hearts skewered together with an arrow, cooking before a cheerful fire, while a male and female cannibal in modern attire, the gentleman being clad in a blue coat and white trousers, and the lady in a deep red pelisse with a parasol of the same, were approaching the meal with hungry eyes, up a serpentine gravel path leading thereunto. A decidedly indelicate young gentleman, in a pair of wings and nothing else, was depicted as superintending the cooking; a representation of the spire of the church in Langham Place, London, appeared in the distance; and the whole formed a 'valentine,'." I have seen just as weird cards today. It seems to be a strong tradition!

    1. I've assumed that the card described by Dickens didn't actually exist, but was one of his "cannibal jokes" in the "Papers."However, the fact that Dickens could even present such a joke/card suggests that the Victorians' taste in greeting cards was indeed strange. Thanks for offering another example.

  5. The dead bird might be a reference to St. Stephens's Day (Dec. 26th) in Ireland? Young boys would kill a wren and go house to house with its body on a bier, asking for money with this song:

    The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
    St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.
    Although he was little, his honour was great.
    Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
    Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
    And give us a penny to bury the wren.

    1. You're right, I think. The dead bird shown on the card above is a wren.

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