The first Christmas Card, and how Charles Dickens reinvented the season

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It was printed only three years after the first postage stamp, and long before anyone had thought of mandating the last posting day for Christmas.

Consequently, only 1,000 were produced and, at a shilling each, considered an expensive flop.

The first Christmas card is on display at the Dickens Museum in London

The first Christmas card is on display at the Dickens Museum in London

But the hand-coloured, lithographed picture of a family celebrating the season, flanked by images of charity, was nevertheless the first Christmas card.

Produced in 1843, the year Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, it was, said his great great great granddaughter, a cultural landmark whose influence is still felt today – not least in the Yorkshire market town said to have been his inspiration.

It will go on display today at the Dickens Museum, in the Bloomsbury townhouse where the author had installed his young family six years earlier, as part of a seasonal exhibition exploring how he “brought Christmas back into fashion”.

Although the first card was briefly written off as a fad – the second one did not appear for another five years – the idea soon caught fire, and within three decades, some 4.5m cards annually were entrusted to the postal system, each with a Penny Red stamp decorating its envelope.

The first Christmas card is on display at the Dickens Museum in London

The first Christmas card is on display at the Dickens Museum in London

Meanwhile, said Dickens’ descendant, the author Lucinda Hawksley, people had begun falling over themselves to lay on the sort of parties thrown by Fezziwig, Nephew Fred and the Cratchit family.

“The book instantly changed the way people celebrated Christmas,” Ms Hawksley told The Yorkshire Post.

“Dickens wrote the Carol at a time when the public felt that Christmas had lost its meaning. There were complaints it had become too commercial and had become all about fine clothes and feasting. In the past it had been more concerned with charity and helping the poor.”

She added: “The crux of the story of A Christmas Carol was for his privileged readers to realise how desperately poor children needed help and care.

“He wanted his book to change his readers’ attitudes, in the same way that Scrooge’s attitude has to change.”

The timing of the first card was a coincidence, not a publicity stunt, but pointed to “how much the people of Britain were craving a renaissance in the way Christmas was celebrated”, Ms Hawksley said.

It was never more true than in Malton, on the fringe of Yorkshire’s Howardian Hills, to where Dickens was led by his friend, the solicitor Charles Smithson. His office, in the old Counting House on Chancery Lane in the town centre, was said to have been an influence on the fictitious premises of Scrooge and Marley.

“It is very possible, though never confirmed,” Ms Hawksley said. “Dickens definitely knew it and the descriptions are very similar.”

The Charles Dickens Society in Malton ran the Counting House as a museum until two years ago, when a shortage of funds forced its closure. It is now a storeroom for a firm of accountants.

However, the town retains its links with the period and will host its annual Dickens Festival on the weekend before Christmas.

Ms Hawksley will be in attendance to sign copies of her book, Dickens and Christmas.