The UK sends millions of Christmas cards every year - but where did the idea come from?

It's estimated that around a billion Christmas cards are sent every single year in the UK alone.

Traditionally exchanged during the weeks preceding Christmas Day, where did they come from?

Here is everything you need to know.

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When were the first commercial Christmas cards?

Christmas cards have been with us as a commercial commodity since 1843 – the year Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol – when British civil servant and inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned London artist John Callcott Horsley to create what is now accepted to be the world’s first mass-produced Christmas card.

Sir Henry played a key role in the introduction of the Penny Post, a postal system in which normal letters could be sent for one penny.

The colourful, single-sided card depicted a large group of family and friends raising a toast to one another with illustrations of charitable acts on either side, and initially stirred controversy.

That’s because it was seen as encouraging families - children included - to drink alcohol, and the card attracted criticism when it was initially published.

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Was it a success?

Only 1,000 were produced and, at a shilling each, considered an expensive flop; the first card was written off as a fad, and a second one did not appear for another five years.

That card was more successful, and the idea soon caught fire; within three decades, some 4.5 million cards annually were entrusted to the postal system.

Early British cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead featuring designs that reminded the recipient of the imminent arrival of spring.

By the 20th century, the production of Christmas cards was highly profitable for stationery manufacturers, and in the UK today, Christmas cards account for almost half of the volume of all greeting card sales.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

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Where did the idea of Christmas cards come from?

However, the concept of sending greetings cards to one another over the festive period had been around much longer than 1843’s effort, and there are a number of theories as to where the ‘first’ came from.

In 1841, Leith printer and publisher Charles Drummond sold a festive greeting card from his shop in the Kirkgate. The design was attributed to his friend, Thomas Sturrock and it was fixed on to a copper plate by Edinburgh engraver Alexander Aikman.

Drummond’s card was described in a letter published by the Edinburgh Evening News more than 90 years later in 1934.

Part of the letter, which was penned in 1907, read: “The card showed the curly head of a boy, open-mouthed (minus a tooth in the upper row) with fat, chubby cheeks, merry twinkling eyes and an expression of such hearty laughter that the happy combination, by the natural infectious process, produced the desired result on the onlooker, who was greeted with the wish of ‘many happy years’”.

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But predating this is historians’ claim that the humble Christmas card can be traced back to German physician and counsellor Michael Maier, who first sent a card to King James I of England in 1611.

This card was discovered in the Scottish Record Office in 1978, and the greeting read:

"A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612."

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, the Scotsman

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