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The History and Tradition of Holiday Cards

Many families have a tradition of sending out holiday cards every year. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, we all love receiving holiday mail. But have you ever considered when or who sent the first holiday card?

The History of Holiday Cards

Before 1840 it was the British tradition to handwrite lengthy cards and deliver them to friends and family each December. In 1840s England, after a recent expansion of the Penny Post mail delivery system, Henry Cole began receiving tons of correspondence during the holiday season. Cole was a strong supporter and was instrumental in the reform of the Uniform Penny Post. According to Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, “In Victorian England, it was considered impolite not to answer mail.” Cole was a busy man and needed a way to quickly respond to the piling letters he was receiving.

An idea struck Cole to collaborate with friend and artist J.C. Horsley to create a design that he could make copies of to send out. Horsley created an illustration from a design that Cole had sketched out in December of 1843. The illustration was a triptych that showed a family celebrating the holiday around a table. It was printed on a piece of cardboard and at the top of each card, it included the salutation, “TO:____” which allowed Cole to personalize his responses to all the letters he had received. It also included a generic greeting that said, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”.

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The first Christmas Card (Wikimedia Commons)

The tradition took decades to catch on in the United States, but by the 1870s the trend took off thanks to holiday card manufacturer Louis Prang. For decades, holiday cards were sent as postcards. However, over time, The Hall Brothers Company, which we all know now as Hallmark, adapted to the 4-by-6-inch card format we use today. The new format allowed more space for consumers to write longer sentiments to family and friends without writing a whole letter.

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    Wheeling resident Chris Atkinson Martin has held onto a collection of holiday cards that her grandmother sent in 1909 and 1910.

The trend quickly became popular with Wheeling residents and families, including George Kossuth. From a family of Hungarian immigrants, Kossuth grew up in Wheeling during the turn of the century and eventually became a master photographer. For his holiday card, Kossuth would often use photographs of a Wheeling scene to send his best greetings to friends and family. While some of the card photos had nothing to do with the holidays, the old historic images of Wheeling lent a local flavor to the nostalgic magic of Christmas. Over his years in Wheeling, Kossuth became internationally renowned for his portrait photography, capturing images of some of Wheeling’s most esteemed. Today, George Kossuth is part of the Wheeling Hall of Fame and many of his photographs and papers can be viewed at the Ohio County Public Library, including a few of his holiday cards.

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Christmas card from Leah and George Kossuth. Photo provided courtesy of the Ohio County Public Library Archives.

The Tradition Continues in Wheeling

Holiday card traditions have evolved quite a bit over the years, and today, there are so many options for sending holiday greetings. Whether it be with handmade cards or fun family portraits, sending holiday cards is a tradition many local families look forward to.

Wheeling resident Cassie Merkle reminisced of her childhood tradition of writing Christmas cards with her mother. “As a child, I remember my mother writing out a personal note in every card that she sent out. She passed this on to all of her children. When I became an adult I did the same and I still do today. We send out 250 cards each year,” said Cassie. “Things have changed and we have gone to cards with our message and name printed on them and we send an update letter just to let our family and friends know what has happened to us the past year. I love this tradition that we do as a family.”

Shaye Pentino and her family have made a tradition of sending out holiday cards with special family photos featuring her children with Santa. The tradition began in 2016 when Shaye and her sister-in-law took their children to a unique photo session with Santa hosted by Pineapple Prints in St. Clairsville, OH. “The kids get so excited to see Santa and Stef (the photographer) even arranges for the kids to receive a special gift from Santa,” said Shaye. “It’s amazing to see the look on their faces when they first see Santa and to have that captured in a photo.” Shaye said that although sending holiday cards might seem like a chore, it’s a fun way for her family to spread some holiday cheer and it’s something her family looks forward to every year.

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  • Christmas card
    The tradition began in 2016 when Shaye and her sister-in-law took their children Davis and Eliana Pentino and Brooks Archer for a special visit with Santa.

Local couple Bob and Chris Villamagna are known for the creative, handmade holiday cards that they send to over 100 friends and family every year. It’s been a tradition of theirs for over 25 years. “We usually start planning our cards in October,” said Chris. “Some years it’s easier to decide than others. Once we decide on a concept, Bob will get to work on designing it. It’s fun to use different mediums each year to create something that’s one-of-a-kind.” What will their card look like this year? You’ll just have to hope you are one of the lucky ones on their mailing list.

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Weelunk team member Alex Panas used her annual holiday card as a chance to commemorate an unprecedented year. “I wanted to send out a card that captured the vibe of 2020 in a fun way,” said Alex. “When looking at the templates that were available online, nothing really hit the mark for me. That’s when I had the idea to work with a friend who could bring my vision to life with a custom illustration. The result was a fun Zoom-themed holiday card featuring me, my husband, and our two cats. It will be fun to look back in 10 or 20 years and remember all of the ups and downs we lived through this year.”

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Holiday Greetings During a Pandemic

With the holiday season upon us, the United States Postal Service predicts that Dec. 14-20 will be the busiest week for deliveries, so it’s time to get those cards in the mail soon! In addition to an already busy delivery season, the USPS is also preparing for higher volumes due to the ongoing pandemic.

“We’ve been getting thousands of packages a day, but luckily we have a really great team of motivated and committed people who are doing their part to make sure that we get all of the mail delivered as safely and quickly as possible,” said local USPS mail clerk Haseeb Ahmed. “It’s definitely a lot of work, but it makes me happy to be a part of spreading the holiday love. Especially now, since more people are spending the holidays at home.”

If you want your holiday cards delivered before Christmas, you’ll want to get them to the post office no later than a week before the holiday, according to Hasseb. “But really, the sooner the better.”

After months of stress, separation, and uncertainty, sending a holiday card to your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors is a simple way to stay connected and spread holiday cheer. While we may not all be able to spend the holidays together this year, we can all get a smile from getting a card in the mail from a loved one all while supporting the great cause of keeping our postal service operating.

Miranda Tharp grew up in Moundsville, WV, and has lived in Wheeling since attending college at West Liberty University. She graduated from college in 2016 and holds a Digital Media Design degree with a minor in Photography. She works full-time at Highmark as a production artist and does side work as a photographer. In her free time, she loves to rollerskate, tend to her plants, and hang out with her dog momo.