On a Christmas Tradition

One of the favorite theses I read about in studying for my history degree centered around the idea that the modern world was, by and large, created from the period 1820-1850. Those thirty years saw the creation of steam travel (trains), instant communication (telegraph), and the application of machines to industry (engines in factories). Arguably, most “inventions” since then have only been improvements on those original concepts.

The same can be true about many of our modern traditions and practices in society. A stock reply to almost any question regarding the origins of traditions today is, “Oh, the Victorians came up with that,” and this is mostly true. We have already looked at the idea of the Christmas tree (from Queen Victoria herself, actually), and we can add such things to the Victorians’ credit as stockings being hung and carols being sung.

Henry Cole is one such Victorian who had an impact on what we do as a holiday tradition today. Cole’s career was largely as an upper level British government functionary; he worked in records, worked on post office reform (some people give him credit for the first postage stamp, for example), and, because of his interest in arts, worked with various exhibitions and art displays over the years. He was a major planner and proponent of The Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. Cole even managed to write a well-received book on design and even invented/designed a teapot that was mass produced by an English pottery firm.

All in all, Henry Cole was a prototypical Victorian. His interest in combining art and industry and public admin demonstrates the Victorian adage that the modern person should not pigeon-hole, that interests–even as disparate as art and science–should complement and not compete with each other. His ability to administer projects and marshal disparate factions into one focus made him a favorite of the Queen’s Consort, Prince Albert. “If you want steam,” Albert reportedly said once, making a joke on the man’s name while recognizing his ability, “then you need to get Cole.”

We remember Cole these days mostly for his collaboration with an artist named John Callcott Horsley (With a name like that–you must be a Victorian artist, right?). In 1843, Cole commissioned Horsley to draw/paint a festive holiday scene and include a greeting. The image Horsley produced caused some controversy (say that word like a Brit would with the accent on the second syllable) because it depicted a young child drinking wine (see the image above). No matter! It’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? Cole had the image reproduced on card stock and sent it to various friends and family members that December. And while others claim that some people sent holiday greetings earlier than this, it was Cole’s sending these by post that year that began a yearly holiday tradition.

It was the first Christmas card.