Christmas cards have been called “little messengers of goodwill,” but that description, charming though it may be, is perhaps an oversimplification. In an age when the human is slowly being displaced by the digital—when the handwritten note is being forsaken for Facebook, and emotions are being expressed more expediantly in an email, a text, or even a tweet—the Christmas card stands strong as that occasion-specific form of correspondence that even the prophets and proponents of Paperless Post refuse to submit with a click of the Send button. When it comes to Christmas cards, cardstock is still king.
Indeed, nothing combines both words and images, or conveys both greetings and feelings, better than a Christmas card. And, in a new book, American Christmas Cards: 1900-1960 (published by the Bard Graduate Center of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, and distributed by Yale University Press), we are treated to a walk back in time via Christmas cards past.
The book, edited by Kenneth L. Ames, is the first to offer a systematic survey of Christmas card imagery, and traces trends and themes from throughout the first six decades of the 20th century. Like Christmas itself, which embraces disparate beliefs, customs, and activities of multiple origins, the cards featured here are numerous and varied, from candles and poinsettias to Santa Claus and three kings, from snowy scenes to warm-weather locales, from Medieval revels to modes of transportation. This, in the end, turns out to be more than the mere exploration of images and cards, but rather is a historical survey of the American Christmas and of the larger American culture over time. Along the way, we learn why we feel an almost compulsory need to partake in the ritual of exchange, especially at this time of year.
From calling cards to family photos, from the religious to the humorous, in handwritten notes and engraved fonts alike, Christmas Cards, like its subject, is a pictorial playground of the past—a joyful journey into the world of imagination, benevolence, and beauty that is that little messenger of goodwill.
Images courtesy of Bard Graduate Center