Many of the traditions that have become synonymous with Christmas—like stockings, evergreen trees, and a red-suited Santa—have only been around for a couple centuries or less. One of the most pervasive customs among people who celebrate the holiday is the obligatory Christmas card. Whether you love getting the flood of mail at the end of the year or dread it, you have Henry Cole to thank for sending the first commercial Christmas card.
According to the Library of Congress, Cole was a British civil servant born in 1808. It was customary in the 19th century to send letters to loved ones around Christmas, and by the time Cole had reached his 30s, he was sick of the practice. Looking to save time and energy during the holidays, he asked his friend and illustrator John Callcott Horsley to help him create a shortcut.
Horsley's answer to Cole's problem was an illustration of a happy family bearing the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” At the top of the card, there was a blank line to fill with the name of the recipient, and one at the bottom for that of the sender. The image could be reprinted thousands of times. Now, instead of writing personalized letters until his hands started to cramp, all Cole had to do was jot down some names before slipping his season's greetings into their envelopes.
It turned out that many people shared Cole's gripes about holiday-letter writing. They wanted in on his idea, and the card grew from personal holiday hack to the first mass-produced Christmas card ever made. Cards were sold for a shilling apiece, or about 12 times the cost of postage.
Holidays cards are more popular today than ever before. Americans send about 2 billion of them every year. Of course, now that letter-writing has been replaced by phone calls, texts, emails, and social media, the tradition is considered by many to be more of a chore than a convenience.