If you browse the holiday cards stuffing your mailbox today, you’ll likely find photos of smiling families, serene woodland scenes, or evergreen trees wrapped with twinkling lights. But if you received a Christmas card in the late 19th century, there’s a good chance you’d find yourself looking at an image of a dead bird.
According to Hallmark, about 1.3 billion Christmas cards are sent each year. We have the Victorians to thank for kicking off the tradition of sending a seasonal card, though holiday greetings have changed quite a bit over the centuries. The ones that were sent in Britain in the late 1800s were often much darker than those we exchange today; in fact, some of the designs were downright creepy.
Who Sent the First Christmas Card?
Until the 1840s, sending cards of any form by post in Britain wasn’t common, simply because it was too expensive. That changed with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, which decreed that any letter weighing under half an ounce could be sent for the cost of a single penny.
It was a huge boon for the postal service—and it also made spreading some holiday cheer easier, as sending cards to mark particular seasons and events had become much more affordable. The first commercial Christmas card was subsequently designed by John Calcott Horsley and sent by Henry Cole in 1843. It featured a happy family gathered around a table, illustrated above the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”
It was the kind of joyful image you’d typically expect with a holiday greeting. Some kinds of Christmas card images were as popular in Victorian times as they are today—in addition to that initial happy family, there was also a fair share of cards displaying classic heartwarming scenes, like adorable animals and snowmen. But as the novelty of being able to send Christmas cards gradually wore off, people began to hunger for a wider range of imagery.
Why Victorians Sent Creepy Christmas Cards
This led to Victorian Christmas cards that appear more unsettling to the modern eye. People sent and received ones that showed, among other odd pictures, the aftermath of one frog murdering another, a plate of dead birds, and humans emerging from the stomachs of creepy snowmen. Also featured were bizarre images of animals, fruits, and vegetables, such as sinister walking potatoes and Christmas dinner ingredients dancing to the music of a violin-playing rabbit.
In addition to the sheer novelty of it all, media attention also played a role in the variety of unconventional Christmas cards. Some newspapers ran reviews of each season’s designs, in the way that films might be reviewed today, which increased the urgency for designers to create ever more unusual imagery in order to be competitive.
The dark nature of some of the images also reflects differences between Victorian values and those of today. The inclusion of images of dead robins is unsettling for us, but for people of that era, it was meant to signify a good luck ritual that was sometimes performed: To celebrate St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas), people would kill a small bird, often either a robin or a wren. Sending those images of the deceased beasts was actually intended to bestow good fortune.
Those more unusual Victorian Christmas cards may be off-putting today, but they capture a snapshot of history. If anything, they’re a reminder to be thankful that your annual batch of holiday greetings doesn’t include any nightmare-inducing imagery.