My brother has just posted a challenge on his blog, If you were making a Christmas card… in which he asks us to consider the question, ‘What picture would I use to front up my cards?’
Now, those of you who have read any of my blogs will guess I would pick something old and apparently slightly off topic, then read my explanation as to why it perfectly fitted the request. So I am going to do something different, something old certainly, and very much not a traditional Christmas card image. It is an eighteenth century souvenir from a visit to Germany, a sketch of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.
Which will leave some of you wondering why I would describe a famous image of the Madonna and Child as a non-traditional Christmas card image. Well, read on and see what you think.
Throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century there had been a tradition of sending letters to friends and family at Christmas. After the introduction of the penny post in 1840 more and more letters were sent and the writing of Christmas letters began to be seen by some as a chore. One such man was Henry Cole, a brilliant civil servant and administrator, in 1843 he decided to create an easy alternative to the Christmas letter, and invented the Christmas card. Produced for personal use some were offered for sale to the public (they were not a success).
The first Christmas card, celebrating partying and charity.
Despite the initial cold reaction Christmas cards soon took off, and by the end of the century were being produced in the thousand. However seasonal images were very rare, most seem to be cards designed for other purposes, with a seasonal message attached.
Two pairs of Victorian Christmas cards, at least one has ivy on it – though combined with non-seasonal bramble!
A home-made Christmas card of 1898, showing Bournemouth pier!
The twentieth century brought more seasonal images, such as the ivy and mistletoe on this First World War silk card, made in France for soldiers to send home to their families.
Though some First World War cards commemorated the regiments and areas of action, and can be compared with the corporate Christmas cards of today, only the message has any seasonal connotation.
Another home-made card, this time from Mesopotamia
But what is the curious omission from these cards? Well, any mention of the birth of Christ for a start, or indeed any religious symbolism at all. This was very rarely depicted on cards in the nineteenth century, and only became widespread, though never common, in the twentieth.
So that is why I would consider my picture of the Madonna and Child as a non-traditional image for a Christmas card.