Christmas Cards: Setting the Mood

Then its zippity jingle and dash away ping
Hang holly and berries in all the halls
The tassels on all the thermostats and
Write merry Christmas on all of the walls…

~ from Eloise at Christmas Time by Kay Thompson

One upon a time, we wrote armfuls of Christmas cards and strung those we received around the sitting room, perched them on the mantlepiece, stuck them to the fridge. Today, with snail mail elbowed out by email, sending Christmas cards in the post is no longer the prolific tradition it once was.

And yet, my first – possibly my only – card arrived yesterday to kick-start the joy of Christmas.

Sending Christmas cards began in England in 1843, inspired by a government employee, Henry Cole, who had helped to establish the modern postal service. In fact, I could write pages about Cole, a man of incredible vision, who was knighted by Queen Victoria for all the work he did on the Great Exhibition of 1851, and for establishing the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was even caricatured as “King Cole” in Vanity Fair, in August 1871, but that is another story. His importance here relates to his involvement with the Post Office, where Cole introduced the Penny Post, a public delivery service that everyone could afford. Then, to accommodate the growing number of people sending Christmas greetings through the system, he ordered 1000 hand-coloured cards from John Callcott Horsley that were sold in London as the first commercial Christmas cards. And so the tradition of sending seasons greetings kicked off with a vengeance, with the aid of 19th century improvements in printing and transportation. In the USA, when John Hall and his brothers started selling postcards in 1910, it did not take them long to introduce greeting cards as well. Today, Hallmark cards has become the most recognizable brand in the industry, printing cards not only for the Christmas season but for every other event imaginable.

My solitary Christmas card is beautiful, as you can see above. Yet, I find myself wondering why we antipodeans still cling to images of a wintery Christmas and traditions more fitting to a cold climate. For anyone originating in northern climes, such images are nostalgic, but for those who have only known Christmas full of sunshine and sunburn, carol singers in the snow and sleigh bells jingling are as much a fairy tale scenario as princesses roaming the forest in search of a handsome prince. Yet we all grew up on a diet of fireside stockings and the likes of Eloise reminding us that there’s ‘a blizzard outside and four below zero or more.’ So firmly are these images entrenched that we still expect poor Santa to don a red winter suit, boots and a thick white beard in thirty degree heat on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. (Although persona non-grata these days, Rolf Harris did at least suggest that Father Christmas would be more likely to find a collection of kangaroos to pull him across Australia.)

These days, we seem more inclined to produce the odd Santa-on-a-surfboard and ungainly emus up a gum tree instead of those rather drab partridges.  Julian Dennison certainly put Ronan Keating right with his alternative lyrics to Winter Wonderland, reminding us that the summer heat makes us glisten with sweat, as we devour pav and ham, and ‘we’re happy and bright, not a snowman in sight’… except on Christmas cards and in the shopping malls.

Perhaps, in the spirit of a truly Australian Christmas, I should replace my fir tree with a eucalyptus – but the decorations just wouldn’t hang as neatly on the sparse limbs of a gum tree. And there will be a Christmas pudding, because it wouldn’t be Christmas without one. Should I then admit I am already playing carols from King’s College, Cambridge that sing of bleak midwinters and poor old King Wenceslas trudging through the rude winds and the bitter weather with his page? Why not, when I have interspersed my playlist with those beautiful Australian carols about brolgas dancing and the milky way lighting up the sky. And I do have a wreath made of seashells this year.  Also, we will be putting the Christmas beast on the BBQ so the oven doesn’t heat up the house.

Maybe the fun is in the mix of traditions we all add, sprinkling different scents, sounds and flavours from all parts of the globe to make a unique blend of summer and winter, old and new. Paper chains and tins of Quality Streets fit the bill in any climate. And as long as we keep the joy of Christmas at the forefront of the celebrations, what does it matter whether there is snow around the manger or Baby Jesus needs to be smothered in sunscreen?

So “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” and “Joy to the World” wherever and however you will be celebrating.

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