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  • Writer's pictureLCHS

Christmas Traditions

This article first appeared in the November/December 2021 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.

By Dulce Kersting-Lark, LCHS Executive Director

LCHS Photo: 25-12-004. Ione Adair & Bernadine Adair Cornelison, LCHS Christmas party at the McConnell Mansion, Dec 20 1974.

The Christmas season is upon us and with it comes a wonderful variety of traditions that connect us to the past. For many of us, the mark of an enjoyable holiday is its resemblance to the Christmas’s of our childhood. Familiar or nostalgic food, music, decorations, and activities can transport us back to a time when our biggest concern was whether our letter reached Santa’s North Pole workshop in time. The traditions we hold dear came from our families and our communities, and they also trace their roots farther back to another time and place. As you prepare to celebrate another holiday season, I invite you to spend a few minutes considering the history of some of the most quintessential trappings of Christmas.

For months now you may have noticed the greeting card section of your local drug store or supermarket becoming more green and red with each passing week. Christmas cards and holiday greetings are big business. According to Hallmark, the prolific producer of greeting cards founded in 1910, Americans send more than 1.3 billion Christmas and holiday cards each year. Cards with eye-catching details like glitter, pop-up characters, or even music routinely cost $4.99 or more, and when you add in a postage stamp at $0.58, sending a few messages of goodwill can leave a sizable dent in your pocketbook. The realities of the modern holiday card market makes the origins of the practice all the more surprising.

Historians widely agree that the first Christmas card was the invention of Sir Henry Cole, a prominent figure in the London social scene of Victorian England. Years before becoming the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he found himself besieged with handwritten yuletide greetings from his many friends and acquaintances. The recent introduction of a “penny post” rate in the British postal system made sending holiday messages more accessible to the masses in England. Fearing a reputation of being rude, Cole cast about for a way to answer the hundreds of notes arriving at his home. In the waning months of 1843, he commissioned his friend and artist J.C. Horsley to create an engraving that represented Cole’s idea of the Christmas spirit. He then took the image of a wealthy family enjoying Christmas dinner flanked by scenes of charitable giving to a London printer and had 1,000 color postcards created. The card featured a simple message, “A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU,” and space to fill in who the card was for and who had sent it. Within a few years, several other prominent Londoners were sending out the very same cards.

Americans have a German immigrant, Louis Prang, to thank for our own adoption of the Christmas card tradition. Prang was a skilled printer and eager to utilize the latest technologies of his trade. From continental Europe he brought the process known as chromolithograph making to New England in the 1870s. The process involved the layering of as many as twenty colors to create vibrant images with intricate details. Prang’s very first holiday offering featured a beautiful flower and a message of "Merry Christmas.” His high-quality cards garnered a great deal of attention in his adopted home of Boston and beyond. By the end of the century lithographers across the country were engaged in the lucrative holiday card industry.

LCHS Archive: LC Greeting Cards. Exterior of a Christmas card sent in 1969.

Evidence of the popularity of the Christmas card is easy to find in the Latah County Historical Society’s community archive. We have preserved more than one hundred Christmas and holiday postcards and folding cards from the 1890s through the 1970s. The wide variety of cards gives researchers the chance to see how both the quality and variety changed as new methods of printing became widely available. You can also study how the preferred aesthetics of Christmas and New Year evolved over time, and how the holiday card industry grew to be more inclusive of other end-of-the-year celebrations, like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Closely related to the holiday card is the holiday family letter. While not everyone is a fan of these “brag rags,” the yearly summary of a family’s experiences reveals a lot about the era in which they developed, as well as our personal histories. Since before the days of Sir Henry Cole we have used the final page of our calendars as an excuse to send updates to our friends and family, but before the advent of easy and low-cost duplication methods, most letters were written by hand. By the middle of the 20th century, however, mimeograph machines were inexpensive and ubiquitous. The technology allowed women (and it was and remains almost always women) to create a single personal letter that could be sent to loved ones near and far. As families moved farther away from one and other during the booming postwar years, this point of connection grew in importance.

In the LCHS archive is one such family Christmas letter, compiled and sent by Lola Clyde (shown below). The copy in our collection arrived in December of 1959 in the mailbox of Enos Cornwall, who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time but had grown up in Moscow. Mrs. Clyde formatted the letter on a legal-size piece of paper and listed highlights from each of the past 12 months. It presents the reader with a delightful glimpse into this family’s joys. February’s entry, for example, reads “Blessed Event number one, Robert comes home from Korea. We wine and dine him the rest of the month.” Robert was enlisted in the Army and had been stationed in South Korea since 1957, and it is clear that his parents Lola and Earl were glad to have him home. October’s entry could only have been written by a farming family. “Erlene, Phillip and children are with us for Homecoming. Such fun! Still it rains. We give up on the last of the fall seeding. Too wet.” In the days before Facebook or even email, the family letter was surely a treat for many far-flung relations missing their family and friends.

LCHS Archive: SC 1988.62. Lola Clyde's family Christmas letter, recapping the year 1959.

Another tradition that makes Christmas feel special is the decorating of an evergreen tree, often placed in a prominent spot in one’s home. Many folks know that the roots of this tradition (pun very much intended) reach back to ancient practices of societies as diverse as the Chinese, Egyptians, and Scandinavians. Evergreen boughs, branches, and whole trees were used as decorations during winter months and around the solstice because they symbolized eternal life and the promise of spring’s eventual return. It seems to have to been enveloped into Christian practices sometime in the 16th century in Germany. Other parts of Europe did n