In the 19th century, before festive Christmas cards became the norm, Victorians put a darkly humorous and twisted spin on their seasonal greetings. Some of the more popular subjects included anthropomorphic frogs, bloodthirsty snowmen and dead birds.

“May yours be a joyful Christmas,” reads one card from the late 1800s, along with an illustration of a dead robin. Another card shows an elderly couple laughing maniacally as they lean out a second-story window and dump water onto a group of carolers below. “Wishing you a jolly Christmas,” it says beneath the image.

Morality and a strict code of social conduct embodied the time period of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), but the Victorians still had their fair share of questionable practices. They thought nothing of posing with the dead or robbing graves and selling the bodies. Their holiday customs evolved with just as much curiosity. Clowns, insects and even the Devil himself had a place in early holiday fanfare.

“In the 19th century, the iconography of Christmas had not been fully developed as it is now,” says Penne Restad, a lecturer in American history at the University of Texas in Austin and the author of Christmas in America.

Printing and Postage Reforms Trigger Christmas Card Tradition

Christmas didn’t gain momentum until the mid-1800s. In 1843, the same year that English author Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol, prominent English educator and society member, Sir Henry Cole, commissioned the first Christmas card. Even with an impressive print run of 1,000 cards (of which 21 exist today), full-fledged manufacturing remained only a sideline to the more established trade in playing cards, notepaper and envelopes, needle-box and linen labels and valentines, explains Samantha Bradbeer, archivist and historian for Hallmark Cards, Inc. It took several decades for the exchange of holiday greetings to catch on, both in England and the United States.

“Several factors coincided to produce a broad acceptance of greeting cards as a popular commodity,” says Bradbeer, including a higher literacy rate and new consumerism stemming from increasing levels of discretionary income. But postal reform and advances in printing technologies were the two factors that really pushed Christmas cards into the mainstream.

The Postage Act of 1839 helped regulate British postage rates and democratize mail delivery. A year later, with the passage of the Uniform Penny Post law, anyone in England could send something in the mail for just one penny. Then, in October 1870, right before the holiday season, the British government introduced the halfpenny, making mail service affordable for nearly all levels of society. Standardized rates and delivery soon followed in America.

At the same time, wood cuts and other cumbersome printing processes gave way to the mass production of images. The first mass printing of Christmas cards occurred in the 1860s. By 1870, when printing could be done for as little as a few pennies per dozen, hundreds of European card manufacturers were producing cards to sell at home and to the American public. German immigrant Louis Prang is credited with popularizing the Christmas card in the United States through his Boston lithography business.

As the popularity of Christmas cards grew, Victorians demanded more novelty. “By 1885, unique and even bizarre cards with silk fringe, glittered attachments and mechanical movements were popular, but the more common Christmas card motifs related to flora and fauna, seasonal vignettes and landscapes,” Bradbeer says.

Among the bizarre were a large collection of dark and outlandish designs. An army of black ants is shown attacking an army of red ants on one holiday greeting with the caption, “The compliments of the season,” printed on a tiny flag. Sullen and brooding children, random lobsters and Christmas pudding with human elements made frequent appearances on Christmas cards printed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

But why did Victorians exchange such eccentric holiday cards, and what do they mean?

“I think it’s important to understand that ‘festive’ cards as we know them now are very much a 20th-century phenomena,” says Katie Brown, assistant curator of social history at York Castle Museum. According to Brown, although some of the history is lost, designs were made to serve as conversation pieces as much as they were made to celebrate the season. Many Victorian Christmas cards became parlor art or people added them to their scrapbook collections.

Greeting cards, in general, are linked socially, economically and politically to the culture, period and place of their origin and use. “Sentiments and designs that may seem unusual today were often considered signs of good fortune, while others poked fun at superstitions,” says Bradbeer.

Folk customs influenced the design of many Victorian Christmas cards. In British folklore, for example, robins and wrens are considered sacred species. John Grossman, author of Christmas Curiosities: Old, Dark and Forgotten Christmas, writes that images of these dead birds on Christmas cards may have been “bound to elicit Victorian sympathy and may reference common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas.”

“I believe the cultural interest in fairies, secret places and strange creatures that developed, maybe beginning with seances, elves and so on, in the Victorian era may have something to do with some of the fantastical Christmas cards,” says Restad.

St. Nicholas Teams Up With the Devil

Krampus, Victorian Christmas cards
Advertising Archive/Everett
A German postcard reading "Gruss vom Krampus," meaning "Greetings from Krampus."

An English legend popular during the Victorian era said that St. Nicholas recruited the Devil to help with his deliveries. Together, they determined which children had been naughty or nice. The Devil, who appeared under various guises, kidnapped the disobedient kids and beat them with a stick. Santa is the creepy antihero on a variety of Victorian-era holiday cards, where he can be seen peeking through windows and spying on children. The Devil is disguised as Krampus on some, making off on sleds and in automobiles with the children deemed naughty.

Today, despite the rise of electronic communication and social media, billions of Christmas cards are bought and exchanged around the world each year. 

“As artifacts of popular culture revealing graphic, literary and social trends, they provide both visual pleasure and important historic information,” says Bradbeer, even when that information is symbolized by dead birds.