At Christmas time, there are several traditions that come about which vary from country to country with little thought given as to their origins.

Christmas celebrations for many nations include Christmas trees, the hanging of decorations, lights and wreaths, Christmas stockings, candy canes, gift giving, Santa Claus, and the creation of nativity scenes.

Another practice common at this time of year is the sending of Christmas cards to friends and family which started over 175 years ago. This custom began in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a senior civil servant, who had the idea of Christmas cards with his friend John Horsley, who was an artist.

In 2016 Pamela Nicholson of Kamo, generously offered two age-old albums dating from the Victorian period to the Museum which had belonged to her great grandmother, Maria Drake (nee Mills).
In 2016 Pamela Nicholson of Kamo, generously offered two age-old albums dating from the Victorian period to the Museum which had belonged to her great grandmother, Maria Drake (nee Mills).

As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became much more popular and were produced in large numbers from about 1860. In 1870 when the cost of Christmas cards and postage dropped, this affordability meant even more people were able to send cards with personal messages of 'glad tidings' and 'good will'.

Advertisement

Traditionally, Christmas cards depicted nativity or religious themes but by late Victorian times, robins and snow-scenes had become increasingly popular. At the time British postmen were nicknamed "Robins" due to the red uniforms worn and often cards would be illustrated with robins delivering Christmas mail.

Humorous and sentimental images of children and animals were also popular with the Victorians, as were increasingly elaborate shapes, decorations and materials.

From the album belonging to Maria Drake (nee Mills) in the Whangārei Museum, Kiwi North. Photo / Supplied
From the album belonging to Maria Drake (nee Mills) in the Whangārei Museum, Kiwi North. Photo / Supplied

Found at Whangārei Museum are plentiful examples of these beautifully coloured mementoes sent over a century ago which exude historic images and nostalgia from a bygone era.

Appreciation of the quality and artistry of the cards grew in the late 1800s, partly spurred by competitions organised by card publishers, with cash prizes offered for the best designs. People soon collected Christmas cards like they would butterflies or stamps, with new seasons' cards being reviewed in newspapers, like books or films today.

During the 19th century it was also common for Christmas cards to be recycled by women's service organisations who collected them and removed the pictures, pasting them into scrap books to entertain children in hospitals, orphanages and missions.

At the time British postmen were nicknamed
At the time British postmen were nicknamed "Robins" because of the red uniforms worn and often cards would be illustrated with robins delivering Christmas mail.

The first European settlers brought the new practice to New Zealand with them, along with their albums overflowing with Christmas cards full of cheer and demotic wishes received from relatives abroad.

In 2016 Pamela Nicholson of Kamo generously offered two age-old albums dating from the Victorian period to the museum which had belonged to her great-grandmother, Maria Drake (nee Mills). These treasured heirlooms are a reminder of past descendants and a family's history, revealing ancestor's names, their sentiments of Christmastide and the types of cards popular during the late 1800s to early 1900s.

The Museum holds examples of beautifully coloured mementos sent over a century ago which exude historic images and nostalgia from a bygone era. Photo / Supplied
The Museum holds examples of beautifully coloured mementos sent over a century ago which exude historic images and nostalgia from a bygone era. Photo / Supplied

Human beings are sentimental creatures and the habit of sending cards has become traditional with many a family Christmas spent hanging greeting cards from the hearth or avidly collecting them for personal enjoyment.

Advertisement

In recent decades changes in technology may be responsible for the decline of the Christmas card with generations raised without handwritten letters or notes expressing the all-inclusive "Season's greetings". Yet despite the decline, billions of cards worldwide are still sent each year hopefully retaining this longstanding tradition for at least another century.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.