"May Christmas be Merry" (19th-century Christmas card) (via Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington)

“May Christmas be Merry” (19th-century Christmas card) (via Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington)

Anthropomorphic cats, murderous frogs, and insects dancing by the moonlight aren’t exactly part of our Christmas card tradition today. However back in the 19th century, Victorians thought nothing unusual about sending their loved ones a grim image of a dead robin with the words “May yours be a joyful Christmas.”

Many of these strange Victorian Christmas cards are making the rounds on social media this holiday season (@HorribleSanity has shared some especially disturbing ones, like the scene of a frog-on-frog stabbing, and Saint Nicholas stuffing a kid in a sack). But where do these visuals come from, and what do they mean? Some of that significance is now lost to history, yet it’s important to consider that Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in the early 1800s. So over the 19th century, the iconography of the pre-Santa Saint Nicholas, the trees, the presents, the snow, evolved gradually.

“May yours be a Joyful Christmas” (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

“A Merry Christmas to you” (via Horrible Sanity)

The rise of Christmas in Victorian England is often cited as going back to Queen Victoria, who with her German-born husband Prince Albert celebrated their 1848 holidays by decorating an evergreen tree, something captured in an illustration widely shared by the Illustrated London News. According to the BBC, the first major Christmas card dates to 1843, with Henry Cole illustrating a happy family around a dinner table. It was a little expensive for the average citizen, still the tradition caught on, so in 1880 alone, the BBC states, the new industry “produced 11.5 million cards.”

So competitive was the new trade that, as Tara Moore writes in Victorian Christmas in Print, even Alfred, Lord Tennyson was given 1,000 guineas to write a Christmas card poem. Moore adds that “there is the assumption that a culture that encourages Christmas is at least tacitly Christian; nonetheless, people of other beliefs at times found it beneficial to take part in what they saw as a celebration of middle-class values and English identity.” Some poetry and imagery fixated on the nativity story, but others were more about a cultural Christmas, often purposefully removed from religion.

And alongside, pagan traditions endured in Britain and throughout Europe. In 2013, Sarah Elizabeth Troop chronicled a few of these “Monsters of Christmas” for Atlas Obscura, such as the well-known Krampus, a sort of evil counterpart to Saint Nicholas, and the more obscure Mary Lwyd, a skeleton horse from Welsh tradition who challenges people in a battle of rhymes. There’s some influence of this on the cards, as well as general interests of the era, whether science, art, or religion. Social messages were often evoked, such as dead birds reminding people of the poor children dying in the winter streets. So while they are profoundly, undeniably, bizarre to view now, even the creepiest of Victorian Christmas greetings likely had some contemporary meaning to the sender.

“A hearty Christmas greeting: Four jovial froggies / a skating would go; / They asked their mamma, / but she’d sternly said, ‘No!’ / And they all came to grief in a beautiful row. / There’s a sweet Christmas moral for one not too slow. / Just so!” (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)

“May all jollity ‘lighten’ your Christmas hours” (via Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington)

“Absent friends [natives], may we soon see them again! A merry Christmas to you” (1876) (via National Library of Ireland/Flickr)

The red ants have a flag that reads: “The compliments of the season” (via University of Glasgow Library/Flickr)

“I have come to greet you” (inside it says: “Loving Christmas greetings, may smiling faces ring around your glowing hearth this Christmas day, may fun and merriment abound, and all your world be glad and gay” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

“A Happy Christmas” (1900) (via Missouri History Museum/Wikimedia)

“A happy Christmas to you” (via Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

“God Jul” (“Merry Christmas”) (before 1946), art by Jenny Nyström (wia Wikimedia)

“Best wishes for Christmas” (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)

“Wishing you a Merry Christmas” (via Derbyshire County Council Record Office)

“A happy Christmas” (1908) (via NYPL)

“In silvery accents, whispering low – A happy, happy Christmastide!” (England, 1880) (courtesy Toronto Public Library)

An example of one of the first Australian Christmas cards, collected by Bessie Rouse (via Sydney Living Museums)

A Krampus Christmas card (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

“A joyful Christmas to you” (via Derbyshire County Council Record Office)

“Glædelig Jul” (“Merry Christmas”) (1917) (via National Library of Norway/Flickr)

A rather gloomy Moth-themed card (via the Library of Birmingham)

“A happy Christmas” (via Boston Public Library)

“Now dance and jump and make good cheer for Christmas comes but once a year” (L. Prang & Co., Boston, 1888)(via Special Collections Department, Postcard Collection, Enoch Pratt Free Library)

“So please excuse this impecunious card, As all I’m good for is a used up.” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

Christmas card by Wilhelm Larsen (1890-92) (via National Library of Norway/Flickr)

“Every good wish for your Christmas,” with frogs! (via the Library of Birmingham)

“A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” (1876) (via National Library of Ireland/Flickr)

“A happy Christmas to you” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

“May Christmas render your heart and home full of happiness” (via University of Glasgow Library/Flickr)

“Wishing you a merry Christmas,” featuring a goldfinch, bee, and cricket (via University of Glasgow Library/Flickr)

“With many merry Christmas greetings” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

“Who’s Afraid?” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

“Wishing you a purr-fectly happy Christmas” (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)

“A happy Christmas to you” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

“Here’s a crow for Christmas” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

5 replies on “Have a Creepy Little Christmas with These Unsettling Victorian Cards”

  1. It’s possible that graphics were re-used– like the frog and staghorn beetle dancing could have also been first used with a non-holiday message– noticed that with antique beach post cards, same wavey scene stamped with a different beach name.

    1. Interesting. And may I suggest the explanation for dead robins. So let’s say that when they began printing these cards the “wren day” was an inspiration. Possibly then the dead birds became simply a symbol of the New Year and few remembered why. Hence the “wrong” use of dead robin.

  2. The association with goats might be because the sun moves into Capricorn at the Solstice? just a guess?

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