The French newsweekly L’Obs (Le Nouvel Observateur) has put together a collection of some of the most bizarre Christmas cards from the Victorian period through the early 21st century.
I would encourage everyone to look at the 14 eye-openers — nearly all with English ‘greetings’.
L’Obs borrowed some of their card photos (as have I, above) from a BBC article published on December 21, 2015. You will not believe the sinister and strange images.
Most people who exchanged paper greetings chose conventional illustrations, which, as I have written before (here and here), were often of animals, none of which were terribly Christmassy. Alternatively, idealised well dressed girls and boys graced the greeting. Other images were more seasonal depicting people enjoying Christmas dinner.
Stephanie Boydell, curator of special collections at Manchester Metropolitan University, told the BBC that some of the common animal illustrations would have appeared elsewhere and the general public would have recognised them. Christmas card printers reused these pictures. Many of these printers had collections of such images which they used throughout the year for other greetings or cheap prints.
Nativity scenes did not appear until much later.
Boydell explained that this is because the Victorians, like their antecedents, did not consider Christmas to be a religious feast day but rather a secular festival:
The Victorians had a different idea to what Christmas was about – not particularly Christian, but a time of good humour.
Consequently, a number of cards were made for people who enjoyed an absurdist or a dark sense of humour. Pictures of animals or humans doing strange and criminal things were popular with this market.
One card (5/14 in the L’Obs collection) features a frog who has just stabbed another in the heart and runs off with his money. The greeting reads:
A Merry Christmas to you.
Another card (3/14) shows a dead robin with this wish:
May yours be a Joyful Christmas.
A French card depicts a mouse riding a lobster, using its antennae as reins. The mouse has a piece of paper which, translated, reads:
Peace, joy, health, happiness.
Of this image, Boydell says:
You may find a mouse riding a lobster strange – I find it funny. It’s horses for courses.
Humans in this genre are in unsettling situations. In addition to the one shown above with two women rollling the poor man into a snowball, the BBC page has a few other cards. One upper-middle class boy threatens a middle-class lad with a horsewhipping. Another shows an upset boy stuck in a teapot. A third shows a clown ready to stick a red hot poker up a policeman’s posterior, unaware that another constable is coming round the corner.
Other cards reflect a moralistic theme in an absurdist way. At L’Obs, the first image shows four frogs who disobeyed their mother’s instruction not to play on the ice. They all landed on their backs. The eighth card, ‘”X”mas RAYS’, features an unlucky boy who ate the Christmas pudding. His x-ray shows that the guilty cannot hide!
These cards are a useful introduction to the Victorian mindset, not nearly as pious as we like to think it was.
They also remind me that when a couple we know send us a Christmas greeting with a skull and crossbones, they are merely upholding a longstanding tradition. They think they are being clever. I might just send them these links.