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Hello, everyone!

Christmas is nearly here, and I have a few items to share of both a secular and a religious nature.

O Antiphon for Christmas Eve

First, the final O Antiphon, the one for Christmas Eve, is Matthew 1:18-23, detailed in the following two posts:

Christmas Eve — Matthew 1:18-25 (with commentary from Albert Barnes)

The Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel (hermeneutics)

The Christmas 1968 Bible reading from space

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. Listen to the astronauts on board read from Genesis:

The Christmas message from Outer Space

‘Twas the Night before Christmas’ — a delightful reading

Children might need a distraction while grown-ups are preparing for Christmas.

What better than listening to a reading of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’?

Britain’s Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has done a cracking job of reading the story in his remarkable baritone:

Those who listened to it loved it. This is just one of the many compliments on his voice:

Christmas traditions — religious or not?

The trend over recent years, possibly a reactionary one, is that certain Christmas traditions that have evolved since the 19th century are either too secular or too pagan.

That said, some of these traditions can be said to have religious overtones.

The history of the candy cane is an intriguing one and one that could be used in Sunday School for its symbolism about Jesus:

Candy canes: useful for a Nativity lesson in Sunday School

There is a religious reason why we give each other gifts at this time of year. We recall John the Baptist’s ministry in preparing the way for our Lord:

John the Baptist, charity and Advent

He advocated giving as one way of preparing. Luke’s Gospel records John the Baptist’s words about charity (Luke 3:10-11):

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

This is how seasonal giving developed over time:

Christmas gifts — a history

As far as greenery is concerned, St Boniface transformed the fir tree into a Christian symbol in Germany during the early 8th century:

The Christmas tree — a history

Christmas cards were highly secular and of a facetious nature. They did not become religious until much later:

Bizarre Christmas cards from the 19th century

Louis Prang, a Prussian who emigrated to the United States, made Christmas cards popular there, beginning in 1873. Hallmark did not come along until 1910:

Louis Prang — father of the American Christmas card

I hope these give everyone a few spiritual talking points along with some fun during the countdown to Christmas!

Christmas cards were not always aesthetically pleasing or spiritually inspiring.

My two posts below explain how the Christmas card evolved since the 19th century. You might be surprised to discover the earliest content:

Bizarre Christmas cards from the 19th century

Louis Prang — father of the American Christmas card

Our current card selection is much different in tone.

In closing, anyone who thinks he is being clever by sending a sarcastic or zany card isn’t at all. In fact, such a sender is going back to the spirit of the earliest days of season’s greeetings.

Christmas cardsAs December 28 is the last of the Christmas holidays here in the UK and a few Commonwealth countries, let’s have a final look at seasonal traditions.

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.

Louis Prang.jpgLast year around this time, I featured a post exploring British attitudes towards Christmas, including a brief history of the festive greeting card in the UK.

The man who learned how to print greeting cards in England and then took his skills to the United States was Louis Prang.

Few people alive today know his name. Even fewer probably know that he was in trouble with European authorities and had to emigrate to the US!

Louis Prang was born in Breslau (Wroclaw), which was in 1824, part of Prussian Silesia.File:Provnice of Silesia, Kingdom of Prussia, 1905, Administrative Map.png This area is now part of Poland, but it had a difficult political history from the 18th century onwards. In the Wikipedia map at the right, showing the Province of Silesia in 1905, you can see Breslau in the middle. (Click on the map for an expanded view.)

Prang’s father, Jonas Louis, was a Huguenot engaged in textile manufacture. His mother Rosina (née Silverman) was of German parentage.

Prang was a sickly child, often too unwell to attend school. His father took the opportunity to take the boy on as his apprentice. From him, Prang learned engraving as well as dyeing and printing calico.

When he was in his early 20s, Prang left home to work in a neighbouring territory, Bohemia. There he honed his skills in both printing and textiles.

He also travelled elsewhere in Europe and became involved in political activities linked to the German revolutions of 1848-1849.

The Prussian authorities wanted to arrest him. He managed to evade them by moving to Switzerland.

Prang emigrated to the United States in 1850. He had hoped to make an immediate success of his skill set, but his venture into publishing architectural books and crafting leather goods did not go well.

Frank Leslie, art director for Boston’s Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, hired Prang, enabling him to earn a decent income so that he could marry a Swiss lady, Rosa Gerber, in 1851. He had met Gerber in Paris in 1846.

In 1856, Prang co-founded Prang and Mayer in Boston. Together, the two men produced lithographs. He bought Mayer’s share of the company in 1860 and created L. Prang and Company. The new firm specialised in colour printing of advertising and business materials. It was highly successful and expanded into the printing maps relating to the American Civil War which were distributed by newspapers.

In 1864, after the war ended, Prang returned to Europe to learn more about cutting edge German lithography. This knowledge enabled him to print high-quality reproductions of famous paintings. In 1873, he travelled to England, where he worked on Christmas and other greeting cards.

In 1874, he returned to the US and began manufacturing Christmas cards for the American public. He is known as the ‘father of the American Christmas card’. He wanted to make festive greetings less expensive and more accessible. Up to that point, only the well-heeled could afford cards.

His first images included flowers, plants and children.

Prang lived and worked in Roxbury, a district of Boston. His Wikipedia entry has photos of both his home and his factory.

Prang’s company continued to print works of art, including a set of watercolours of scenes from the Civil War. He was keen to see American education extend to creating art as well as art appreciation. He published instruction books in this regard and also created a foundation to train art teachers.

In 1897, L Prang and Company merged with another firm to become the Taber-Prang Company, which was based in Springfield, in the western half of Massachusetts. (Taber-Prang filed for bankruptcy in 1938.)

In 1909, Prang was on holiday in Los Angeles and died during that time. He is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, a neighbourhood bordering Roxbury.

During the next few years, Christmas cards took off with Americans everywhere. Some families began making their own, devising elaborate shapes and adornment, using ribbon and foil. A number of these homemade creations were so delicate they had to be given by hand to the recipient.

In 1910, Joyce C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hall Brothers, which later became Hallmark Cards, a company which needs no explanation. Hall had begun his career in postcards and, by 1906, was convinced that greeting cards were the way forward. He was not wrong!

In 1917, he and his brother Rollie invented wrapping paper.

By 1922, Hall Brothers had expanded nationwide. Having originally printed only Christmas and Valentine’s Day greetings, they diversified into greeting cards for other occasions. The firm adopted the brand name Hallmark in 1928, although the formal company name did not change until much later in 1954.

Over the years, Hallmark has made acquisitions in Canada and the UK.

The company has also sponsored the Hallmark Hall of Fame, winner of 80 Emmy Awards. In 2001, they launched their eponymous television channel.

Hallmark has 11,000 full-time employees, 3,100 of whom work at the Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters.

Amazingly, after 105 years, Hallmark is still a family-run business. Donald J Hall is the current Chairman. One of his sons, Donald J Hall, Jr, is the CEO. Another, David E Hall, is President of the North American Division.

My recent posts have concerned putting Christ back into Christmas.

Yet, even during late Georgian and Victorian times, the British considered Christmas more of a time for revelry than our Lord.

The first Christmas cards, which artist John Calcott Horsley created for Sir Henry Cole in the 1840s, show the priorities of the day. His card (see the illustration at the beginning of this article from Greetings Today) has a huge, jolly Christmas pudding in the middle surrounded by six illustrations (and another of a cake). Two of the six illustrations show men manhandling women. I cannot make out what the others depict, except for one featuring three musicians.

This is another one of Horsley’s cards:

First Christmas card

Greetings Today says it was criticised for promoting drunkenness, particularly with the little girl in the middle drinking wine which her mother has given her.

These cards were advertised at the time as follows:

A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.

It should be noted that religious Christmas cards did not appear until some years later.

The charitable scenes flanking the left and right hand sides of the card are in line with John the Baptist’s exhortations in Luke 3:11: give food and clothing to the needy.

My British readers will also be interested to see ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Christmas’. I recently went to a charity card sale. A volunteer saleslady said to an elderly lady customer, ‘But it’s a beautiful design. Are you sure you don’t want to buy it?’ The customer replied emphatically, ‘It’s not for our generation. The message says “Merry Christmas”. That won’t do. It’s “Happy Christmas”. Sorry.’

The Evangelical Alliance has results from a series of British surveys on Christmas from 2010 through 2014. It’s a lengthy, fascinating article, well worth reading — even if one isn’t British. What follows is a sampler.

The meaning of Christmas

If the original seasonal cards reflected mainstream British thought in the 19th century, things have hardly progressed since then:

– 83% agreed that Christmas is a about spending time with family and friends.

– 41% agreed that Christmas is a about celebrating that God loves humanity. 24% disagreed with this.

– 51% agreed with the statement “The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas” whilst 46% disagreed with the statement.

– 36% said they would be attending a Christmas service. 62% said they would not be going to a service, 2% were unsure.


A survey commissioned by The Children’s Society in 2010 found that only 10% of adults think that its religious meaning is the most important thing about Christmas. Only 4% of 25-34 year olds thought the religious aspect was important whilst 20% of those over 60’s years feel that it is the key aspect of Christmas. 67% of all adults said spending time with family was the most important thing about Christmas.

Expectations from church services

A number of secular Britons go to a choral or Christmas service. The ones with whom I have spoken say these church attendances evoke childhood memories or they go for the aesthetics (e.g. music, architecture).

Occasional churchgoers who occasionally attend Worcester and Lichfield Cathedral at Christmas say:

– 94% said their motivation was the music.

– 75% said they wanted to be reminded of the Christmas story.

– 55% said they wanted to worship God.

This is what they expect of the service and what they believe:

– 78% said they prefer the service to be candlelit.

– 76% said they prefer traditional rather than modern hymns.

– 94% said they expected the service to be uplifting.

– 58% believed in the birth took place in a stable.

– 57% believe in the role of the shepherds.

– 55% in the wise men.

– 42% in the virgin birth.

Worldly priorities reign

Very few Christmas cards recall the Nativity scene or the Magi.

In 2011, of single cards for purchase, Morrison’s supermarket carried the highest percentage … at 1.7%.

Regarding multipacks of cards, Tesco and Sainsbury’s offered the highest proportion at 20% and 23% respectively.

Concerning presents, 30% of Britons say they will be unable to afford as nice a Christmas in 2014 compared with 2013. Just over one quarter (26%) say they spend more than they can afford.

When we look at Christmas in a worldly way, we lose sight of God, Jesus Christ and the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that an unusual amount of violence and arguments takes place.

Divorces begin to spike soon after Twelfth Night on January 6:

The enforced intimacy of Christmas, coupled with the start of a new year is thought to be the main trigger.

On the other hand, it’s not all bad news on the marital front:

Church of England released figures in January 2012 that show their dedicated weddings website, set up to encourage couples to marry in church have been at their highest compared to receives the highest number of monthly enquiries in January.

Drunkenness, drug abuse, domestic violence, arguments, family feuds and more will be rife in another ten days’ time. As a result some people, especially children and adolescents, have never experienced a joyous Christmas.

In closing, let us remember the unchurched and the unbelievers in our Christmas prayers this year. May they come to appreciate the fulsomeness of God’s grace, supremely manifest in His only begotten Son.

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