Celebrating the holidays is sometimes like a balancing act for expats – they are trying to hold on to their own traditions while embracing the customs of the country they are residing in. One of those customs is the exchanging of Christmas cards, a tradition which can help expats maintain a sense of closeness with family members in faraway lands. The Expatriate Archive Centre holds numerous Christmas cards from expats living all over the world.
With a goal of popularising a new way of communication – sending letters by post – Sir Henry Cole and his friend, artist John Horsley, designed the first Christmas card in 1843 in the UK. In the beginning, sending cards was reserved for exceptionally wealthy citizens as it was very expensive. However, in the second half of 19th century new printing technologies were developed which, along with a new way of transportation, made sending cards substantially cheaper. By the early 20th century, the custom of sending Christmas cards spread across Europe and became especially popular in Germany.
On the early cards, winter and religious motifs were rarely depicted. More often they would display flowers, birds and other symbols of the upcoming spring. During the 20th century, new printing methods were developed and themes started to reflect modern trends. There were a wide variety of subjects found on Christmas cards, from religious ones showing the birth of Christ; Christmas traditions of popular culture including Santa Claus, snowmen, and reindeer; Christmas decorations like candles, holly, and Christmas trees; Christmas activities such as shopping, carolling, and partying; and other aspects of the season – wildlife or winter scenes.
The Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) has a collection of around 150 Christmas cards. The oldest examples are from 1967, and they depict different holiday motifs like Christmas trees or skiing scenery.
Of particular interest are some unusual examples which don’t seem to have a lot in common with Christmas. One of these is a card with photos of cheetahs on it, the addition of the word Greetings is the only tenuous connection with the holiday.
A lot the cards found in the EAC collection show scenes and landscapes from expats’ homelands. This indicates the connection with home and the nostalgic feeling that emerges during the holidays. Dutch expats sent cards showing typical Dutch windmills, or boats flying the Dutch flag in the harbour. Some cards are personalised with family photos. Along with the Christmas card, a piece of home is also sent to loved ones.
New technologies change the way we communicate, and in the EAC collection you can see that Christmas letters have sometimes replaced the traditional Christmas card. Often made on computers, the letters contain family pictures and Christmas graphics.
Nowadays, technology has greatly influenced new ways of sending Christmas cards. The internet has allowed quick and cheap communication, decreasing the popularity of sending letters and cards. However, the same idea prevails in the holiday season when family and close friends are at the forefront of our minds. Christmas cards, whether sent by post or e-mail, are the perfect way of keeping a sense of closeness.
Author: Tea Gudek Šnajdar.
Tea was born in 1986 in Zagreb (Croatia). After getting B.A. degree in History and M.A. in Art history she worked as a curator and museum educator for a few years. Her topics of professional interest are Medieval art and culture, Cultural tourism and Expatriate experiences. She is also a founder and head editor of the Medievalwall.com website. Her articles are published in several scientific and popular magazines and websites. Currently she is living in The Netherlands, with her husband and two-months-old son.
Do you have an expat story to tell? The Expatriate Archive Centre collects and preserves the life stories of expats worldwide. To find out how you can contribute, please get in touch.