Cards, Claus and Crackers: Where Did It All Begin?

By Chris Tilbury


In recent years Christmas cards have become just another mundane and unemotional act completed to acknowledge the fact that Christmas has already arrived or will soon.

The tradition of sending Christmas cards began in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant interested in the new Public Post Office. He wondered how the general public could use the new service.

Original Christmas cheer

Original Christmas cheer

By 1860, as printing methods improved dramatically, Christmas cards were much more popular and produced much more widely.

Since then the yuletide card market has flourished, not just in the UK, but all around the world with 1.5 billion Christmas cards in the US in 2010. In fact the card market is doing so well that we spent £1.38 billion on single cards in 2011, more than tea and coffee combined. £148 million of that spend is on Christmas cards.

On that basis, it’s safe to say that Christmas cards have always been jumped-up commercial material whose sole purpose over the festive period has been to hang above doorways before ending up at the top of the bin, waiting to be incinerated. Thanks Harry.


Giving presents at Christmas is probably the most long-standing festive tradition.

Its main purpose is to remind us of the presents given to the baby Jesus by the Wise Men and to remind everyone of what God gave the world about 2 millennia ago. (Jesus, for those struggling.)


The act of giving presents can also be attributed to Saint Nicholas, who distributed secret gifts during the fourth century.

There are different traditions for different countries and different days to open presents on. In the Netherlands they open their presents on 5 December, whilst in the Mexicans and Spanish open theirs on 6 January.

Seems like a pretty simple religious connection. Of course it’s been developed and twisted over the years; what hasn’t?

Global brands always try to inundate their regular customers with offers and deals at Christmas in an attempt to attract custom, seized on the age old tradition to make that extra bit of profit.


Elves in general are the creation of German folklore. Originating in Norse mythology, they were a race of beings with magical skills, ambivalent towards humans and capable of either helping or hindering.

Christmas elves were introduced by Louisa May Alcott in 1856. Alcott never finished her book, titled Christmas Elves. They also appear in engravings from Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in 1873, where they surround Santa Claus.


Elf’s elves

Christmas elves help Santa Claus make toys in the workshop located at the North Pole. Their role has been more recently popularised by the film industry, perhaps most notably by the Will Ferrell film, Elf.

So perhaps, Elves did come from a traditional Christmas background and have just been seized upon by commercial giants and the Hollywood film industry; rather than being dreamt up in an LA office and carefully worked into the pre-existing Christmas tradition.


Officially, we can’t call “him” Santa Claus until we’ve spoken about Dutch settlers in the United States.

Saint Nicholas, to give him his original title, was a Bishop who lived in fourth century Myra or modern day Turkey. Saint Nick had a reputation for giving secret gifts to people that needed them (no surprise where the modern day idea came from).

During the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, Saint Nicholas was exiled and died on either 6 December 345 or 6 December AD 352.

His unpopularity during the sixteenth century meant European nations had to adopt variations of the character “Father Christmas” from old children’s stories. When Dutch settlers in the USA took with them the story of Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle became Sinterklaas or Santa Claus.

St. Nick, the fourth century gift-giver

St. Nick, the fourth century gift-giver

So Coca-Cola didn’t hijack Santa Claus? Well, no. The myth that Coca-Cola might “own” Santa Claus, or helped him develop his own sartorially elegant outfit is exactly that, a myth.

Hundreds of years before Coca-Cola was patented in 1944, Santa had worn red.

He also wasn’t as plump as he is now, so often, depicted. That was the work of Thomas Nast, a 19th century illustrator. His most famous image of the cheery Christmas delivery man was published on 1 January 1881 and would go on to be the inspiration behind the first “Coke Santa”.

The viewing of the Christmas Coca-Cola advert is now recognised in many circles as the official start of the holiday period.

Sounds like another case of corporate hijacking to me.


A feat of brilliance from confectioner Tom Smith more than 150 years ago brought us the crackers we pull today. The original idea came courtesy of a trip to Paris, where Smith discovered the bon bon, a sweet wrapped in tissue paper with twists at either end.

As the sales of the once-popular sweets dwindled Smith had to develop the product, initially adding messages to the inside of the wrapper, inadvertently creating the fortune cookie. This guy is basically the real-life Willy Wonka.

He added the crackle to the sweets wrapper when he heard the same noise come from a log he had placed on a fire. To incorporate the mechanism, the sweet had to be dropped, replaced with a small trinket like jewelry. Nowadays we have to put up with getting the pocket screwdriver set, capable of unscrewing literally nothing on earth, or a pea-sized yo-yo.


Though going through a number of owners, the Tom Smith brand lives on under the control of International Greetings, one of the world’s leading designers, manufacturers and importers of stationery and greetings products. They also produce special crackers for the Royal Family.

Turns out crackers are one of the most traditional Christmas items: very little has changed since they first appeared in the nineteenth century… and that’s the way it should be.