Christmas Card Critters: A History of Animals on Christmas Cards

Christmas is all about tradition. Whether that means the bright red of Father Christmas’ suit, or the foods we eat and the games we play, it’s the tradition that makes Christmas worth it.

You’ll notice the same pattern when you look at Christmas cards. There are a few traditional images unique to Christmas cards that you don’t see anywhere else, and funnily enough, many of them involve animals. You can’t walk into a card shop at Christmas time without being bombarded by robins, reindeer, and any number of festive critters. They’re usually woodland animals, though it’s not uncommon to see polar bears and penguins on Christmas cards, too.

But since when did we decide that animals should feature on Christmas cards? When did this tradition start, what made it popular, and why do they resonate with us in the way they do? Let’s find out.

Have Animals Always Been on Christmas Cards?

Christmas cards first became popular in the U.K. in the Victorian period. The idea of Christmas as a major celebration was in part brought over from Germany by Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband. It had long been popular in Germany, which is why many of our traditions are so German in nature (and why we have German Christmas markets).

But there were all sorts of developments that had a hand in making Christmas cards popular: cheap printing allowed cards to be printed en masse, the introduction of the Penny Post allowed common people to send each other mail, and industrialisation meant that people didn’t necessarily live close to their relatives like they did before.

The very first Christmas cards featured typical messages like ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’. They featured images of celebrations, were sentimental in nature, and rarely had religious themes. Very soon, animals began to appear on Christmas cards, too – but not quite in the same way that we see them today.

Birds on Victorian Christmas Cards

It’s uncertain when the first Christmas card with animals on the front was printed, but we know that it’s not much more recent than the first ever Christmas cards themselves. However, first designs featuring animals were rather different to the kinds of modern cards we see today.

The Victorians, like us, had quite an affinity for featuring birds – such as robins, wrens, pheasants and partridges – on their festive greetings cards. The major difference, sadly, being that most of the birds on Victorian designs were dead.

These days, you’d never send a friend a drawing of a dead bird on their Christmas card. But in the late 1800s, it was considered good luck to kill a songbird, such as a robin or wren, in late December. Therefore, sending a card featuring a deceased songbird was thought to wish good luck and festive cheer on the recipient.

Before long, however, this tradition (thankfully) faded away – but robins have retained their fame as a Christmas bird. This is largely due to the Post Office. The original postal worker’s uniform, introduced in 1793, was bright red – earning postmen the nickname ‘robins’. This is why, to this day, you can still sometimes find Christmas cards featuring robins perched atop post boxes.

Cartoon Animals on Christmas Cards

A man called Louis Prang (known as the ‘father of the American Christmas card) also had a hand in popularising animal-based designs. Prang printed his first cards in the U.S., but also offered them to the U.K. market. He recognised that children loved Christmas, so focused on happy, funny and sentimental designs that would appeal to kids and adults alike.

This example is a good one. It features a band of anthropomorphised frogs dressed up in peoples’ clothes; underneath is the message:

O children, join our merry band

And carry a banner for the good of the land.

A jolly time just to remember

That Christmas comes on the 25th of December.

From both the imagery and the text, it’s clear that the card is aimed at children. There were many other similar designs printed during that era, including a card featuring a frog waltzing with a stag beetle, and cats walking on their hind-legs, clutching fans and umbrellas.

Even today, we can see the influence of these funny Victorian designs in our own Christmas cards. While many modern designs feature traditional illustrations of animals in their natural habitats, many more feature cartoonish drawings of animals behaving like humans – such as this cartoonish card featuring Santa dancing with his reindeer.

Why Did Animals on Christmas Cards Become Tradition?

As well as appealing to kids, animals on cards tie in with Christmas traditions that date back far longer than Christmas cards.

Christmas became popular as it was a way of marking the deepest winter, from which it was only a short hop to the upcoming spring. This focus on seasons gave card designers plenty of imagery to use: winter animals like robins and reindeer, or spring animals like lambs and rabbits. So whether the point of the card was to celebrate winter or long for spring, animals featured prominently.

There’s also the religious aspect of Christmas, with yet more connections to animals. Cards can feature lambs (Jesus being the lamb of God), donkeys (from the story of the Three Wise Men), or a menagerie of farm animals from the stable that Christ was born in. While not every early card was religious in nature, it’s easy to see why animals with religious connotations would feature heavily.

Tap into Tradition with Christmas Connections!

Here at Christmas Connections, we offer a wide range of Christmas cards to suit everyone – including over two dozen designs featuring Animals and Birds.

You can find traditional illustrations featuring ponies, rabbits, robins and the like, as well as abstract designs such as this beautiful Enchanted Deer card (which comes with a shiny foil finish). We also stock several beautiful photographic animal cards, featuring stunning images of animals in their wild habitats, captured by talented photographers.

All of our animals and birds Christmas card designs are fully customisable. You can select from one of our standard greetings or write your own customised message inside each design you select. Your order will arrive complete with envelopes, meaning that all you need to do is sign, seal and stamp each one.

Best of all, Christmas Connections has worked with over 200 registered U.K. charities, and we’ll donate 10p for every card sold to a charity of your choice. So while you’re making your loved ones smile with a beautiful festive greeting, you’ll be helping the less fortunate, too.

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