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Christmas cheer

Greetings card makers have good reason to be grateful to Sir Henry Cole. Sixty per cent of greetings cards are sold at Christmas, and it was Sir Henry, the founding director of the Victoria and Albert museum, who started the trend. In 1843, he commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to draw a homely scene of his family raising a glass of Christmas cheer with the message "A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You."

A thousand copies of his hand-tinted lithograph were printed, and even at a shilling a piece they sold out. But his break with tradition (previously the middle classes had exchanged Christmas letters) did not go down well with everyone and temperance campaigners condemned his design for encouraging drunkenness. Today, the few remaining examples are much sought after and one example fetched pound;22,500 at auction last year.

Previously, Christmas pieces were produced by schoolchildren to show parents their progress in penmanship. The advent of the penny post in 1840 and the half-penny post in 1870 ensured the popularity of Christmas cards. A year later, the backlash began with letter writers to "The Times" complaining that the new Christmas card craze was holding up "legitimate correspondence".

Cardmakers cottoned on to the commercial opportunities and started producing the now familiar snowy landscapes decked with holly and populated by robins and coachmen. On average, we spend about pound;12 billion on Christmas cards between us and send about 46 cards each.

The side panels on Henry Cole's card depicted compassionate acts, "clothing the naked" and "feeding the hungry", themes which re-emerged more than a century later with the advent of the first charity Christmas card.

A seven-year-old Czech girl sent a hand-painted card to Unicef in 1947 thanking them for supplies they sent after the war ended. The charity reprinted her design the following year to raise funds. One-third of all cards sold now benefit a charity.

Then there's the difficult business of deciding who to send a Christmas card to, and then posting last minute greetings to people you've forgotten.

Even Prime Ministers have this problem. Official documents released last year revealed that Harold Wilson had top secret discussions about taking Leonid Brezhnev off his list when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, before letting the Christmas spirit prevail.

Christmas card lists, like international diplomacy, require careful handling.

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