Season’s Greetings – Christmas cards in the archives

It is that time of year again when most of us exchange a Christmas card or two, so we thought we might share some cards from our archival collections.

Christmas card from the Pearse Hutchinson archive, 1988

History of the Christmas Card

The Christmas card has its origins in the Victorian era. The first card was sent by Henry Cole (1808-1882) in 1843. Best known as the founding director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, he also played a key role in the introduction of the Penny Post. Cole conceived the Christmas card as a time saving device. With piles of post arriving at this busy time of year, the Christmas card freed him from having to write lengthy responses to every letter. He asked the artist John Callcott Horsley to illustrate a card of his design, and the Christmas card was born.

In the Archives

Christmas cards from Victorian times right up to the 2000s can be found in the archival collections at Maynooth.

Christmas card of a girl with ivy from the Airfield Archive, 1883.

The Airfield Archive contains the private papers of the Overend family whose house and farm were located at Airfield House, Dundrum, Co. Dublin. It is an extensive archive and in addition to letters, diaries, and photographs, there is also a collection of Christmas cards exchanged between the extended Overend family. The Christmas cards date from 1860 to 1984 and were designed by well-known card producers including Hildesheimer & Faukner, Ernest Nister and Raphael Tuck &Sons.

Dancing monkeys from the Airfield Archive

There are some charming cards in the collection. Much of the imagery we associate with Christmas can been seen, such as snowy scenes and holly. Just like now, Christmas is a special time for children, and this is reflected in the endearing images on many of the cards. There are also several cards in the collection depicting animals. In addition to the usual robins, there are images of animals we may not traditionally associate with Christmas, such as dancing monkeys, boxing pugs and festive green frogs.

Festive frog on a Christmas card from 1880s

Boxing pugs from the Airfield Archive

If you are interested in seeing more of the collection, there is an online exhibition:

 Christmas cards from the Airfield Archive (

The Troubles Collection consists of over 600 items relating to the Northern Ireland Troubles. This unique collection dates from the 1970s and early 1980s and includes books, pamphlets, periodicals, and ephemera. There are also several Christmas cards in the collection.

There is a long history of Christmas cards being used for political activism. Since the 1840s, cards have been employed to express a political standpoint and it is interesting to see examples of this in the Troubles collection. Dating from the 1970s, they urge the recipient to remember those in prison at Christmas.

Two Christmas cards from the Troubles Collection

Another archival collection that contains Christmas cards is that of Irish poet and broadcasterPearse Hutchinson(1927-2012). This large and varied collection of personal papers extends from Hutchinson’s childhood right through to drafts of his last poems. The Christmas cards in the collection include both cards Hutchinson sent to his family, as well as those he received. The card pictured below was sent from Barcelona on Christmas Eve. In the card, Hutchinson bemoans his lack of funds, indicating that he cannot send gifts. He also expresses genuine tenderness and affection for his parents, saying “I think of you both every day, as I always have…”and wishes he could spend Christmas with them both.

Christmas card from the Pearse Hutchinson Archive

For more Christmas cards from the collection at Maynooth University, please watch our Library Treasures Christmas video.

All the staff in Special Collection & Archives at Maynooth University would like to wish you the very best this season and we hope to see you in the New Year.

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