In 1843, a wealthy British man named Sir Henry Cole had so many greetings to send, he couldn't hand write them all. So he had a card made showing charity to the poor, and the Christmas card was born. Subsequent postcards produced by publishers from the 1870s until World War I featured everything from nativity scenes to families around the Christmas tree. Early cards were lithographed and often adorned with silk, lace, and satin. Between 1898 and 1918, the golden era of postcards, Christmas postcards were the most popular vehicle for conveying holiday wishes.
Christmas postcards featuring Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas are the most collectible, particularly the early German chromolithographed and embossed postcards featuring Santas in colors other than red. American Santas with black faces are also very popular with contemporary collectors. The German version of Father Christmas, also called Weilnachtensmanner or Belznickel, can be found in fur-trimmed robes of white, yellow, orange, black, and gray, and these cards are particularly desirable. This thin, stern mythical old man brought treats to well-behaved children. He sometimes is accompanied by an angel or the Baby Jesus, whom he holds in his arms.
Most intriguing, though, is St. Nicholas’ puckish devil companion, Krampus, found on German, Austrian, and Czechoslovakian cards. On these cards, Krampus is seen playing with the good children and tormented the bad ones by threatening to beat them or throw them into flames. This creature with one cloven hoof is usually depicted carrying chains, a bundle of switches, and a large basket for holding bad children. Krampus also turns on his devilish charms for pretty ladies, but mocks or tortures the unattractive ones.
Today, Krampus cards are highly sought by collectors. Generally, artist-signed Krampus postcards not on red backgrounds command the highest prices. Many Art Nouveau artists, particularly those in the esteemed Wiener Wekstätte collective, made gorgeous and coveted Krampus cards. Cards depicting Father Christmas and Krampus together are also highly desirable.
During the golden era of postcards, scores of beautiful Christmas postcards were produced by top artists like Ellen Clapsaddle, Samuel Schmucker, Frances Brundage, and H.B. Griggs, who worked for publishers such as Raphael Tuck and Sons and John Winsch.
Some of most stunning Christmas postcards were created by the artist A. Mailick. Paul Finkenrath of Berlin made delightful mechanical Christmas postcards featuring moveable puppets, dials, or faces with mouths that opened and closed. And Louis Wain, an artist known for drawing cats in human clothes, made several postcards of cats dressed as Santa.
Another popular gimmick for Victorian Christmas postcards was the Hold-to-Light card. In these cards, an image with a dark outline, like a Santa, would be covered with thin layers of paper, which would be printed with a different image. If one held the postcard to the light, Santa would suddenly be visible popping out of a chimney. Hold-to-Light cards depicting Uncle Sam Santas are particularly valuable.