A Christmas card design by Louis Prang, with a parade of musical frogs. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

In 1843, Sir Henry Cole, an English civil servant, created the first commercial Christmas card. The illustration, by John Callcott Horsley, depicted a family toasting Christmas in the center, with scenes of Good Samaritans helping the poor on both sides. Somewhat unexpectedly, it also included the image of a small child sipping a glass of red wine. 

The world's first commercially produced Christmas card

The first commercially-produced Christmas card. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons

The popularity of holiday cards grew in the latter half of the 19th century as they became easier to mass produce. In 1874, lithographer Louis Prang started selling Christmas cards in the U.S.; six years later, he was printing more than five million per year.  

All these Christmas cards needed artwork, which meant new opportunities for “artists, lithographers, engravers, printers, ink and pasteboard makers,” according to an 1883 article in the Times on the burgeoning card industry.

Surprisingly, the artwork itself was not always traditional Christmas fare. Unlike today’s holiday cards, religious themes were rare, and they did not always feature traditional festive scenes. Go ahead and admire these pretty–and pretty unusual–Victorian Christmas and New Year’s cards. There’s not a Santa Claus or winter wonderland in sight. 

Print shows a late Victorian die-cut trade/greeting card showing a gilded painter's palette with paints on the left and the head of a kitten

A Christmas card from 1880 showing a paint palette and a kitten.  (Photo: Library of Congress)

A Christmas wish in the form of flowers with the faces of children. (Photo: Boston Public Library/flickr)

late Victorian holiday card with Christmas and New Year greetings, showing a branch with cherry blossoms

A c. 1880 card showing cherry blossoms and a landscape in bloom. (Photo: Library of Congress)

A spring-themed ‘Happy New Year’ card, showing an egg, a chick and a hatched baby. (Photo: Nova Scotia Archives/flickr)

A Christmas card from 1885. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

A butterfly carrying a baby on this Victorian-era card. (Photo: Nova Scotia Archives/flickr)