open country

I am sitting in my sister’s Victorian porch, still watching the snow tumble from the winter’s night sky.

The leaves of the shrubs are so dry that the flakes fall through them with an icy tinkling sound. I notice for the first time that the fairy lights around the eaves are on: traditional black lanterns glow dimly in green, orange, yellow, blue and pink.

I have been so cosseted in my sister’s home that I feel the need to wander into the dark spaces where the large conifers at the back of the garden lay their branches low under the weight of the snow.

I hear my footsteps in the powdery ice crystals. Nearer the trees my feet begin to crunch on the dry-cold leaves.

When I turn round to face the house, the branches of a birch hang in front of the view. As I push them aside I have a heightened awareness of how cold I am and I am beginning to wonder why I am standing on the outside looking in.

I think of the little match girl, a story I read when I was young. This poor little waif wanders the streets selling her matches – she looks longingly through people’s candlelit windows. She sees families sitting together, the children warm, fed and loved.

I do this night after night. Because the road conditions have kept me down south, I decided to stay on to see my nieces dance and swim at varying venues. A thought occurs to me that I am caught in a Christmas card scene.

A Georgian farmhouse with a grand Victorian extension in front, this home is perfect for going back in time to when the first commercial Christmas card came hot off the press. In 1843, John Calcott Horsley printed the first card for his friend Sir Henry Cole.

He was spurred on to undertake this venture by a letter from another friend, Richard Armour, who wrote, “You cannot reach perfection, though you try, however hard. There is always one more friend or so you should have sent a card to.”

A thousand copies of Horsley’s card were printed and sold at a shilling each. The card depicted a scene of a family being charitable to poor people, a sentiment which was important to Victorians.

However, the card was heavily criticised as one of the child characters in the image was shown sipping wine – an image that was considered to be “fostering the moral corruption of children”.

If the author of that remark could have looked into the future and seen the abuse of alcohol, especially over the festive winter season, they would feel justified.

For 30 years America had to import cards from England, until 1875 when a German immigrant, Louis Prang, opened a lithographic shop with $250. By 1881 he was producing five million cards.

English Christmas cards were cut into the shape of bells, fans, crescents, candles and Christmas puddings. They were often embossed and fringed with silk and bordered with lace; typically ornate as was the Victorian style.

But the cards that Prang began producing in America showed birds and flowers and look more like birthday cards.

Looking around the Christmas cards on sale, it is apparent that the traditional images of Victorian fireplaces, angels and Madonnas with children have passed the test of time, despite existing alongside the funny, the cute and the designer cards which epitomise the acutely commercial side of this season.

On a greetings card from 1836, Fanny Goddard wrote, “God bless thee dear, shield thee from every care, grant that thy like may be from perils clear, give thee of his own peace an ample share, guard thee through every day of this new year.”

I have never read such an evocative greeting on any of my Christmas cards and I am unlikely to ever receive such exquisite and gracious words in my lifetime. We may still share the sentiment of scenes from past centuries but we have lost the formality of politeness and genuine care.

The snow continues to fall languidly in front of the tiny lights – I continue to be enchanted.