tidings of Comfort & joy
December 16, 2020
The Vernon Museum’s artifact collection has a lot of is Christmas cards. But this is certainly not a complaint! They don’t take up much space, are pleasantly festive, and provide firsthand insight into Christmases past.
These paper sentiments of peace and joy actually have quite a complex history that is, paradoxically, heavily intertwined with that of global military conflicts.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871, a French stationer, Leon Besnardeaux (1829-1914) provided camped soldiers with stiff pieces of cardboard printed with lithographic designs so they could send messages home without the need for envelopes.
An example of a Christmas Greeting preserved in the GVMA’s collection
Some of these cards arrived just in time for Christmas. While Christmas cards themselves had been around since the 1840s, Besnardeaux’s good deed represented the origins of the picture postcard.
Christmas cards were hugely popular with soldiers during the First World War. Many were decorated with romantic images and local landmarks to bring joy to distant loved ones. Some of the most remarkable among these are the silk postcards. The silk embroidery was thought to have been produced by out-of-work civilians in France and Belgium, who then sent their creations to factories to be mounted on cardboard backings. The Vernon Museum has several silk postcards in their collection, and they are spectacular.
During World War Two, sending Christmas cards remained a popular tradition. Although the separation from family must have been keenly felt by the soldiers, most of the cards were cheerful and sometimes even goofy, likely to keep morale high on both ends, while those sent during the First World War tended to be a bit more somber and traditional in their motifs.
In 1917, a young Kitty Fitzmaurice received a Christmas card to her home in Vernon that showed a soldier peering out through a crumbled hole in a brick wall. Inside the card is a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, signed with the simple but emotive words “Love, Daddy.” Kitty’s father was Col. R Fitzmaurice, who went on to return safely home from the war and become Vernon’s mayor in 1920.
While the current global pandemic cannot and should not be compared to the World Wars, there is a certain parallel between the past and present absence of loved ones, and the ability of a simple folded paper to bring sentiments of joy to those from whom we are separated.