The first Christmas card originated in 1843 when British writer Sir Henry Cole was too busy to send individual festive messages.
He commissioned painter John Callcott Horsley to design a card with an image and greeting he had printed and mailed, and thus began a tradition that has become a much-loved part of the Christmas season.
At a time when so much of our communication is digital, the act of receiving a hand-written message can be very meaningful.
We asked some famous faces which Christmas cards meant the most to them and why.
Chef Darina Allen
Darina Allen receives plenty of cards at Ballymaloe Cookery School, and the most special ones to her are from former students from all over the world. A Christmas demonstration forms part of the 12-week course, and she thinks memories come flooding back to former students of their time at the cookery school at this time of year.
“It might be from someone you haven’t heard from in a decade, saying they have made the Chocolate Christmas Tree with their children,” she says, referring to the festive treat that dates back to the 1980s when she published her first Simply Delicious book.
“The cards are so special, because we work them so hard here — it’s like gastro bootcamp really — and it’s wonderful that this place holds such a special place in their hearts. They might ask about Rory, Rachel, Pam or Sharon and share memories of their time here, which is always lovely.”
Allen loves to hear romantic updates through the cards as many former students have married each other.
“This place is better than Tinder any day,” she laughs. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful and sexy you are. In the end, if you can cook a good dinner — and a good Christmas dinner — it will keep them coming home because the way to everyone’s heart is through their tummy.”
Tenor Paul Byrom
For Helix panto star, Paul Byrom, this will be the first year he won’t get a card from his grandmother Mary, who passed away in January aged 101. When family members told her that nobody expected her to go to the trouble of sending cards in recent years, she would joke and say that if she didn’t, people would presume she had died.
“Grandma was a simple Kilkenny woman living in Dublin and she was religious,” says Byrom. “Her cards always said, ‘God bless you always’ and she really meant it. I’m adopted, and when my parents collected me from the nursing home, my grandma held me in her arms and said: ‘This is a special boy.’ From that moment until the day she died, we had an amazing bond and were very close.”
Mary was the tenor’s biggest fan and loved when he would visit and sing for the residents of her nursing home. When the pandemic arrived, he used to go down with a sound system and sing outside her window.
“I was very lucky to have my grandmother for as long as I did, and although I thought I was prepared, her death hit me a lot harder than I expected, so I’m glad I hung on to every card she sent me.”
Politician Lynn Ruane
Work colleagues can become dear friends, and for Senator Lynn Ruane, a card that means a lot to her is from fellow senator Alice-Mary Higgins. It was one Higgins made herself, drawing a lovely robin on the front.
“I remember reading the message and thinking that she really gets me and understands me,” says Ruane. “Nobody outside of my family has ever put so much time and effort into making a card for me, and I really appreciated it.”
The senators have become known as a tag team within Leinster House. They step in for each other all the time and support each other’s work, and Ruane says Higgins made politics less lonelier than it could have been for her when she first got elected.
Beyond that, she says that the daughter of President Michael D Higgins has many layers to her personality, and she is “absolutely fascinated” by her.
“Her level of intellect is quite unmatched in my life, and she has this great ability to switch into creativity, fun or philosophical dialogue and back again into hard-hitting policies and everyday life. Her friendship means a huge amount to me, which is why the Christmas card meant so much.”
Actress Mary Murray
For actress Mary Murray, receiving a card from playwright Frank McGuinness every year is always special.
The tradition began when she performed in Frank’s adaptation of Miss Julie at the Project Arts Centre about 15 years ago, and it has also become traditional for her not to receive the card until halfway through the following year.
“The address Frank uses is my mother’s because I was living there when I did the play, and she usually forgets to give it to me for months,” she laughs. “Frank’s handwriting is beautiful as he’s so artistic and has such flair. The card usually has a painting on it from a national gallery, and it’s always lovely to get it as I have such regard for Frank as a playwright and think he’s an incredible talent.”
Murray has already received Frank’s card this year, and admits she never gets around to returning the greeting as she doesn’t have his address.
“I keep meaning to send it to UCD as he lectures there or to his agent in England,” she says. “Telling this story has given me the impetus to finally send him a card back this year.”
Entertainer Adele King
For Twink, aka Adele King, a memorable card arrived one year that took everyone in the house by surprise.
“My daughter Chloe (Agnew) came home from the States after a tour with Celtic Woman and was wearing a long T-shirt as a nightshirt,” she says. “It had big letters saying, ‘I slept in The White House’ and in small letters underneath, it continued ‘Motel, Washington,’ which I thought was hysterical.”
When a Christmas card arrived with The White House on it as a return address, Twink joked with Chloe that she was obviously a good customer as the motel had sent her a card.
“She opened it and I saw her face change, and it turns out it was actually a handwritten card from George and Laura Bush, thanking her for doing a fantastic performance at a breakfast at The White House on St Patrick’s Day,” says King. “Needless to say, that card and envelope are now beautifully framed on the wall of our hall.”
Singer Claudia Boyle
It may not have been from a sitting US president, but for opera singer Claudia Boyle, receiving her first Mother’s Day card was extra special. Boyle has performed all around the world and is at the top of her game, but says that being a mum is “next level” for her.
“My husband David and I always knew we wanted to have a family, but it’s very hard to have children with my job because you’re away all the time,” she says.
“And I wanted to be in a place with my singing career where I felt a bit more established and could have a child without finding it hard to get back into it. I enjoyed my 20s and early 30s, and we loved going out, but having children was a natural progression for us as a couple.”
With the decision made, Boyle was very grateful to fall pregnant immediately. Her daughter Arabella Blossom, known as Blossom, is now two and a half and her baby son, George Angel, is 11 weeks old.
“When Blossom brought the first Christmas card home from the creche, I was delighted,” she says. “I know she didn’t write it, but it had her little handprints on it in paint and it was gorgeous. Just seeing the word ‘Mama’ on it made me feel like a proper mum.”