History Book: Christmas cards and post-war generosity

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, December 9th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are glad you are! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book.

Today, a story of Christmas generosity after World War II. Plus, the very practical beginnings of a 176-year-old holiday tradition.

EICHER: But first, a storyteller is born who grows up to inspire fantasy writers of the 20th century. Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today on December 10th, 1824, the birthday of Scottish writer and poet George MacDonald. Born in Northern Scotland, he spent his boyhood roaming the moors and wilds. 

He attended Kings College in Aberdeen, graduating with a master’s degree in chemistry and physics. He later attended Highbury Theological College and spent a few years as a Congregational minister. 

But MacDonald did not stay a pastor for long. He soon turned to writing. His first novel was published in 1863. Over the next 42 years, he wrote more than 50 other books, including The Princess and Curdie—read here by Edith Newcomb in 1970:

NEWCOMB: Curdie had made himself a bow and some arrows…he looked and there was a snow-white pigeon in the summer sun…another moment, and it would have been aloft in the rays of rosy light. That moment it fell on the broken path from Curdie’s cruel arrow…  

MacDonald’s theology was influenced by his Calvinist upbringing, but he rejected many of its doctrines as an adult. Some of his later beliefs were on the fringes of Christian orthodoxy, but his works are saturated with biblical imagery and a strong Christian worldview. 

NEWCOMB: I am so glad that you shot my bird. M’am, how can you be? Because it has brought you to see what sort you were when you did… 

MacDonald is considered the father of modern fantasy writing. In his essay: The Fantastic Imagination, he writes: “for my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike…” His fairy tales and stories inspired authors like G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien to do the same. 

MacDonald and his wife Louisa Powell raised a family of eleven children. He died in 1905 at 80 years old. 

Next, the beginning of a Christmas tradition. 


In the 1840s, Henry Cole was a prominent educator and patron of the arts. He was also a well known promoter of the “Uniform Penny Post.” As a result, Cole had many friends. You might argue too many friends. 

With inexpensive postage, Victorians began sending Christmas and New Years letters by the bag full. As it was considered rude not to respond, Henry Cole had a problem. Each day the pile of letters grew on his desk, but he didn’t have the time to answer each one.

He stumbled upon the idea of a holiday themed postcard. He commissioned a design that featured a family enjoying a Christmas feast. On either side, illustrations of holiday charity. He printed a thousand of them, and could now quickly reply to all his friends. He soon began selling them as well. The Christmas card was born. Audio here from a BBC Channel 4 documentary. 

CLIP: This card was extremely popular. It caught on so fast, people immediately began buying and sending them. And they began bankrupting themselves on Christmas cards.

Today, Christmas cards are big business. The Greeting Card Association reports that more than 1.6 billion printed Christmas cards are purchased each year… 

Henry Cole probably wouldn’t like what his creation has become. After all, many people now insert their Christmas letters inside the cards, putting us right back where it all started more than 170 years ago…


And finally, a story of Christmas generosity on the heels of World War II. More than 380,000 British soldiers died in the conflict, leaving many widows and orphans behind. 

While the United Kingdom was at peace for Christmas in 1945, personal loss and years of rationing meant it would be lean for most. So the junior division of the American Women Voluntary Services jumped into action. 

Here’s the story as told in the 1945 Pathe Gazette Holiday Newsreel:

NEWSREEL: And now, a last minute exclusive report from New York on the flow of presents to Britain’s toy starved children. Saying “thank you” for American gifts is Lady Halifax. “I’m so happy to accept these gifts…They’re much more than acts of generosity, they’re tokens of friendship. And they will endure when the toys are broken or outgrown. It’s acts like these which may seem so little but are really so great that will count in the coming years when the friendship and understanding of the American and British peoples will mean so much to the peace and happiness of the world.

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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