'Twas the night before Hallmark ...

They may seem as enduring as mistletoe, but Christmas cards date back only to the 1840s. Before that, there were "Christmas pieces": English schoolboys' elaborately decorated notes, sent home on fancy paper to show their parents how their handwriting had improved.

The first Christmas card was the brainchild not of tenacious students, but of a harried English nobleman. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole found himself short of time to write individual greetings, and asked his friend John Calcott Horsley to design a generic note, showing the feeding and clothing of the poor. Mr. Horsley came up with a small cardboard lithograph and an illustration of a family toasting the reader, with "A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You" emblazoned just below. The left panel showed an Englishman feeding the hungry; the right illustrated a woman clothing a child; and all were bordered by a frame of wood and ivy. Cole sent 1,000 copies of the lithograph; 12 still exist.

In the UK, where a letter could be sent anywhere for just a penny, commercial production of cards grew through the 1860s, as printing technology improved. But in America, cards didn't catch on until Louis Prang, a German immigrant, opened a lithograph shop in Roxbury, Mass., with $250 in 1875. By 1881, he was producing 5 million Christmas cards a year. By 1999, 2.6 billion cards were exchanged annually - an average of 28 per household.

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