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A topsy-turvy Christmas: John Sands’ Christmas card competition

The story of the first truly Australian Christmas cards is a little-known tale of Sydney marketing ingenuity.


This remarkable set of original entries for the John Sands 1881 Christmas Card Competition was part of the D.S. Mitchell bequest in 1907.

The idea of sending decorative Christmas cards is believed to have originated in Europe as far back as 1840, but it was not until the 1870s – with improvements in colour printing processes – that specially designed cards for Christmas, New Year, Easter, and birthdays began to entice the eye of eager senders and receivers. It wasn’t long before these brightly coloured cards were being produced in great quantities, and even shipped out to Australia for use in the colonies.

‘The sale of these dainty productions is now reckoned by millions; and it will surprise a good many persons to learn that in the colonies the issue of them is counted by tens of thousands; for, varying in quality and in price, they are brought within the reach of all classes, and their influence as an agency for popular art-education cannot be inconsiderable.’ (Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Monday 5 December 1881, p. 7)

But with the contrast between the folksy, snowy scenes portrayed on imported Xmas cards and the reality of an Australian Christmas as glaring as the antipodean sun, local commercial art publishers soon recognised there was a gap in the festive retail market just waiting to be filled. The notion of staging a Christmas Card competition was first thought up by an American company, closely followed by two London firms, before John Sands launched its contest in Sydney in 1881.

Offering colonial competitors prizes of 60 guineas for the best designs, poetry and greetings, over 660 designs were received from all parts of Australia. With one of the competition conditions being that the designs should be composed of wholly Australian subjects, this immediately excluded the familiar holly, mistletoe, icicles, Father Christmas, and even Santa Claus himself. These Australian artists were, therefore, compelled to create a new idea of a Christmas ‘down under’ which needed to be festive and fun but instead of cold and frosty – like its European prototype – should be young and sunny like Australia itself.

The exhibition of designs for the first John Sands' Christmas cards competition, held at the Art Gallery of NSW in May 1881, was thronged with people with a constant stream of about 800 visitors on opening day. The judges selected 21 of the designs for production and by December Sydney shops these were advertising the Australian cards for sale.

Examples of early Australian Christmas cards are rare artefacts these days. The 1880s proved to be the heyday of the colonial Christmas card and other imagery depicting festive life in Australia quickly followed – picnics in the bush, ocean views, and fanciful scenes using native flora and fauna – to allow Australians to highlight the difference of their experience and offer a truer representation to loved ones back home.

Even though such early Australian Christmas cards can be regarded as beautiful artworks in their own right, in general, greeting cards are considered to be items of ephemera and as a result, are not often preserved in the same way as other forms of the printer’s art. The precious few that are held in the Library’s collections offer a window into one of the ways that Australia asserted its own Christmas spirit, helping to consolidate national symbols in the years leading up to the centenary of Australian colonisation in 1888 and federation.



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