John Walsh: Cards to shock the Victorians

On the morning of Christmas Eve, the bells of St Dunstan's sounded their jolly clangour across London. The shops of the Strand were lavish in their profusion of pies, puddings, currants, raisins, spices, candied peel and sugar mice. Hansom cabs clattered down the cobbles of gas-lit streets, and ladies in poke bonnets, mantled against the cold, purchased sturdy wooden toys for their adorable, curly-headed offspring.

At No 32 Eaton Square, Mr Edwin Cheeryble came down to breakfast. A log fire blazed in the grate. Beneath their burnished domes, the chafing dishes revealed an array of sausage, bacon, kippers and kedgeree. All was well with the world.

"We have received a Christmas card," said his brother, Charles, buttering toast. "It is from young Mr Nickleby." He passed it across the table. On the front of the card were the words, "Happy Christmas, Knobhead."

"I may be old-fashioned," said Edwin, "but I cannot help feeling this new style of greeting-card lacks a certain, ah, Christian generosity." He rose and put the card upon the pianoforte, alongside two other cards that bore the messages, "Merry Christmas you stupid w***er" and "Take your nauseating Christmas cheer and shove it up your arse." "We must move with the times," said Charles, filling his mouth with a forkful of smoked bacon. "There is now a fashion for sending seasonal missives full of genial insult, and one must try to join in."

"I expect it is part of a new secularist tendency," said Charles. "I blame this Darwin fellow. There are all kinds of ideas about these days that I never heard before. And words too. Like that card we received from Tim, our industrious clerk, that read: 'On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me – Chlamydia!' I confess I have no idea what the word means."

"I have no idea, brother," said Edwin. "Perhaps you should write to the card manufacturer for enlightenment. His name is on the back of all these Christmas missives. Here it is – the Ebeneezer Scrooge Greetings Company."