Season’s Greetings

By Special Collections, SOAS Library|20th December 2020|Collections & Research|0 comments

It’s been a tough old year all round so for this blog we are going to take a light-hearted tour of some of the seasonal items in our collections to try and get us into the holiday spirit.

The very first Christmas card was sent in 1843. These were expensive though, and it wasn’t until 1875 when they became mass produced that people began regularly sending them to loved ones to pass on seasonal greetings.

The earliest examples of greeting cards we have are part of the Council for World Mission collection and date from the 1900s, just 25 years after they became affordable to the general public. This series of four mounted sepia prints, some of which have been hand coloured show African people including a woman selling milk; Kaffir women “travelling and carrying their furniture”; “Kaffir drivers to a hunting party, Pirie Forest, near [King William’s] Town [South Africa].

(c) Council for World Mission

Some of our favourite examples of Christmas cards are these hand-drawn ones that were sent between civilians interned at Camp Stanley in Hong Kong, c. 1942-1945. Despite not having much to celebrate, inmates nevertheless used what little resources they had to keep up the tradition of sending seasonal cards to each other with these beautiful drawings:

(c) John Swire & Sons, Ltd

(c) John Swire & Sons, Ltd

We’ve featured these cards in a previous post about camp Stanley which you can read here.






This much more modern Christmas card titled ‘Aya Musas Bonne Année et Meilleurs’ features the image of Santa Claus.  It was produced in 1997 by Aya, the daughter of artist Hassan Musa and forms part of the mail art collection held at SOAS. Mail Art involves using art to creatively enhance envelopes and postcards and make small-scale art-works that can then be sent through the postal service as ‘free art’ to surprise the recipient (and everyone else who glimpses them on their way). 

(c) SOAS Special Collections


No Christmas celebration would be complete without a celebration dinner. These images from the Hedgeland Collection show the dining room of the Imperial Maritime Customs Lappa Commissioner in 1908, complete with beautifully laid table and decorated Christmas tree, ready to host a large party for Christmas dinner. Somewhat less usual in a traditional Christmas tableau is the large model figure of, presumably,  a customs officer leaning against a chair in corner adorned with helmet, sash and medals. We’d love to know more about the significance of this model!

(c) Mrs Nation Dixon


And Christmas is Christmas, even at sea! We have a number of ship’s menus for Christmas and New Years dinners held on board China Navigation ships, including this example from the ‘Changsha’ , 1960. Not for the faint-hearted, this extravagant menu offers not only turkey but also beef, lobster, ham, lamb as well as a great number of side dishes and desserts. 

(c) John Swire & Sons, Ltd










And of course, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without… advertising! This 1950s ad promoting a Christmas display is from the John Sparkes collection. Sparkes was a leading British dealer in Chinese art, trading in London between 1906 and 1991. The company bought and sold Chinese and East Asian works of art and antiques, including ceramics, metalwork, lacquer, hardstone carving and furniture. This Christmas flyer offers goods ‘ranging from a few shillings upwards, suitable for Christmas gifts at this time of year’.

(c) SOAS

We hope you’ve enjoyed seeing this selection of holiday-related items from our collections. If you’d like to find out more about the collections these items are from, or what we hold more generally, so please get in touch with us: special.

In the meantime we wish you a happy and safe Christmas, and all the best for 2021!

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About Special Collections, SOAS Library

Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4180

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