The story behind the best-selling Christmas card of all time
The classics never go out of style. And when it comes to Christmas cards, one design that emerged from the halls of Crown Center towers above all others.
Since its 1977 debut, Three Little Angels has been the best-selling Christmas card in Hallmark’s lineup. As far as anyone can tell, it’s the top-selling holiday card of all time.
Three Little Angels was drawn by long-retired Hallmark artist Ruth Morehead, with text composed by Barbara Burrow: “God bless you, love you, keep you… at Christmastime and always.”
According to a 1996 Wall Street Journal story about the card, Three Little Angels was a surprise hit. A few years after its debut, the company tried to cycle it out only to be deluged with requests to return it to the lineup. According to the Journal, it had already been sent 36 million times in its first two decades. (Hallmark no longer shares sales figures outside the company.)
Throughout the years, the classic design has been tweaked and updated, with most artists’ riffs including one mischievous angel with a drooping halo who appears antsy to get away.
“Ruth Morehead, the original artist, was inspired by a photograph of her and her twin sisters gathered just as you see here,” says Hallmark historian Samantha Bradbeer, who oversees the company’s massive archives. “Angels have always been really popular on Hallmark cards throughout the years, and groupings of three had appeared prior to this design, but it really was Ruth Morehead’s vision that has continued today.”
That continuation is facilitated through the company’s archives, where current artists can find inspiration from successful past designs. There have been many updated versions of the Three Angels over the years, including some from the company’s multicultural card lines.
The 2019 collection includes a fresh take on the card for Hallmark’s Mahogany line, which is aimed at black customers. Although the Mahogany line has featured other riffs on the Three Angels, art director Georgia Butler tapped artist Sheyda Abvabi for a fresh version.
“I remember I was in college when I received this original,” Butler says. “And then years later, I found myself at Hallmark. And there’s the Three Angels. Being on Mahogany this year, I decided I wanted to do an updated version of this but stay true to the original essence of it. There have been different variations throughout the years, but I feel like the ones that really stay true to this original concept are the ones that are successful.”
For her angels, Abvabi didn’t skimp on the mischief.
“I think that what makes it appealing is just that little mischievous angel,” she says. “We all kind of know someone that reminds us of that one, so it’s relatable.”
With its combination of cuteness and light religiosity, Butler says the card’s appeal is close to universal.
“It’s classic and timeless,” she says. “At the holidays, faith is an important part that people want to express and celebrate, and this allows them to do that in kind of a soft, sweet, light-hearted way.”
The Legend of Ruth
Although Hallmark employs more than a thousand artists and writers at any time and Three Little Angels artist Ruth Morehead has been retired for decades, her name and the card’s success are well-known, achieving something like mythical status among artists.
“Ruth is a recognizable name here,” says current artist Sheyda Abvabi. “When I started on this card, a lot of my art directors were like, ‘Oh, you’re you’re working on a new version of Ruth’s card!’”
Morehead’s distinctive style — cherubic children and cuddly woodland creatures — has a dedicated following on Pinterest and Etsy.