Why Christmas annuals are still a favoured gift – 195 years after the first one was published

Reading a treasured gift. Tatiana Eliseeva/Shutterstock

As a devoted reader of weekly comic The Dandy, the gift of its annual was an essential part of Christmas morning. In the midst of the festive excitement, I can remember clearly the thrill of discovering my first annual under the tree in 1983, and filling out the “This Book Belongs To” section in my best handwriting.

Publishers of magazines and periodicals introduced annuals during the first decades of the 19th century. Often produced with the lucrative Christmas and New Year markets in mind, the literary and artistic contributions to these gift books tapped into the sentimentality of the season. The content was influenced by the literary and cultural tastes of an emerging middle class, with the promotion of domestic scenes of home, family, and childhood.

Forget-Me-Not, published in 1823 and edited by London-based publisher Rudolph Ackermann, is generally accepted as Britain’s first literary annual. Aimed at female readers, the annual, which was a new concept influenced by ideas Ackermann had seen both in Britain and Germany, contained short stories, poetry, and illustrations.

Girl’s Own Annual. Wellcome Library, CC BY

By the late 1800s, the genre of children’s annuals developed rapidly. Publishers competed for their share of this emerging, and increasingly literate, reading audience with scores of titles aimed at boys and girls. The Boy’s Own Annual and The Girl’s Own Annual – which reprinted content from the Boy’s Own and Girl’s Own papers – first published by the Religious Tract Society in 1879 and 1880 respectively, engrossed young readers with adventure stories for boys and educational articles for girls.

Comic characters

Following the cinematic arrival of silent and sound cartoons during the interwar period – including Felix the Cat by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse – the popularity of year-end annuals grew further, now keeping children entertained at home with new escapades and exploits of their favourite characters.

A steady stream of these comic book annuals followed, including Tiger Tim (1922), Film Fun (1938), and a 1923 annual based on the enormously popular Daily Mirror cartoon strip characters Pip, Squeak, and Wilfred.

Two favourite annuals of the interwar period were The Dandy and The Beano, from Dundee-based publishers DC Thomson. These stalwart British comic titles, which presented a particular brand of anarchic humour, have one of the most enduring histories in British popular culture and their characters remain household names today.

Costing 2/6d, the first Dandy book, titled The Dandy Monster Comic, appeared in time for Christmas 1938 and has been published annually ever since (after 1952 as The Dandy Book, and from 2003 to date as The Dandy Annual). Closely aligned with the weekly comic, which launched in December 1937, the 128-page annual contained a mix of comic strips and text stories.

Dandy books from the 1970s. Author provided

The first Beano book, featuring characters such as Big Eggo, Pansy Potter, and Lord Snooty debuted in 1939 – one year after the comic launched – and reached the shops just as World War II broke out. As with editions of the comic during this period, the 1943 annual featured wartime propaganda. Its rear cover pictured Tootsy McTurk’s oversized feet positioned in the V for Victory sign. Below the clown-footed character, there appears the sequence of three dots and a dash, the letter V in Morse code.

Though paper and ink shortages led to the closure of another Thomson publication, The Magic Comic, and its annuals, and forced The Dandy and Beano comics into an alternating fortnightly publishing schedule (weekly issues resumed in 1949), the latter’s annuals thrived. Dandy and Beano annuals continued to be published throughout hostilities and these rare early editions are now highly sought after by collectors.

While there is still a festive market for comic books such as The Dandy, The Beano, and perennial classic Rupert Bear, recent decades have witnessed the arrival of annuals that focus on films, pop stars, television, and toys, as well as sport and games. Popular children’s annuals now include new and enduring favourites such as Star Wars, Little Mix, Doctor Who, Lego, Match of the Day, and Minecraft.

Annuals have survived competition in the digital age, not least because nostalgic marketing successfully taps into memories of childhood and the passage of time. Children unwrapping annuals is part of a long-standing tradition, while for adults the festive annual is already an object of nostalgia – for me, without one under the Christmas tree, some of the magic of the season is lost.