The Christmas season gives us permission to delight in the past.
We sings old songs and zestfully revive the traditions of bygone years. Even the most black-and-white-phobic individuals in our midst might resist the urge to change the channel when a holiday-themed classic movie comes on TV.
But how many of us celebrate by revisiting the earliest Christmas films, over 100 years old?
I invite you to join me for a very YouTube Yuletide by checking out these 10 historical treasures. Not only do they radiate nostalgia and (for the most part) good cheer, but they also bear witness to the rapid development of cinema during its first two decades of existence.
Please note that many of these films have no musical score. I recommend putting on your favorite Christmas CD (you know, provided it’s not holiday death metal or anything like that) while you watch.
Santa Claus – George Albert Smith – 1898
Just three years after the Lumière brothers shot their first movies, Santa Claus made his screen debut in this vignette by the innovative British filmmaker George Albert Smith.
Smith explored cinema’s ability to represent points-of-view and show spatial relations. More important, he used these techniques to recreate experiences, play on viewers’ emotions, and tell stories.
In Santa Claus, the magic of Christmas (combined with movie magic) prompts a vision of St. Nick arriving on a rooftop and climbing into the chimney. Although the film takes place in the bedroom of two small children, we see Santa through a kind of enchanted bubble: a clever double exposure. Then the bubble disappears as Santa enters through the fireplace in an early example of a match-on-action, showing the rough continuity of time and space.
Not bad for a film that lasts little longer than a minute!
Rêve de Noël – Georges Méliès – 1900
Savor some Belle Époque celluloid whimsy as only Méliès could do it. On Christmas Eve, a child dreams of Santa’s merry workshop, which seems to house a surprising number of 1900s Parisian music hall dancers… Meanwhile, the world at large prepares for the holiday in snowy streets, cheerful churches, and opulent feasting halls.
Comparatively low on early special effects or editing tricks, this film simply sets a jolly mood. With its eccentric Elizabethan-meets-19th-century set design and its gaggle of snow fairies dancing, Rêve de Noel is like a stack of Victorian Christmas postcards coming to life. Bask in the visual equivalent of hot buttered rum.
Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost – Walter R. Booth – 1901
Only part of the first movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol survives. Fortunately, there’s enough left to appreciate this ambitious film and imagine what the whole would’ve been like.
Walter R. Booth managed to condense all major plot points down to a few minutes. Even more impressive, he recreated the story’s supernatural elements by using practically the entire arsenal of cinematic language available in 1901. And, banging his head against those limitations, Booth invented the wipe transition.
Best remembered for his playful, special effects-loaded short films, Booth began as a porcelain painter and dabbled in magic. You can see how Booth applied his expertise from those fields to Scrooge. The miniature painter’s attention to detail reveals itself in the set decoration with touches like the “God Bless Us Every One” sign in the Crachit home. Meanwhile, Booth the illusionist gives us see-though spirits, superimposed glimpses of the past, and a dizzying flight through time and space.
Bonus film: watch this later, more elaborate adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1910), a Thomas Edison production directed by J. Searle Dawley.
The Little Match Seller – James Williamson – 1902
In case you’re overdosing on joy, it’s time for Hans Christian Andersen’s tear-jerking tale of child labor and hypothermic hallucinations!
Once again, the supernatural overtones of a popular Christmas story gave an early filmmaker the chance to experiment with special effects and integrate them into a dramatic context. Williamson uses double exposures to portray the little match girl’s visions of warmth as well as her ascent into heaven.
Like Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost, this adaptation blurs the line between the era’s “trick films” (and what Gunning called the cinema of attraction) and emerging narrative cinema.
The Parish Priest’s Christmas – Alice Guy – 1906
Shining with simple faith, this moving work by Alice Guy, the world’s first woman director, captures a more pious side of Christmas.
A local priest attempts to buy a statue to complete the crèche, or Nativity scene, in his church. Unfortunately, the priest and his humble flock lack the funds to purchase even the smallest stand-in for baby Jesus. But lo! At mass, beautiful angels appear and reward the congregation’s devotion by bestowing an effigy of Jesus to fill the cradle.
In The Parish Priest’s Christmas, Alice Guy deploys special effects for maximum dramatic impact. The film’s deliberate pace and the naturalistic interactions between characters draw the audience into the priest’s dilemma. This realistic atmosphere makes the heavenly vision at the end (achieved through hidden cuts) even more striking and poignant.
A Trap for Santa Claus – D.W. Griffith – 1909
Dad’s drunk, unemployed, and arguing with mom. Now it feels like Christmas! Anticipating the bleakness of the Pottersville scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life, this socially-conscious Biograph film reminds us that Christmas doesn’t exist for those in dire poverty.
A despairing father abandons his indigent wife and children. On the verge of starvation, his wife inherits a small fortune and moves into a lavish home in time for Christmas Eve. When her children set a trap to catch Santa Claus, little do they know that they’ll end up bringing their father—now turned a burglar—back into their lives. All we need is a Santa suit and the family reunion will be complete…
D.W. Griffith had only been directing films for about a year when he made this short holiday melodrama, which might be why it stands out as particularly, well, melodramatic. The acting harkens back to the 19th century stage, but please don’t judge all silent movies (or Griffith’s) based on this one.
The Night Before Christmas – Edwin S. Porter – 1905
Edwin S. Porter, a pioneer of narrative logic in cinema and director of The Great Train Robbery (1903), evokes the snowbound wonder of Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved poem. And, as in The Great Train Robbery, Porter ends the film with a fourth-wall-breaking shot (not unusual in early movies) as Santa Claus acknowledges the spectators and wishes them a merry Christmas.
My favorite entry on this list, The Night Before Christmas involved a herd of apparently real reindeer, as well as an adorable model version to show their “flight” from the North Pole. You can see the whole iconography of Christmas as we know it today—the jolly red suit, the list that Santa’s checking twice, and the magical sleigh. Intertitles with verses lifted straight from Moore’s poem contribute to the film’s charm.
A Christmas Accident – Harold M. Shaw – 1912
In the time-honored tradition of nasty-people-redeemed-by-holiday-zeal stories comes this short but sweet movie from Edison Studios. Eschewing miracles and special effects, A Christmas Accident provides a tantalizing glimpse into the holiday celebrations of ordinary, working-class people shortly after the turn of the century.
Prosperous, crotchety old coot Mr. Gilton and his long-suffering wife live right next door to the harmonious Bilton family. After months of enduring their neighbor’s bad temper, the Biltons are settling down for their modest Christmas Eve festivities.
“Santa Claus is poor this year,” says Mr. Bilton, explaining to his children why they’re not getting a turkey. But what to their wondering eyes should appear? Why, Mr. Gilton, blown by a snowstorm right into their home—with a turkey under his arm. Do I smell reconciliation… and stuffing?
The Insects’ Christmas – Vladislav Starevich – 1913
Vladislav Starevich. Now there’s a name even film geeks don’t mention much—but they should. This enthusiastic amateur entomologist produced some of the most creative and elaborate early examples of stop-motion animation.
In his surreal works, anthropomorphic insects often move around in a world like our own. They go to the movies, conduct secret love affairs, and, yes, even celebrate Christmas. Heartwarming or horrifying? I’ll let you be the judge.
Bonus film: for more unusual holiday entertainment courtesy of our friend Vladislav, watch his live-action film The Night Before Christmas (1913), based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, not the quaint poem by Clement Clarke Moore.
The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus – Charles M. Seay – 1914
In 1914, comical amateur sleuth Octavius bumbled through a series of short one-reel films produced by Thomas Edison. In the final series installment, our hapless hero shows up at a party to dress as Santa for his friend’s children. Needless to say, holiday mayhem ensues.
No sooner does Octavius don the bushy white beard and red suit then he gets conked on the noggin by a burglar. Dressed up in a different Santa suit, the villain steals the children’s gifts from under the tree and flees with Octavius in hot pursuit.
Of course, all this improbable exposition merely serves as an excuse to show two men in Santa costumes chasing after each other and brawling. Fortunately, as the intertitles tell us, “Octavius never fails.” The detective ends up returning the Christmas presents and gets to canoodle behind a curtain with a pretty girl while some weirdly voyeuristic children watch. (And a merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Edison…)
Though clearly filmed on a set, this movie tenderly documents the customs of a middle class Christmas on the brink of WWI. Plus, it started the Santa suit mix-up plot device that seasonal comedies have been recycling ever since.
Have a very cinephile Christmas, everyone!