10 Christmas Films Made Over 100 Years Ago (That You Can Watch for Free)

christmas_accidentThe 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’ ChristmasVladislav 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!

Film History Firsts: 10 Milestone Films You Can Watch For Free

1888 – “The Roundhay Garden Scene” – First Ever Film

Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty brazen assertion—as if I can 100% conclusively say “motion pictures started here,” because in some form they existed for centuries! As the great critic André Bazin noted, humans have dreamed of perfectly capturing and preserving the appearance of life since time immemorial. Cinema existed in the mind long before it could be realized. Thaumatropes, zoetropes, and other optical entertainments foreshadowed the birth of movies. Some would argue that the live action motion-capture photographs that naturalists like Muybridge and Marey created really mark the inception of film.

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However, if I have to put my money down on one person as the inventor of film, it’s going to be Louis-Aimé Augustin LePrince. This French-born innovator struggled for years to sell his motion picture camera only to vanish without a trace on the cusp of becoming internationally famous. According to Donald Cook’s History of Narrative Cinema, LePrince projected motion pictures as a demonstration for functionnaires of the French government at the Paris Opera in 1890—five years before the Lumière brothers would exhibit their camera-projector, the Cinematographe.

His uncanny disappearance has sparked your typical range of crackpot theories; some have speculated that ruthless entrepreneur Thomas Edison, whom we remember as a great inventor, a perpetuator of animal cruelty, an occasional idea thief, and an all-round nice guy, had LePrince killed. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

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What has come to be known as “The Roundhay Garden Scene” represents the first successful attempt to make motion pictures, not just to record motion through a series of still images. The fact that an ordinary middle class British family serve as the subject of the first ever film also imbues the fragment with a sense of warmth and nostalgia, hinting at the human dimension latent in the technological advance. Unlike the scientific gaze of many early photographic motion studies, the quaint backyard location and lawn game ambiance of the few seconds of film opens a window in time. Travel back to 1888 and witness the grainy power of LePrince’s vision.

1895  – “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” – First Film for Commercial Projection

Film historians tend to consider Lumière Brothers the founders of the medium even though Edison’s studio was producing films before them. Why? Because Edison’s ideas about film and how it could be marketed and distributed were comparatively limited. His camera couldn’t easily be transported, so Edison’s films were made indoors in a studio called the Black Maria. His Kinetoscope exhibition method relied on a peep-hole scenario where the viewer had to put his eye up against a tiny screen and watch the movie. By contrast, the Lumières’ highly portable camera-projector enabled them to capture footage outdoors and to share the images with many people at once. They were the first to conceive of film as a form of group entertainment.

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However, with the proliferation of online video, the dominance of small screens, and the increasing commonness of media enjoyed in isolation, I can’t help but notice that film actually seems to be shifting away from the shared experience of the Lumière model and back towards the individual experience of Edison’s Kinetoscope.

That is an observation, not a judgment. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this turns out.

1895 – “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots” – First Film Edit

The first edit within a movie was a cut in more ways that one! To recreate a bloody historical event, “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots,” Alfred Clark at Edison Studios used a hidden cut. We see Mary kneel to put her neck on the block, the axe swings upward, and, then, in the blink of an eye, Mary gets swapped out for a pre-chopped mannequin. Off with her head!

Not only does this film remind us that editing itself can constitute one of the most powerful special effects, but it also reveals how editing and violence have always gone hand-in-hand. It’s hard to imagine some of the most masterful, yet violent sequences in film history—the Odessa Stairs massacre from Battleship Potemkin, the shower scene from Psycho, the Ride of the Valkyries sequence from Apocalypse Now—without torrents of rhythmic cuts. And it all started here, even if you’re not supposed to notice that cut. Audiences were appropriately horrified and the relationship between film and extreme violence was born.

1895 – First Film with Synchronous Sound

Long before Al Jolson exulted, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in the so-called first talking film, The Jazz Singer (1927), movies had actually been making noise for quite some time. In late 1894 or 1895, William Dickson of Edison Studios actually timed a film recording with synchronous sound captured by a wax cylinder. Long considered lost, the cylinder was found and recently restored so we can hear Dickson himself playing the first piece of synched movie sound, a bit of violin music.

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Incidentally, we might giggle at the sight of two men dancing in a 19th century film, but homosocial dancing was not a particularly unusual thing for that era. Men in the army, on boats, and in isolated locations like prairies often danced with each other in a way that implied camaraderie and friendship, since dancing was one of the most popular ways to pass time.

I know this sounds strange, but I find this film the most poignant of all of the ones I’m featuring. I nearly started crying the first time I heard the clear vibration of a violin that ceased to play over a century ago.

1896 – “The Cabbage Fairy” – First Film by a Female Director

I hate to trivialize Alice Guy-Blaché by referring to her as a “female director,” as though her only claim to fame was doing something that men mostly do. In fact, she possessed an extraordinary imagination on a par with Méliès, a deliciously cheeky sense of humor, and sensitivity to the emotional nuances of narrative that foreshadowed Griffith’s masterpieces. She worked with cutting edge technologies like superimposition and synchronous sound at the turn of the century. She oversaw production at early film giant Gaumont and, after she moved to America, she bought and ran her own studio, Solax.

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Unfortunately, her first film, “The Cabbage Fairy,” a version of a myth about where babies come from might not exactly stoke one’s enthusiasm for her oeuvre. It features a scantily clad lady (Guy herself!) plucking naked live babies out of exaggerated cabbage patches. Nevertheless, the whimsical set design, the fantasy quality, and the sheer surreal weirdness of visually representing a legend all speak for this film’s historical value. But Alice would go on to make much better!

I encourage you watch other films by Mme Guy-Blaché. I recommend “Madame’s Cravings,” about a pregnant woman gone wild, “The Consequences of Feminism,” with its wry gender inversions, and “Falling Leaves,” a heartwarming family movie. Plus, click here for a fascinating behind the scenes peek of Mme Guy arranging a film.

1896 – “The Haunted Castle” – First Ever Horror Movie

Thanks to Scorsese’s Hugo, a much wider audience has come to appreciate Georges Méliès and his contributions to cinema. Set designer, magician, inventor, actor, and much more, diablethis multi-hyphenate also gave the world the first horror film.

And guess what?

The plot sounds frighteningly similar to 90% of the scary movies coming to a theater near you: two travellers happen to wander into a haunted castle and fend off attacks from shape shifting ghosts led by the Devil himself. Savor the zany camera tricks as bats turn into humanoid demons and beautiful damsels transform into ugly old hags. 

1900 – “How It Feels to Be Run Over” – First Use of Intertitles

Intertitles—those text screens that pop up between images in silent films—get a raw deal. Long bewailed as an explanatory enemy to true art, they clarified plot points and added dialogue to silent film and often revealed just how artistically text can be integrated with images. In Cecil Hepworth’s “How It Feels to Be Run Over,” a carriage rushes by the camera, then a car rushes right into it as though we, the viewer were being run over. The closing intertitle combusts with exclamation points and an ironic “Oh! Will be pleased!” The dynamic multiple title cards convey the shock and energy of the collision. Not bad for 1900. The BFI has done a nice write-up on this significance of this film.

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1900 – “Grandma’s Reading Glass” – First Point-of-View Close-Up

George Albert Smith, a British filmmaker, produced some very interesting, playful films that display a forward-thinking grasp of how the camera itself can be incorporated into films—not just used as a passive recording instrument. In “Grandma’s Reading Glass,” a little boy uses a magnifying glass to examine the world around him—newsprint, a canary, a house cat, and even his Grandmother! Her huge eye filling the screen must’ve come as a shock to viewers accustomed to pretty long shots. What’s more impressive is that the film puts us, the viewers, in the place of the little boy, demonstrating cinema’s magical capacity to encourage identification with characters and their experiences.

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1902 – First Ever Color Film

The silver lining to every lost film, to every forgotten breakthrough is the hope that we will someday share the joy of rediscovering it. This past fall, the Internet buzzed with excitement over the first ever color film, created by Edward Turner. According to the coverage by the UK Telegraph, which I strongly recommend reading and watching, Turner had developed a process that entailed “recording successive frames through red, green and blue filters then projecting and superimposing them on top of one another.”

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So, unlike the stenciled hand-coloring process that made Méliès’ films, Turner’s method was much more closely related to the multi-strip Technicolor that would revolutionize film in the late 1920s and 1930s. The film shows Turner’s children playing with flowers and a goldfish bowl. If you look closely, you can see the yellow goldfish gliding around.

1903 – “The Great Train Robbery” – First Western

I would have preferred to feature an earlier Edwin Porter film, “Life of an American Fireman,” but the influential cross-cut version has not, to my knowledge, been uploaded to YouTube. So, I’ll fall back on this no less extraordinary film which bequeathed one of the most enduring genres, the Western, and a stronger sense of filmic narrative than probably any previous film.

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