The First 10 Christmas Movies in Recorded History
1. Santa Claus (1898)
The first time Santa Claus appeared in film, it was in a silent British short directed by George Albert Smith, who pioneered the practice of film editing and the usage of close-ups. He also worked as a stage hypnotist and psychic, which influenced his use of special effects.
In the film, two children eagerly wait for Santa Claus by the fireplace, but are ordered to go to bed. While they sleep, Santa comes down the chimney and leaves presents for them. In the end, the children wake up and discover their presents. Transitions between these scenes are done with jump cuts, superimposition, and double exposure, which were new at the time.
Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline describes Santa Claus (1898) as “a film of considerable technical ambition and accomplishment for the period.” The film shows the children sleeping on one side of the screen while Santa lands on the roof on the other, which Brooke says is “believed to be the cinema's earliest known example of parallel action… [The] result is one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then.”
2. The Christmas Dream (1900)
French director Georges Méliès directed The Christmas Dream (1900), a film inspired by the French theatrical genre known as féerie. The genre was known for supernatural elements, lavish scenery, elaborate special effects, and clearly defined morality.
The film shifts its focus to several different settings: a home where two children hang up their stockings before going to bed; the nighttime sky where angels drop gifts into chimneys; and an old church where a bell tolls and a choir sings Christmas hymns. The film then goes back to the home of the children, who wake up and marvel at their presents. The ending scene shows people sitting at a table in a dining hall, welcoming a beggar into the house to join them.
Méliès, who was known for coming up with new filming techniques, used substitution splices and dissolving effects to transition between scenes. He also used stage machinery to ring the church bells and to mount a Christmas tree.
3. Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost (1901)
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of the most adapted books of all time, having been made into films, stage plays, TV specials, and parodies. The first film version was Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901), which was adapted from a stage play written by J.C. Buckstone.
The director, Walter R. Booth, was a magician before he began making films. He specialized in “trick films,” which were designed to showcase special effects that were innovative at the time. In one scene, a ghost’s face is superimposed over the door to Scrooge’s house. In another, Scrooge closes the black curtains over his bedroom window, and flashbacks to his childhood are superimposed over the dark space.
Though the original film’s running time was six minutes, only three minutes have survived. This was the first film to ever contain intertitles, though Booth believed that the audience would already be familiar enough with the story that the use of intertitles could be minimal.
4. The Night Before Christmas (1905)
The Night Before Christmas—also known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas and A Visit from St. Nicholas—was a poem first published anonymously in 1823, and later attributed to writer Clement Clarke Moore. The first film adaptation of the poem, The Night Before Christmas (1905), was directed by Edwin S. Porter and distributed by the Edison Company.
Lines from the poem appear in intertitles throughout the nine-minute film, which alternates between scenes of Santa Claus at the North Pole and a family putting their children to bed. When Santa takes off in his sleigh, a panoramic shot is done over a painted backdrop, with a model sleigh and reindeer miniatures being pulled on a string.
Interestingly, the film contains a scene where the children engage in a pillow fight, which was not part of the original poem. Pillow-fight scenes were common in Edison Company films, as they added some crowd-pleasing slapstick humor.
5. A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907)
J. Searle Dawley and Edwin S. Porter both directed this family film about the friendship between a wealthy boy and a poor girl. It starts off with the boy playing outside in the snow and noticing the girl shivering because she doesn't have a coat. So he gives her his coat, takes her for a ride on his sled, and invites her to his luxurious house.
While the children are playing together, the boy discovers that the girl doesn't believe in Santa Claus, because he's never visited her. So later that night, the boy waits up for Santa, armed with a pistol and some rope. When Santa comes down the chimney, the boy ties him up, holds him at gunpoint, and forces him to visit the little girl's house.
These extreme measures are successful, as the girl wakes up to a beautiful Christmas tree and several presents. In the end the boy returns home and Santa tucks him into bed, clearly having no hard feelings about being kidnapped and held hostage.
6. A Christmas Carol (1908)
A Christmas Carol (1908) is unfortunately a lost film. Little is known about it, except that the starring role was played by accomplished Shakespearean actor Tom Ricketts.
When the film first came out, a review in the magazine The Motion Picture World stated, “It is impossible to praise this film too highly. It reproduces the story as closely as it is possible to do in a film and the technical excellence of the work cannot be questioned. The photography, the staging and the acting are all of the best… Such films cannot be too highly commended… Even though it costs a fortune almost to prepare such a film, it is quite likely that the public will patronize it sufficiently to make good the extraordinary outlay.”
7. A Trap for Santa Claus (1909)
A Trap for Santa Claus (1909), directed by D.W. Griffith, is a sixteen-minute film that takes place around Christmastime and centers on a struggling family. The film starred Henry B. Walthall, who appeared in several of Griffith’s films, and Marion Leonard, who became one of the first actors to ever receive screen credit.
The father, played by Walthall, is an unemployed drunkard who abandons his wife and children and starts making a living as a burglar. The wife, played by Leonard, struggles to support herself and the children. In a stroke of luck, an attorney shows up and informs her that she’s inherited a fortune from her late aunt. The family moves into a luxurious new house.
On Christmas Eve, the father breaks into the house, not knowing his family now lives there. He’s caught in a trap that the children set for Santa Claus, and his wife discovers him. After they reconcile, the father dresses up as Santa to surprise the children.
The practice of parents dressing up as Santa Claus for their children had never before been shown on screen.
8. A Christmas Carol (1910)
Directed by J. Searle Dawley, A Christmas Carol (1910) was produced and distributed by the Edison Company. One of the company's most prolific actors, Marc MacDermott, played Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge’s employee, Bob Crachit, was played by Charles Ogle, who had the starring role in the Edison Company’s Frankenstein (1910) earlier that year.
The ghosts in the film are portrayed with double exposure to make them transparent, while Scrooge’s visions of the past, present, and future are superimposed into the background. In some of these visions, MacDermott appears as a younger version of Scrooge.
In most early adaptations of this book, Scrooge is only visited by one ghost: his deceased colleague, Joseph Marley. But this one remained true to the book by including all four ghosts: Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future.
9. Making Christmas Crackers (1910)
Making Christmas Crackers (1910) shows the work that goes into cherished Christmas products, such as crackers, stockings, and decorations. The first five minutes of this six-minute film shows factory workers, mostly women, making these products, some by hand and some with machines. They cut, sew, fold, glue, arrange, and pack, occasionally glancing up at the camera while they work.
The last minute of the film takes place in a family’s living room, where seven children and their mother join hands and dance around their Christmas tree. The father, played by the film's director A.E. Coleby, then tosses a box of crackers into the air—the same crackers made by the factory workers—so the children can grab them off the floor.
The father then takes down a giant paper cracker has been placed on top of the Christmas tree. The children pull the cracker apart, and Santa Claus emerges in a puff of smoke. The children rejoice as he hands out gifts.
10. A Christmas Accident (1912)
A Christmas Accident (1912), directed by Harold M. Shaw, tells the story of Christmas bringing people of different social classes together. The film starred William Wadsworth, one of the Edison Company’s most prolific character actors.
Wadsworth played Mr. Gilton, a wealthy old man who lives next door to the impoverished Bilton family. Despite being poor, the Biltons are warm and kind, while Mr. Gilton is bitter and irritable and often yells at the five Bilton children for stepping into his backyard.
On Christmas Eve, the Biltons make do with their limited means, setting up a modest Christmas tree on their kitchen table. Meanwhile, Mr. Gilton is walking home, carrying a turkey he bought for Christmas dinner. He’s caught in a blizzard, which obscures his vision, and he accidentally walks into the Biltons’ house instead of his own.
The Biltons welcome him into their home, offering him a seat at the table. Mr. Gilton is moved by their kindness, and they all spend Christmas together.