Santa’s film debut: The tale behind the world’s first Christmas film

Home Alone

There is nothing quite like getting cosy, popping on a good Christmas film and indulging in that fuzzy festive season feeling. Watching Christmas films has become a sacred December tradition – families, couples, friends and single pet owners have been known to bask in the magic of Christmas, cuddled up against the glow of a warmly lit television screen.

It’s extremely difficult, painful almost, to imagine a time before we marathoned Home Alone, snuggled up to cheesy but lovable films such as The Grinch, Love Actually, and Elf, and set reminders for the highly-anticipate release of our favourite TV show’s Christmas special. Doctor Who Christmas Special

But believe it or not, there was actually a time before the world of cinema and Christmas collided. In 1898 the world was introduced to the very first Christmas film. If you haven’t already, grab some warm cocoa and prepare to read the tale of (arguably) the most magical film ever made.

The man who started it all

George Albert Smith

The man who created the first Christmas film was believed to be just as magical as the on-screen stories he told.

George Albert Smith, was a hypnotist, psychic, magic lantern lecturer, inventor, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and of course, a film-maker.

Born in London on January 4, 1864, Smith was a pioneer in his field. He was one of the first film-makers to make considerable use of special effects, was said to have shot the first ever close-up, invented the Kinemacolor (the first colour film processor), and is believed to have created a grand total of thirty-one films.

However, before Smith conducted his 1897-1908 film stint, he first dabbled in some rather unusual career choices.

In the early 1880’s Smith performed in small Brighton halls as a hypnotist. As his talent grew he moved on, taking his hypnotic performance to a much larger crowd at the Brighton Aquarium.

Brighton aquarium
In 1882 Smith developed a double act with a man named Douglas Blackburn. The pair became well known for two performance pieces, dubbed ‘second sight’ and ‘muscle-reading’. 

In the act ‘second sight’, one performer hides an object in a random spot in the theatre, the other blindfolded performer must lead his partner to the hidden object. (That’s some indisputable magic right there.) 

Unlike their first act, ‘Muscle-reading‘ required audience input. In this performance, an audience member selects an object and the blindfolded ‘medium’ must figure out what the objects are via telepathic ‘transmission’ from his assistant.

Smith claimed that his performances weren’t just tricks, that he did genuinely practice telepathy. It wasn’t just his audiences that believed him, his claims were also accepted by the Society for Psychical Research. Smith went on to conduct hypnotic and thought reading experimentation, and even participated in scientific papers about the matter.

While Smith stuck to his claims, his early partner Blackburn admitted that their performances were a hoax.

St Ann’s Well Garden in Hove

In 1892 Smith acquired the lease to a garden a short distance from Brighton and the seafront. St Ann’s Well Garden in Hove was described by a Hove newspaper as a delightful retreat, with refreshing foliage, lawn tennis, grape and cucumbers for sale in glass houses, a gypsy fortune-teller, a monkey house, a lantern exhibition, and the occasional thrilling parachute descent.

The extraordinary St Ann’s Well Garden would soon become the location for Smith’s film factory.

In 1896, Smith was thought to have acquired his first camera, and in 1897 he turned the garden’s pump house into a space for developing and printing.

In 1898 Smith developed his ground-breaking Christmas film, Santa Claus.

Santa Claus

As a result of his experience as a magic lantern lecturer, Smith was considered knowledgeable in the art of cutting and editing and was able to experiment with different cinematic techniques that were considered extremely advanced for their time.

Not only is Santa Claus the first Christmas film made, but it is also thought to be the earliest known example of the cinematic technique parallel action (An editing technique used for showing two simultaneous events by repeatedly cutting between two pieces of action).

The 1:16 min black and white film is described as a short silent drama, and depicts St. Nicholas leaving presents for two sleeping children on the night of Christmas Eve. Like many of Smiths films, Santa Claus stars his wife – actor and filmmaker,  Laura Bayley.

Other historic Christmas films

While George Albert Smith‘s Santa Claus is thought to be the first Christmas film of the time period, it certainly wasn’t the last.

Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost – 1901

Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, is a British short directed by Walter R. Booth, and is the earliest known adaptation of Charles Dicken’s 1843 novel A Christmas Carol. The film was said to be an ambitious adaptation at the time, as it aimed to tell an 80-page story in only five minutes and features effects such as superimposing Marley’s face over the door knockers

The Night Before Christmas – 1905

In 1905 Edwin S. Porter created the short silent film, The Night Before Christmas, which is the first film production based on Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 Poem, Twas The Night Before Christmas.

The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus – 1914

The 1914 short silent film, The Adventures of the Wrong Santa Claus, is possibly the first cinematic depiction of a grinch-like character. In the film, a burglar dressed in a Santa suit steals a family’s Christmas presents, and an amateur detective decides to catch the thief and recover the family’s stolen gifts.

We hope you enjoyed finding out about the world’s first Christmas film! We would love to hear about what you watch in the lead up to Christmas, leave a comment down below and let us know your favourite festive films!


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Santa’s film debut: The tale behind the world’s first Christmas film

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