Watch Santa Claus, the Earliest Movie About Santa in Existence (1898)

San­ta Claus Is Comin’ to TownThe San­ta Clause, San­ta Claus: the Movie, Bad San­ta, the unfor­get­table San­ta Claus Con­quers the Mar­tians: we all have a pre­ferred depic­tion of Saint Nicholas on film, the selec­tion of which grows larg­er each and every Christ­mas. The tra­di­tion of San­ta in cin­e­ma goes back 120 years to a cou­ple of obscure 1897 shorts, San­ta Claus Fill­ing Stock­ings and The Christ­mas Tree Par­ty, made by a com­pa­ny called Amer­i­can Muto­scope, but it finds its fullest ear­ly expres­sion in the fol­low­ing year’s San­ta Claus.

Direct­ed by hyp­no­tist and mag­ic lanternist turned film­mak­er George Albert Smith, this 66-sec­ond pro­duc­tion, though a high­ly elab­o­rate one for the time, pur­ports to show just how San­ta Claus makes a vis­it to drop off gifts for a cou­ple of sleep­ing chil­dren. When their nan­ny turns off the lights for the night, we see super­im­posed on their dark­ened wall a vision of the jol­ly old elf him­self land­ing on the roof and clam­ber­ing down the chim­ney.

“What makes this treat­ment con­sid­er­ably more inter­est­ing than a con­ven­tion­al piece of edit­ing,” writes the British Film Insti­tute’s Michael Brooke, “is the way that Smith links the shots in terms of both space and time, by plac­ing the new image over the space pre­vi­ous­ly occu­pied by the fire­place, and con­tin­u­ing to show the chil­dren sleep­ing through­out.”

Brooke calls that effect “cin­e­ma’s ear­li­est known exam­ple of par­al­lel action and, when cou­pled with dou­ble-expo­sure tech­niques” that Smith had devel­oped for his pre­vi­ous films, it makes San­ta Claus “one of the most visu­al­ly and con­cep­tu­al­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed British films made up to then.” He notes also that Smith cor­re­spond­ed with Georges Méliès, his fel­low pio­neer of not just spe­cial effects but cin­e­ma itself, around the time of this film, no sur­prise since “the two men shared a com­mon goal in terms of cre­at­ing an authen­tic cin­e­ma of illu­sion.”

Watch San­ta Claus on this Christ­mas Day, and you’ll find that, in the words of Kieron Casey at The Total­i­ty, “the plot is sim­ple, but the mag­ic is not — viewed over 100 years lat­er, it’s impos­si­ble not to be touched to the very core with the won­der on dis­play in the film. In the same way young hands will find the most sim­ple of toys mes­meris­ing when touched for the first time, there is a real inno­cence and enthu­si­asm in G.A. Smith’s film – it’s a short movie which is full of imag­i­na­tion and dis­cov­ery, the type of which will nev­er again be expe­ri­enced in cin­e­ma.” But see­ing as San­ta Claus exist­ed long before cin­e­ma and will exist long after it, rest assured that he’ll bring his trade­mark twin­kle to any sto­ry­telling medi­um human­i­ty comes up with next.

San­ta Claus will be added to our list of Clas­sic Silent Films, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Christ­mas Car­ol Pre­sent­ed in a Thomas Edi­son Film (1910)

Cap­ti­vat­ing GIFs Reveal the Mag­i­cal Spe­cial Effects in Clas­sic Silent Films

A Trip to the Moon (and Five Oth­er Free Films) by Georges Méliès, the Father of Spe­cial Effects

Watch the Films of the Lumière Broth­ers & the Birth of Cin­e­ma (1895)

1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, etc.

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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