Short Starts: Watch 5 Santa Claus Films From More Than 100 Years Ago

By  · Published on December 23rd, 2012

Later today, we have a Christmas-themed edition of Scenes We Love, in which you’ll find a number of favorite movie moments of varying genres and content. Some of them involve Santa Claus. So, in lieu of finding a short film made by or featuring someone related to a new film out this week, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the earliest cinematic appearances of the jolly old holiday mascot. If you want to go back further than your usual classics-honoring tradition of watching Miracle on 34th Street, definitely check out these five ancient shorts.

One of the scenes I nearly chose for the forthcoming feature is the opening of City of Lost Children, which isn’t quite a Christmas movie but it does include Santa-infused dream sequences. And those sequences tend to remind me of the dreamy fantasies of early Santa films. For example, here’s George Albert Smith’s 1898 short Santa Claus (aka The Visit From Santa Claus), which I used to think involved a dream sequence. But that frame within the frame of Santa on the roof is more likely intended to be a look at what’s simultaneously going on up above the children’s home.

While Smith’s may not be the first ever depiction of Santa on film, but other titles such as Santa Claus Filling Stockings (American Mutoscope, 1897), Santa Claus and the Children (R.W. Paul, 1898) and Santa Claus’ Visit (Edison, 1900) sound like they’re roughly the same premise and are likely the result of unauthorized remaking/plagiarizing that went on with filmmakers at the time.

Edison produced another short five years later directed by Edwin S. Porter. Titled The Night Before Christmas, it’s similar to the early depictions in that it’s primarily the story of Santa visiting a single home and dropping gifts in the kids’ stockings. But it’s a bit longer, features terrific continuity editing for its time, and also extends the action to show us Santa’s workshop and reindeers – first shown as real animals and later animated with models in a wonderful little sequence portraying Santa’s sleigh ride both on land in through the air. On the rooftop, the reindeer are also awesomely fake. Watch the nearly 9-minute film here:

Porter also co-directed the 1907 film A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus with J. Searle Dawley. It’s based on the famous Virginia O’Hanlon story (“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”), published as an editorial in the New York Sun a decade earlier. In the film, a boy helps to prove the existence of Santa by lasso-ing him and forcing him to visit Virginia’s home (apparently Santa doesn’t normally visit the homes of poor kids). Again, the scope is opened up with multiple locations, and this has more practical special effects as it presents St. Nick as a more magical character. Watch the 14-minute film here:

In the 1910 documentary and fantasy hybrid Making Christmas Crackers, we get to see the process of women manufacturing Christmas decorations (they’re like safe firecrackers, not edible crackers). At the end of the nonfiction presentation, we sort of get a little commercial for the products in which Santa magically appears when two kids pull at a giant Christmas cracker. Watch the 6-minute film here:

Okay, so this next one isn’t from more than a century ago. More like about a century ago. It’s a Russian stop-motion animated film by Wladyslaw Starewicz called The Insects’ Christmas. And the simple plot involves a small Santa Claus Christmas tree ornament who goes outside and celebrates the holiday with a bunch of insects (ladybug, dragonfly, beetles, etc.). It’s cute and creepy at the same time and pretty remarkable for the year produced (1913). Below is a blue-tinted copy of the film. If you want black & white but not as clear, there’s a YouTube version. Watch the 7-minute short here:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.