For well over a century, Christmas and Santa Claus has become a part of popular culture. Although the imagery and traditions can vary in different parts of the world, depictions of Santa are everywhere. This, of course, includes film, which has given us many iconic depictions of Santa (most notably Miracle on 34th Street and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). But Santa has been seen in films perhaps earlier than most people would expect. In fact, Santa has been a part of the film world from the very beginning.
The timing in the United States worked out perfectly. By the time the first films were being created, many of the conventional features of Santa had already been established. Thomas Nast’s first familiar drawing appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, and his drawings continued to popularize Santa imagery in the ensuing decades. Although the 1930s Coca-Cola ads provide an even more familiar Santa look, Nast helped give us a lot of Santa we know decades earlier.
By the time the film world was only a decade old, Santa was already a fixture on the screen. And some of cinema’s heaviest hitters were in on the act from the start. The director of Santa’s first film portrayal in Santa Claus Filling Stockings (1897, Biograph) has been lost to the ages, but the 1898 film Santa Claus is notable for a number of reasons. Directed by early pioneer George Albert Smith, it’s not only an early portrayal of Santa but an example of Smith’s impact. Multiple exposures to “insert” someone into a scene were one of film’s earliest special effects, and Smith was one of first to use it (along with George Méliès). In this short scene, Santa appears first in a bubble, presenting him outside on the roof, before popping into the children’s room to drop off presents. By shooting this way, Smith portrays parallel scenes that eventually converge. As for Santa, the look is a little different. The Santa here is clad in what is essentially a hooded robe, and is much thinner than he would later be. These differences could be attributed to this being a British production.
Smith was far from the only notable early director to take on Santa Claus. Edwin S. Porter, known now mostly for The Great Train Robbery (1903), made two such films for Edison’s company. This included the first film adaptation of The Night Before Christmas in 1905, complete with intertitles from the written story. Telling a now familiar tale, Porter also used another common film technique at the time. Santa waves one hand and a fully decorated tree appears in the room. Most often used by Méliès, this technique involved essentially “freezing” a scene and the actors in place and ending filming. Filming resumes once the new object is in place, and when spliced together, it appears that the object has jumped right into the scene.
Porter’s next film, A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907), and D.W. Griffith’s A Trap for Santa Claus (1909) both represent a shift in the Santa narratives. With the mythology well established on the screen, the stories began to advance and build upon the knowledge of the character. The latter Porter film involves a boy trying to convince a girl that Santa does exist, a common theme that exists in Christmas films to this day. A sort of gamesmanship exists in the plot too, seeing if Santa can be caught and seen. Santa’s look here is still slightly different, sporting something resembling a wizard’s hat.
Griffith’s film takes the game of catching Santa and adds a further level of complexity: that sometimes the person in the suit isn’t Santa at all. Certainly the most complex plot in a Santa film to that point, there’s a lot going on. The children decide to set up a plot to catch Santa. The man who enters the house isn’t Santa, but rather their long gone father who is seeking to rob the home. Their mother takes pity on the man and lets him dress as Santa to surprise the children. Robbery is also a theme in the 1914 The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus, where a robber attempts to gain access to homes by dressing as Santa.
Examining these early films goes a long way to not only understand how Santa Claus in media has evolved, but how film technology and techniques evolved. Early special effects were perfect for these kind of stories involving a mythical figure. And the films followed the general trajectory of these earliest films: the products were first more simple in plot and shorter in length. As time went by, plots in general became more layered and complex, just like these Santa films. Perhaps, then, we can see not only the evolution of Santa stories through these films, but the evolution of film as well.