Christmas, so they say, comes earlier every year – so early these days that it’s in danger of backing into Halloween.
In film terms this has already occurred with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), in which ghoulish Halloween characters plot to conquer Christmas.
Of course, the two winter festivals share some territory, which we could broadly call gothic; the Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories – a little chill to be enjoyed in good company by a cosy fire – overlaps with similar traditions that have become attached to Halloween (think of The Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse of Horror’ Halloween specials in which Bart, with upturned torch for extra spookiness, recites Poe).
Will the two winter festivals ultimately merge? In the world of the family film, Halloween and Christmas are already part of one long wintry season. But this is no recent phenomenon – the Christmas/ghost story link starts earlier in film than you might think.
The first surviving Christmas film seems to be Santa Claus, made by G. A. Smith in 1898. It’s a classic Victorian tale inherited from the magic lantern, of two children in a nice middle-class house being put to bed and dreaming of Santa delivering toys. The interesting thing from a film point of view is the mise en scène, which shows Santa, a benign supernatural figure, on the snowy rooftops in a circular vignette superimposed on a black area within the bedroom where the children lie sleeping. He then appears, as if real, from the fireplace, having descended the chimney to distribute toys and a great Christmas tree. This simple film not only pioneers a form of parallel action editing but also usefully illustrates that there was a market for Christmas films from the very early days of cinema – as well as for films targeted specifically at children. Méliès elaborated on Smith’s film for his La Rêve de Noël in 1901.
Christmas stories make a regular appearance in the November/December release schedules soon after, on Christmassy themes such as pantomime comedies and with the first adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: R. W. Paul’s Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (1901). The story classically contrasts Christmas as a time of joy and abundance with gothic imagery of ghostly messengers, child poverty and tombstones.
Poignant stories of children freezing in the snow on Christmas eve in this era derive from Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Match Girl’ of 1845 in which a poor girl, using up her last matches to try to stop herself from freezing, sees a series of visions in the flames.
James Williamson’s The Little Match Seller, which appears in his December catalogue for 1902, again employs the trick of superimposing images as she strikes each match, showing her a series of visions – a fire, food, a Christmas tree and her mother – before an angel leads her soul out of her body to heaven.
G. A. Smith’s The Death of Poor Joe (1899), based on a scene from Bleak House, has a grim graveyard setting and shares this theme of the friendless child on winter nights in the season of goodwill and plenty.
We can take the Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories even further back, with pieces such as the legend of the Mistletoe Bough, based on an 18th century Italian story first written down in 1823. By the 1850s it was regularly sung or recited at Christmas gatherings, making it on to film for the first of many times in 1904 as The Mistletoe Bough. Made by Percy Stow for the Clarendon Company, the film tells the story of a Christmas wedding and a game of hide-and-seek during which the bride hides in a great oak chest and is trapped. Three decades later she appears to the husband as a ghost, and the withered skeleton, still in its bridal clothes, is finally discovered. The film was advertised, with the lyrics of the ballad, in the Gaumont Christmas catalogue of that year.
Coincidentally, it was also 1823 that Clement Clarke Moor’s famous and more joyful Christmas poem, ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ – now better known as ‘T’was the Night before Christmas’ – first appeared. This poem can be said to have invented the modern Santa Claus and inspired the ironic title of the Tim Burton film. As with other themes, early film is a cultural way station, here en route to the modern Christmas film.