Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: A Christmas Past

I don’t know, Muriel, he told me he was Santa Claus and I could trust him with my wallet.

Happy Holidays! In this Christmas stocking you’ll get an assortment of silent films topical and timely, thanks to the careful stewardship of Kino International and Paul Killiam.

A Christmas Past gives us a fascinating look at early American observations of Christmas in the 20th century. It’s amazing to see how much of the standard mythology for Santa Claus was already in place; it’s also interesting to observe that it was already a cheerily secular holiday, despite current claims that holiday inclusiveness is a recent invention of the devil.

The first piece up in this collection dates from 1901. A Holiday Pageant At Home, filmed 108 years ago while Queen Victoria still sat on the throne, presents a mother and her children sewing, reading and chatting in their middle-class home. In comes the father of the family, apparently announcing he wants a pageant prepared for Christmas. In the next scene, the two youngest girls stiffly make some sort of recitation with synchronized gestures; the older girl, in particular, looks as though she’d rather be anywhere else than in front of the camera. Next scene the prologue is past and our play consists of an older brother and sister dressed in adult clothes, relentlessly scolding the youngest girl, who weeps theatrically. But she is avenged! In comes the youngest boy, dressed as either a bandit or a pirate, brandishing a Bowie knife and a pistol. He chases the unpleasant pair until they fall to their knees and beg for mercy, at which the littlest girl cheers and claps. Father kisses Mother for a pageant well directed and that’s all, folks! This is interesting for its look back at the Victorian Christmas custom of amateur theatricals at home, and also for the relative novelty of the camera. Most of the principals stare frankly at the cameraman. It’s much more like a home movie than a studio production.

Next up is A Winter Straw Ride, from 1906. Two sleigh-loads of young ladies go riding through the snow in a small town somewhere in upper New York state.  They whoop, they cavort, they fall off the sleighs, and chase a number of unfortunate young men across the snowy fields. Having knocked them down, they proceed to scrub snow into the men’s faces and clothing. That’s it for plot. These rather alarming hoydens tend to dress like members of the Oyl family—big boots, heavy long skirts, and heavy rolled turtleneck sweaters. One is reminded forcibly that this is the generation that fought for (and won) the right to vote.

With  A Trap for Santa from 1909, we get into tragic violins territory, and no wonder: it’s directed by D.W. Griffith.  In the style of his title cards: Family Desperate – No Work for Father – Father Drinks To Forget His Troubles. Feckless Father Leaves Note Telling Family They Will Be Better Off Without Him (sure they will) – Mother Tries To Work But Is Turned Away From Employment Agency. But Surprise! Obscure Aunt’s Estate Settled On Mother Just In Time. Mother and Kids Now In Palatial Home – Kids No Longer Look Like Woebegone Edward Gorey Drawings – Mother Still Moping For Missing Husband. Mom Tells Kids Santa Will Come In At The Window – Kids Decide To Set Trap for Santa Under Window – Father, All Unbeknownst, Attempts To Burgle House He Doesn’t Know Is His Wife’s – Wife Catches Him Before Something Tragic Happens – Inexplicably Takes Him Back – He Ends Up Playing Santa Claus For His Kiddies. Happy ending  all around, I guess. If you like your acting with plenty of backs of clenched hands to foreheads, or  thrust up to God in attitudes of hysterical prayer, this is your style of drama.

And here’s A Christmas Accident from 1912, altogether more palatable. The Giltons and the Biltons live next door to one another in the same duplex. Mr. Gilton is a Scrooge-like old meanie. The Biltons are a large, cheerful family without much money. All year long, the Biltons annoy the Dickens out of Mr. Gilton by being loud and happy. On Christmas Eve, Mr. Gilton goes out to buy his Christmas turkey; the Biltons, meanwhile, have blown all their money on presents for their children and are doing without a turkey this year. But wait! Old Man Gilton gets lost in a snow storm and wanders into the wrong half of the duplex. The Biltons welcome him warmly and he learns the true meaning of Christmas. Actually nicer than it sounds. Note in particular how small turkeys were 100 years ago.

Next up: 1914’s The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus, one of a popular series about Octavius, an unlikely combination of Bertie Wooster and Sherlock Holmes (and no, it wasn’t directed by Guy Ritchie). In this particular installment, Octavius is invited to play Santa at a children’s Christmas Party, and complications ensue when a burglar enters the house in his own Santa costume. He gets away with the goods but Octavius comes to the rescue! Kind of entertaining, actually.

All the previous plotlines are sort of cannibalized for 1915’s Santa Claus Versus Cupid. Two guys are in love with the same girl—one is a good guy, one is a bad guy. Both dress up to play Santa at her Christmas party. Meanwhile, poor Binks Mulligan, the coachman, is impoverished with a sick wife and no money to buy food for his children. He’s tempted to commit burglary at the house where the dueling Santas are competing. Will he be stopped in time? Will he be redeemed? Will there be a happy ending? If you’ve watched the other films this far, you know the answer to that one.

And now for something completely different—1925’s Santa Claus. This is a surprising little two-reeler with a poetic script and genuine footage of Alaska shot especially for the film. Two actually rather creepy-looking children decide to stay up and meet Santa so they can ask him what he does during the rest of the year.  Santa is happy to oblige and tells them all about his palace in the Arctic snows. We get a lot of establishing shots of real walruses and polar bears, as well as depictions of  vast reindeer herds. And what does Santa do when he’s not bringing toys to good little children? Breaking and domesticating all those reindeer, of course! That’s right, there are scenes of actual reindeer wrangling. He also visits his friends the Eskimos and learns what their kids want for Christmas each year (you’d think abundant blubber, but it turns out they want dolls and gumdrops just like everyone else).  Furthermore, he oversees the city populated by elves within his vast frozen fortress; it has its own fire station and police watch tower. He inspects the ongoing work on toys, particularly a model fairground. (Please note there is a brief shot here of some black minstrel dolls dancing, in top hats and tail coats. If this disturbs you, look away.)

But more than anything else, Santa spends his time spying on children through his huge telescope, which can evidently see over the curvature of the Earth. You wouldn’t want to be naughty little Billy Smith, who gets struck off Santa’s gift list for robbing a blind man. Apparently it’s okay to be Bobby Harrison, though, who apprehends Billy with obvious murderous rage and nearly shakes his head off his shoulders. Bobby Harrison gets rewarded with a live pony and a cart. I would have added a book on anger management, but Santa didn’t ask me. And it’s not a good idea to be precocious Clara Roberts, who at 7 years of age has a complete makeup kit and an advanced sense of superiority; Santa gives her a washcloth and soap. Boy Scouts, on the other hand, get rewarded for their sterling qualities with all sorts of manly camping gear. Santa also hangs out with the Easter Bunny, sharing his data about naughty vs. nice, and passes time with Jack Frost, who here looks sort of like the kid from Where The Wild Things Are.

A quick glass of reindeer milk and Santa is on his annual rounds, starting with Nome, Alaska. Some effort is made to explain why some kids never get Christmas presents: either people neglect their chimneys or Santa runs into a nasty little elf called Hard Times. All in all, Santa Claus does a pretty thorough job of outlining Santa’s private life.  I imagine children in 1925 found it satisfyingly informative and a visual treat as well.

Following is A Christmas Carol from 1910, reviewed here last week. I have nothing to add except that Charles Ogle, who played Bob Cratchitt (and earlier Frankenstein’s Monster and who may thus be dubbed the first horror star)  had big doomed-looking eyes like Peter Lorre.

Last of all we go back to 1905 for The Night Before Christmas, with Santa pitching straw to feed yet another herd of reindeer. We see him briefly, working in his toy shop and from there it’s mostly vignettes of an Edwardian family enjoying the anticipation of Christmas Eve. Santa puts in an appearance via a nifty little cyclorama of reindeer bobbing across a wintry landscape; he  leaves bunches of toys, and ends up mouthing “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” from the silent screen.

And that’s the roll of Lifesavers in the toe of the Christmas stocking, kids. Season’s Greetings to you all and have a safe and sane holiday, however you choose to spend it!


Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger for tor.com.  She has an electric fireplace herself, and is therefore expecting a visit from Zeus the Thunderer.

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