Christmas movies are an important part of the festive season. It might be a family trip to the theater, something to stick on to keep the kids occupied while cooking Christmas dinner, or just some background noise for a few arguments—whatever their purpose, they’re integral.
Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is the oldest Christmas movie most people are likely to be queuing up this festive season. The holiday classic is fairly universally considered to be a masterpiece, and was even named as one of the 100 Best American Films Ever Made by the American Film Institute (despite the fact that it was a box office bomb when it first arrived in theaters).
However, there were Christmas movies almost half a century before George Bailey ever started doubting himself—as long as your definition of movie is fairly old-school: 1898’s Santa Claus, directed by George Albert Smith, is the earliest known Christmas film—although it’s admittedly less than 90 seconds long. (It wasn’t until 1935’s Scrooge, starring Sir Seymour Hicks, that there was a feature-length Christmas film.)
Santa Claus is pretty impressive, however, especially considering it debuted only a few years after the first films were made. The earliest known film of any kind dates from 1888, 10 years earlier, and consists of just 2.1 seconds of a horse, so a lot of development took place in that decade in between. It also features one of the earliest uses in cinema of what is known as “parallel action”—meaning that it simultaneously shows Santa arriving on a roof as well as the action taking place within the house, basically the bullet time of the late 19th century.
It’s not a movie likely to dazzle modern audiences, but Santa Claus walked so Elf could fly.
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