It’s Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas

28 November 2014

Cultural Studies | History

Intense debate has broken out among sections of the Adam Matthew staff this week following the decision to open our box of Christmas decorations. A number of employees have steadfastly refused to go near the festive items before December 1st. Others have insisted that the extra cheer they bring justifies their appearance in November, though suspicions remain that this is a ruse in order to get first call on the choicest tinsel.

One ubiquitous Christmas symbol has yet to make an appearance – the Christmas tree. These were popularised in Britain by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, although Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was probably responsible for their introduction from Germany. Towards the end of the nineteenth century they had become an important part of middle class Christmases, as can be seen in the Victorian Popular Culture resource.

Little Paul’s Christmas. Image © The Religious Tract Society and provided courtesy of the Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Christmas trees were mentioned in stories and poems and featured in many illustrations of the festive season. A Christmas tree also makes an appearance in the 1898 film Santa Claus. Directed by George Albert Smith, this short, black-and-white comedy-drama was a work notable for its special effects. It is thought to be the earliest example of parallel action in a film and made full use of double-exposure, a technique pioneered by Smith. The director, whose varied career included time as a stage hypnotist, psychic and inventor, would go on to play an important role in the development of colour film.


Santa Claus. Film courtesy of BFI National Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

With a running time of 1 minute 17, Santa Claus tells a now familiar tale. Having been tucked into bed, two children sleep, while a split screen image displays Santa appearing on the rooftop, clutching a small but fully decorated tree. The rooftop scene shows him climbing into the chimney, only for him to emerge from the fireplace in the bedroom image. The split-screen disappears as he adds presents to the children’s stockings, but one last special effect remains. Santa collects his tree, clicks his fingers, and miraculously vanishes.

The film is a pleasant reminder that whether you’re young or old, Victorian or twenty-first century, decorating your desk early or holding out for December, there is an air of magic to the Christmas period, and one that doesn't have to rely on camera tricks and special effects. Just don’t get me started on the music…

More films by Smith and other festive treats can be seen in Victorian Popular Culture. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.

About the Author

Ben Lacey

Ben Lacey

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2013. My academic background is in medieval history, although I enjoy learning about all historical periods. I have worked on a wide range of projects since joining the company, with the American History and Colonial America resources being recent highlights.