Meet Me at the Fair: A Christmas Controversy
At Adam Matthew headquarters, the annual debate over what constitutes a Christmas film has been raging. Does it have to be Christmas throughout the narrative? Does Christmas have to be integral to the plot? Does Die Hard count? Vincente Minnelliâs 1944 musical Meet Me in St Louis is a personal favourite, but one that I have struggled to convince my Editorial colleagues is a bone fide Christmas classic, taking place as it does throughout a whole year, but featuring Judy Garlandâs iconic and undeniable rendition of âHave Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.â
Following the Smith family, their lives and loves from 1903-1904, rather than Christmas, the denouement has the characters meeting at the historic St Louis 1904 Worldâs Fair. The film ends with one of the most famous elements of this exhibition, the (festive) illuminations, being turned on to the amazement of the family: âThereâs never been anything like it in the whole world!â
Adam Matthewâs Worldâs Fairs: A Global History of Expositions includes a wealth of documents relating to the 1904 St Louis Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, which offer a fascinating opportunity to delve into real visitorsâ responses. Key among these are diaries of local people like the Philibert family who recorded details of 28 separate visits to the exposition. The illuminations are noted as particularly impressive: âas the lights were turned on for the first time the people raised a hearty cheer, for it was a grand sight indeedâ. Sam P Hydeâs unusual diary includes observations, photographs and illustrations, and describes âmany an hour I sat watching these lights, as one who hates to be awakened from a pleasant dreamâ.
Common features the diarists describe include the costs of admission to the fair and its various buildings (extra for the baby incubator and camel rides), descriptions of the products and manufacturing exhibits from around the world as well as art and entertainment displays.
The 1904 fair was a celebration of Americaâs acquisition of the territory of Louisiana in 1803. With a theme based on national expansion, it is unsurprising that it had strong imperialist tones and celebrated white American achievement and colonization. This is clearly reflected in the diaries (iced tea in the East India Building anyone?), and Philibert describes parades of peoples from different countries and an âIndian Reservationâ exhibition that featured Apache leader Geronimo.
There were controversies for the contemporary commentators as well, as Hyde criticises hundred-year-old trees being felled to clear the ground before building the fair. Meet Me in St Louis may bypass these intricacies with the same light touch that it gives to the Smithâs brief Christmas scene, but with its family-focused message, spectacular Technicolor treatment and of course that Christmas song, to me itâs is a no brainer. As is Die Hard, by the way.