• Director: Georges Méliès
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on YouTube

Christmas movies” have expanded over the decades to become an entire genre of filmmaking, and one could argue that these days it is one of the most successful genres. National Public Radio estimates that between various cable networks and streaming service, well over 100 original holiday movies will debut this December alone, and that’s just in the US. Given this situation, I set myself the challenge in Holidayfest ‘21 to go back as far as I could and figure out where this phenomenon started; that is, to feature the very first Christmas movie ever made. It is always hard to determine these things, but as far as I can tell that title may belong to Rêve de Noël (The Christmas Dream), directed by Georges Méliès in the year 1900. This makes it not only the earliest Christmas movie but also the earliest film we have featured on the site to date, period. 

Part of what makes writing about this film challenging is that it is only 4 minutes long. As we said in discussing Méliès’ 1902 Le Voyage Dans La Lune, that film, at 16 minutes long, was considered to be so insanely long that distributors initially balked. Before then, most movies were about this length. This was a technology in its absolute infancy (the very first public film screening took place in 1895) I find the length alone to be misleading, however, because Méliès packs so much content into those four minutes. The scenes may be much shorter than we’re used to in longer films, but there are a lot of them, and he uses several different sets in that brief time. It is certainly something that invites repeat viewings, because there are just so many things being thrown at the viewer all at once. Méliès has not yet learned the techniques modern filmmakers use to guide the viewer’s eyes to one portion of the screen or another. He throws everything up there all the time, and you decide for yourself how to look at it.

Rêve de Noël might (I have done no research on this point) also be the first instance of the “it was all a dream” trope in the cinema, as it starts with two children being put to bed and ends with them waking up on Christmas morning. But given the lack of narrative clues we have, we are only assuming from the order of events that the rest of the film is their dream. We then cut to a “Christmas Pantomime” featuring lots of dancing in costumes. Next is a rooftop scene where angels seem to throw gifts down chimneys. This is followed by a scene at a church, where the parishioners start to arrive and a bunch of altar boys struggle to ring an enormous bell. We then see a huge banquet for rich people (and their dog), who decide to invite a passing beggar to join them. The children then wake up to find the gifts that Santa has brought them. Or angels, I guess? Then there’s one final dance with everyone and the film ends.

On a pure anthropological level, I find basically all of Rêve de Noël fascinating. How many films do we have of Christmas traditions from this period of any kind? Not very many, I’ll bet. The older one of these early films is, the more I find it interesting simply as a window into another time. Consider the people dressed up for church that we see at one point. I don’t think this is meant to be a period piece, but if you asked most people today what time period the clothes they’re wearing are from, they’d probably say about the 1700s. I suppose it makes sense that when they were trying to get dressed up they would wear more “old-fashioned” clothes, it is just really interesting to see this kind of thing. And what is going on with the cat toy the girl gets near the end with the big open mouth? How exactly does one play with that thing? I have questions.

Many modern viewers will also likely be struck by the way that Méliès mixes the real and the clearly artificial throughout the film. In the scene with the big bell, for example, the bell is clearly a two-dimensional set, which if it isn’t made out of cardboard might as well be. Yet on the same set there are a bunch of actual pigeons flying around, the way there probably would be in an actual belfry. Given that all of Méliès’ films were filmed entirely in studios, they had to go get a bunch of pigeons and put them on the set to let them fly around. You know, for realism. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that it would be better to get an actual bell. It’s such an interesting viewpoint.

This is so early in the development of cinema that Rêve de Noël is actually a much greater technical feat than we might immediately realize today. At one point in the first sequence at the pageant, there’s a guy in a creepy jester outfit doing a dance when one of his shoes falls off. The shoe proceeds to stay in the middle of the stage while a bunch of other dancers have to go around it. Was this a blooper, or was it supposed to be funny? We’re not sure today, but it actually is possible it was the former. The different scenes of this film are all linked by dissolve effects, giving us as viewers more of a sense that this is a dream. But the thing is, the only way to do this in 1900 was “in camera,” that is, to literally shoot one scene and then shoot another scene. So if you messed up one scene, you wouldn’t just have to reshoot that scene, you would have to reshoot all the scenes before that too. This makes the whole thing just one step shy of a 1900 version of Saturday Night Live.

Méliès himself remains famous today, at least in cineaste circles, but I doubt that many people watch one of his films that isn’t Le Voyage Dans La Lune. If you have four minutes, I really do recommend you give this one a shot, it’s really is a window into Christmas at a time where I bet you weren’t expecting to find a window. And if you want you can watch it now, because I’m just going to leave the video here if you’re interested.

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