With many of us facing a very different Christmas this year, BFI Player’s evocative free archive collection Christmas Crackers is a chance to look back and enjoy the good cheer of Christmases past and reflect on what makes a Christmas celebration special.
Spanning a century of festive films, colourful, fun-filled Christmas home movies from across the UK sit alongside musical interludes, comic animations, poignant news reports, advertising films, seasonal curios and Christmas-set dramas, including the earliest surviving Christmas film, Santa Claus (1898), and the first screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge; Or, Marley’s Ghost (1901).
Drawn from the BFI National Archive and UK archive partners, this this joyful yuletide collection is digitised with thanks to National Lottery funding, this collection of Christmas Crackers is full of surprises, helping to get us in the festive spirit and remind everyone of goodwill to all, whether near or far.
The family revels of yesteryear complete with tinsel and cracker hats, sing-a-longs, festive treats and Christmas trees surrounded by presents are brought to life on film. Sidi Family Christmas (1974, Yorkshire Film Archive) paints a wonderfully vibrant and colourful portrait of a ‘typical’ family Christmas, while professional cameraman Peter Mills’ A Christmas Story (1952 Screen Archive South East) delivers a Christmas home movie full of charm and genteel nostalgia.
Our Christmas 1941 – Spent at Daisy’s and Dolly’s (1941) shows the Tigg household leaving thoughts of war far behind them as they tuck into an impressive Christmas spread on rations, and having a jolly good time filled with family games and laughter. Over in Middlesbrough we find inspiration for Christmas 2020, with proof that Christmas doesn’t come but once a year, in Christmas Greetings (1983, North East Film Archive) as Betty Cook’s family restage the rituals of Christmas Day in July for family members who were unable to join them.
There are also newsreels both cheerful and poignant – looking back to other Christmases where families and loved ones were apart but very much still in their thoughts, including Christmas during wartime overseas (Christmas at the Front, 1914; Wartime Cinema Christmas Greeting, 1940) and closer to home (Keep Them Safe, Keep Them Happy, 1939) as well as international students, migrants and refugees who find themselves celebrating their first British Christmas, away from loved ones but united by community (No East or West, 1954) and Vietnamese Children Refugees, (1978, both Media Archive for Central England at University of Lincoln).
We also spare a thought for those working during the festive season, from sailors celebrating on the waves in Lonely Lightship’s Christmas (1922) to the doctors, nurses, carers and their patients in The Traditions of a Surgeon at Christmas (1962, UEA’s East Anglian Film Archive), filmed at Papworth by heart surgeon Christopher Parish.
Meanwhile, some early promotional films offer a reminder that Christmas was serious business long before advertisers deployed CGI dragons or WWI epics to tug on viewers’ heart strings. All the yuletide traditions are here: trees, turkeys and toys for all good girls and boys Santa Claus’ Factory (1925). You can conjure up a festive banquet with Manufacture of Stilton Cheese (1920), Magician’s Wife Makes the Christmas Cake (1949 Screen Archive South East), Christmas Dinner Goes to Market (1930), Kingsbridge Figgy Pudding (1961, The Box Plymouth) and find culinary inspiration for leftovers in Dorothy Sleightholme’s Farmhouse Kitchen, Boxing Day (1973).
Finding yourself nostalgic for the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping? As an antidote to online shopping you can hit the shops to find that ideal gift for loved ones, soaking up the Christmas lights and window displays of London’s West End in Oxford Street (1971), The Great Expedition (1959) or count the cost of Christmas consumerism in Christmas Expense (1971, The Box, Plymouth). Very different shopping experiences can be had on the quiet streets of Christmas Shopping Godalming (1922) to Christmas in Belfast (1977, Crown ©) – shopping at the height of The Troubles.
Looking for some festive entertainment, you’ll find Christmas-set dramas and seasonal curios, not least a sci-fi re-imagining of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, A Message From Mars (1913) – alongside a more conventional version from 1914, an evocative adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-breaking The Little Match Girl (1914) and Richard Burton’s Christmas Story (1990, Screen and Sound Archive, National Library of Wales). Prepare to be chilled with Christmas ghost stories including The Mistletoe Bough (1904) and warmed by Millie Small’s joyous Christmas TV musical The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown (1964).
If you find yourself dreaming of a white Christmas, you can frolic in the snow with a selection of films featuring skating, sledging, skiing, snowball fighting and even snowbathing. While the fashions may have changed, the fun and expressions of delight are timeless in A White Christmas (1927), Boys Playing in Snow (1900) and Winter in Scotland (1960, National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive).
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25 Advent Christmas Crackers:
- Santa Claus (1898, BFI) Pioneering British filmmaker G.A. Smith’s seasonal trick film is the earliest Christmas film in the collection.
- The Twelve Days of Christmas (1976, North East Film Archive) Animator Sheila Graber’s vibrant take on the Twelve Days of Christmas, one of a number of festive animations featured in the collection.
- Tommy’s Xmas Pudding (1916, BFI) one of a number of poignant newsreels featuring Christmas preparations for forces on the Allied front.
- Bernard Matthews Turkey Farm (1963 (UEA’s East Anglian Film Archive) An early insightful interview with Norfolk’s turkey king about how he built up his business empire from humble beginnings.
- Dyson and Horsfall Xmas Orders (1938 North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University) Spare a thought for the production line workers for this Amazon shopping delivery service precursor.
- Magician’s Wife Makes The Christmas Cake (1949, Screen Archive South East) T’dah! Magical mayhem in the kitchen in this imaginative amateur tale. If only it was this easy on The Great British Bake Off.
- The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown (1964, BFI) A joyous musical TV feature, starring the late Millie Small as a young Jamaican woman who leaves Liverpool to search for her long lost cousin in London at Christmas.
- Santa Claus’ Factory (1925, BFI) Newsreel Topical Budget gets the scoop, bringing cinemagoers behind the scenes with a sneak peak of Santa’s not-so-little helpers’ workshop.
- Ricochet (1988, BFI) a delightful blend of artfulness, clichés and surreal pop in this irreverent music promo bringing together elements of the Nativity story with the Western.
- Snow Bathing (1927, BFI) Brrrrr. (Fool) hardy folk frolicking in the snow. Just one of a number of newsreels showing the public embracing winter sport activities across the decades.
- The Great Expedition (1959, BFI) Two school children bunk off to see the West End’s bright lights and go Christmas shopping in this charming and evocative short.
- Christmas in Belfast (1977, © Crown Copyright/BFI) Christmas at the height of the ‘Troubles’, where traditional holiday activities and images are punctuated by reminders that not all is as it should be.
- The Mistletoe Bough (1904, BFI) Earliest adaptation of this popular Christmas Ghost Story, restored by the BFI National Archive with a new score by Pete Wiggs (Saint Etienne)
- All England on Ice (1925, Film London London’s Screen Archives) Half a dozen Russian Cossacks join the locals at Ruislip skating, while an impromptu game of ice hockey is played at Oxford.
- The Withcycombe Rayleigh Pantomime (1970, The Box, Plymouth) A young Angela Rippon meets up with the local WI in Withycombe-Raleigh, busy rehearsing for their pantomime spectacular Dick (Withycombe) Wittington.
- No East or West (1954, BFI) In this documentary about the Methodist Missionary Society’s International House, we meet the international students who are united together through festive cheer while far away from home.
- As Christmas Draws Near (1928, BFI) Plenty of toys for all good girls and boys in this surreal and slightly creepy selection of mechanical toys waiting to be unwrapped.
- St Giles’s School Christmas (1975, Film London, London’s Screen Archives) The joyful expressions of the pupils say it all as they tuck into the Quality Street and unwrap their presents from Father Christmas at their party before performing in their Christmas Play.
- Christmas Expense (1971, The Box, Plymouth) The perennial question: is Christmas too commercial? Almost 50 years ago, shoppers in Plymouth give their thoughts
- Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1956, Screen Archive South East) M.R. James ghost stories are a Christmas staple. Over a decade before the classic BBC adaptation (available on BFI Blu-ray) came this chilling amateur production
- Christmas is Coming (1951, BFI) Don’t forget the last day for UK Christmas posting (1st class): this beautifully designed Lotte Reiniger silhouette animation, commissioned by the GPO to remind people of posting dates, sees Father Christmas threatening to go on strike.
- The Traditions of a Surgeon at Christmas (1962, UEA’s East Anglian Film Archive) We remember those NHS staff, carers and key workers who will be working this Christmas, and with this home movie filmed at Papworth by heart surgeon Christopher Parish.
- Scrooge; Or, Marley’s Ghost (1901, BFI) The earliest film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, by British filmmaking pioneer and magician Walter Booth, features some impressive ghost work.
- The Christmas Visitor (1958, BFI) Twas the night before Christmas in this charming Halas & Batchelor animation featuring a toy (love) story played out under the Christmas tree.
- Sidi Family Christmas (1974, Yorkshire Film Archive) Join Alan Sidi, a talented amateur filmmaker, and family for a fabulously rich and vibrant Christmas Day at home, complete with all the festive trimmings and traditions, colourful decorations, food, presents and a glass of sherry. You can also watch Sidi’s earlier Christmas home movie, Christmas Story (1950).