It’s the most wonderful time of the year. As the dark nights roll in, the shopping trips get more frantic and people begin to dream of a white Christmas (or beg for the opposite, depending on where you live), there’s no better moment to revel in some cozy seasonal entertainment. Everyone has their favorite Christmas movies and everyone loves to get into the same arguments as to what counts as a Christmas movie (yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, although calling Brazil one might be pushing it). But it’s tough to argue that movies with Santa Claus don’t meet the Christmas movie specifications. It’s his big day, after all.
The figure known as Santa can be seen throughout various world cultures. While not every country has the jolly bearded man in red delivering presents, the image of one who acts as a bestower of gifts and decider of children's morality is nothing new. Just check out the madness of Krampus or the intensely uncomfortable image of Zwarf Piet. The modern image we have of Santa can be found in traditions of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop from Greece who was the patron saint of sailors, merchants, children, brewers and many other things. While little is known about him, his habit of giving gifts was well reported and offers a more direct connection to the figure we know as Santa.
The figure of Father Christmas is from English folklore and is more recognizable as what we consider the true Santa: big white beard, red outfit, general merriment. But even he wasn't seen as a fatherly figure to children until the Victorian age since he was originally appropriated as a Royalist symbol of tradition in the face of the 17th century Puritans who banned Christmas. The Dutch figure of Sinterklaas helped to solidify our image of Santa, a figure based on Saint Nicholas (and the one with the servants in blackface). American political cartoonist Thomas Nast is frequently credited as the man who combined these vaguely connected figures together to create the modern image of Santa, and since the 19th century, what we think of as Christmas's icon hasn't changed all that much. He's jolly, he wears red, he's portly and bearded, he lives at the North Pole with his elves and reindeer, and he laughs with a merry "ho ho ho".
Because of this, it’s rare to see Santa Claus-related pop culture mess around with that image. His aesthetic is just too iconic to re-imagine. Indeed, one of the earliest films ever made that is still available to watch today is about Santa, and his look is near identical to what we see in films in 2018. That’s not to say that he doesn’t get a personality change now and then. Santa is an inherently good character with a simple message, and storytellers love to make that darker, weirder or just plain meaner. Jonathan Meath, a producer who has made a career out of being a professional Santa, explained the purity of the figure and why that held such sway. "Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, doesn’t carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That’s part of the magic for me, especially in a culture where we’ve become so commercialized and hooked into manufactured icons. Santa is much more organic, integral, connected to the past, and therefore connected to the future."
To prepare you all for festive cheer, we’re taking a look at some of the best, worst and weirdest Santa Claus movies and depictions of Saint Nick himself. This list is by no means comprehensive, so please share your favorites that we may have missed out in the comments.
GOOD: Miracle on 34th Street
Fun fact: Despite being a Christmas movie, the original version of Miracle on 34th Street was released in June because the head of Warner Bros., Darryl F. Zanuck, believed that audiences were more likely to go to the movies in warmer weather. That's why the poster for the 1947 film is stripped of anything festive. In fairness, it worked, and the film was a big success as well as a Best Picture nominee. And for good reason. Miracle on 34th Street is unabashedly sentimental and a proud oppositional force to seasonal cynicism that never outstays its welcome. The story of Kris Kringle and his fight to be acknowledged as the one true Santa could have been so easily mishandled but somehow it works. In many ways, the 1994 remake is a much better film. It takes the story more seriously, it contextualizes the world’s cynicism with the Santa story better, and it has a more interesting take on faith. Granted, its ending is far less satisfying than the iconic image of bags of letters to Santa being dumped in front of the judge at the 11th hour to prove Kringle’s case. If you’re looking for the platonic ideal of a Santa Claus movie, either version of Miracle on 34th Street will be perfect.
BAD: The Santa Clause
Building a wholesome family film around Tim Allen and Christmas doesn’t seem like the worst idea, but there’s something oddly sinister about The Santa Clause that’s tough to get over. How do you take the wholesomeness of the season and imbue it with Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmares and body horror the likes of which would make even David Cronenberg blush? In Disney's The Santa Clause, Allen plays your typical successful family film father who doesn't have time to spend with his kid and so mystical powers intervene to show him the true meaning of Christmas. Only here, it happens because he accidentally kills Santa and through a series of contractual agreements, he is forcibly inducted into the role. This involves him gaining a massive amount of weight and growing a big white beard, all of which is out of his control and portrayed as essentially the most horrifying thing ever. The film itself is mostly okay but it's tough to ignore how a quick musical change could have turned this thing into a full-on horror movie. Two sequels followed, including one where Martin Short plays Jack Frost and is somehow even more sinister than that pitch sounds.
WEIRD: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Producer Paul L. Jacobson looked at the world of Christmas movies and saw a gap in the market, claiming, "Except for the Disneys there's very little in film houses that children recognize as their own." To alleviate that problem, he made a film in two weeks for a paltry budget of around $200,000. It didn't set the world alight and reviews were terrible. In 1978, the title appeared in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. But as the years passed and it fell into the public domain, the little film that could was born again as a midnight movie delight. The chances are your first experience with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians came from Mystery Science Theater 3000, but as priceless as the riffing is, the film itself remains a singularly weird experience. It’s a very cheaply made B-movie that plays like a half-remembered dream or the result of a lost bet made by the film-makers. But it’s definitely best enjoyed with Joel and the bots.
GOOD: Rise of the Guardians
Based on William Joyce's The Guardians of Childhood book series, Rise of the Guardians is an oft-overlooked Dreamworks Animation that's a lot weirder and more interesting than you may remember it being. This beautifully animated story isn't entirely a Christmas tale since it's about the guardians of seasons and experiences — the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, cute emo Jack Frost, and Saint Nick — but it takes on many of the same ideas about the importance of belief and imagination that are common in Santa stories. This Santa may also be the coolest on sheer aesthetic. For one, he's Russian, and he's built like a wrestler. His forearms have "Naughty" and "Nice" tattoos so the kids know he's serious, and his servants are Yetis. He ain’t your grandmother’s Santa.
BAD: Silent Night, Deadly Night
When the first film in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise premiered in 1984, it caused considerable controversy due to its promotional material. The image of a killer dressed in a Santa suit was seen as too much, a bastardizing of something special for families. Siskel and Ebert even read out the names of some of the film’s crew on their show and said “Shame on you” for what they saw as a vulgar and mean-spirited film. That only drove slasher movie hungry audiences to see it and sequels soon followed, as well as midnight movie infamy. With hindsight, the anger was overblown for a number of reasons, one being the era's puritanical backlash to horror, but mostly the film is just dull. It's your stock cheap serial killer movie that features all the familiar tropes, only with a festive twist. For true seasonal frights, stick to Black Christmas.
WEIRD: The Polar Express
Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis is arguably one of the most influential film-makers in Hollywood in terms of how boundary-pushing melding of traditional cinematic techniques with ground-breaking technology. Think of the near seamless blending of live-action and animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Lieutenant Dan’s missing legs in Forrest Gump, or Michael J. Fox playing three different characters in one scene of Back to the Future: Part II. Zemeckis is undeniably talented but for a while, we lost him to the motion-capture craze. It’s understandable why Zemeckis would see this use of CGI as the future of film-making but it never truly took off, and The Polar Express is a good example of why. It's not that the film is bad — the effects are admittedly great and the story is charming enough (based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg) — but the uncanny valley is impossible to ignore. Everyone looks just that little bit off and you can't overlook how damn creepy those soulless eyes are. And then there's Steven Tyler from Aerosmith as one of Santa's elves. Choices were certainly made here, although casting America's dad, the iconic Tom Hanks, as Santa was one we can get behind.
GOOD: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Yes, we have already had the long and exhaustive argument as to whether Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s iconic goth holiday animation is a Halloween movie or Christmas one. We could be here all day rehashing out the pros and cons. But Santa Claus is still a character in this film so include it we must. Jack Skellington may be front and center in this tale but this version of Santa (nicknamed Sandy Claws by the macabre citizens of Halloweentown) also suffers no fools. He’s the one who gives Jack a much needed ticking off when his plan to take over someone else’s holiday goes wrong, and he’s not above telling hordes of the undead to stay in their goddamn lane. This Santa also features on the movie’s best song so points to him.
BAD: Santa’s Slay
You know you're in trouble with a movie when you see the credit "Producer Brett Ratner" in its opening. The pun of the title is really as interesting as this black comedy gets. It's another dark and edgy Santa re-imagining, wherein our uber-muscled Santa is essentially the Antichrist who was cursed into being nice and delivering presents for a thousand years. Now that the debt has been paid off, Santa's back on the killing spree. There's nothing imaginative about this blessedly short snore of a movie. A lot of strippers die and a Jewish deli owner is murdered with his own menorah. It's supposed to be funny. It's not. It's just dull and a bit sad.
WEIRD: Fred Claus
The 2007 comedy Fred Claus is one of those movies whose existence is hard to explain. It must have seemed like a good idea to somebody at the time but how that was the case, we will never know. Its star, Vince Vaughn, was still a big deal during that late-2000s peak of the Frat Pack era, but even then that doesn't explain how someone spent $100 million on this film (it made around $98 million worldwide). In this oddity of a movie (written by the guy who created Galavant and This Is Us), Vaughn plays the surly cynical brother of Nicholas (played by the wonderful Paul Giamatti), who took on the Santa mantle and became a saint, which also bestowed immortality and stopped aging for the rest of his family for some reason. Due to contrivances and family squabbles, Fred ends up working at the North Pole and then must take over Santa duties, which inevitably leads to him learning the true meaning of Christmas. Fred Claus is a bad movie but it's also a fascinating hodgepodge of misguided ideas you're mostly stunned made it out of the pitch meeting: People are constantly cracking jokes about Santa's weight; Fred tries to get the elves to loosen up by dancing to Elvis; and later he attends a Siblings Anonymous meeting alongside Fred Stallone, Stephen Baldwin, and Bill Clinton's brother.
GOOD: The Spirit of Christmas
In 1995, an executive from Fox named Brian Graden had seen a short film made by two University of Colorado graduates and liked what he saw. He got in touch with the young Trey Parker and Matt Stone, gave them $1000 and asked for an animated video Christmas card he could send out to friends. They decided to remake that earlier short film but make it way weirder, and the result was The Spirit of Christmas, also known as Jesus vs. Santa. The five-minute short essentially functions as a pilot for South Park, as the four foul-mouthed kids bicker, swear, watch their friend be casually murdered, then become spectators in a wholly sacrilegious battle between Jesus and Santa. Thankfully, legendary ice skater Brian Boitano is there to deliver the true meaning of Christmas: presents. Parker and Stone portray Santa as a Mortal Kombat style ass-kicker, but one whose strength is still nothing compared to the son of God, yet it's still comforting to see a pop culture Santa who could crush a man's head like a beer can if the occasion called for it.
BAD: The Christmas Chronicles
OK, let’s get one thing out of the way: Kurt Russell is a precious gem and has possessed the greatest head of hair in Hollywood for several decades. It, as well as one of the year’s most luscious beards, remains on full display in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, and Russell is clearly having an absolute ball as an action-oriented Santa who sings and dives down chimneys like he’s Michael Phelps. Sadly, the film itself is utterly unworthy of him and isn’t all that fun even in a B-movie way. On top of the inconsistent tone, derivative plotting and green-screen that looks astoundingly cheap, The Christmas Chronicles is too obsessed with being “cool.” Kurt Russell doesn’t need any help in being cool. He’s possibly the coolest man of the late 20th century, even when dressed as Santa. Hell, especially as Santa. Skip this movie unless you want to indulge in your very confusing emotions over sexy Santa.
WEIRD: Christmas Evil
Any Christmas film that comes with the seal of approval from the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, is fine in our book. Originally titled You Better Watch Out, director Lewis Jackson decided to take the plot of the song I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and take it to its psychotic logical conclusion. The film follows Harry, a low-level toy factory worker who, after seeing his mother get down and dirty with Santa (not realizing it was his own dad), becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing purity back to the holiday season. Only he can be the one true Santa, not poisoned by commercialism or weird sex dreams. For a film that is ostensibly yet another Santa slasher (this one was also banned briefly in the UK following the crackdown on video nasties), Christmas Evil has a surprisingly sharp focus on major social issues. Harry's murderous mission is driven by a hatred of what Christmas has become and an urge to return it to its original aims of family, charity, and goodwill to all men. Just not the bad ones, who inevitably get stabbed in the eyes by toy soldiers or smothered to death with a sackful of presents. It's no wonder John Waters loves it so.