Yes West Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…or atleast there used to be a long time ago. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century clergyman in Turkey. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, & unmarried people, and is well known for his practice of secret gift giving. That very real bishop gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus (aka Kris Kringle, Jolly Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Sinter Klaas, et al). As a central figure in our modern celebration of Christmas he is not without controversy, but unlike some of my Christian brothers & sisters I take no issue with Santa’s role in our merriment. I choose to see him as a friend & servant of Christ, spreading joy, generosity, & good cheer thru his interactions with children of all ages. Pop culture has embraced Santa Claus for centuries, and he ranks right up there with characters like Sherlock Holmes & Dracula in the countless times & ways he has been portrayed. In pondering that very subject I began thinking about all of the great & not so great depictions of Santa thru the years, and decided to present…..
from the home office in Santa Claus, IN…..
The Superfluous 7 Best (And Worst) Fictional Santa Clauses:
7 Worst – Santa Claus (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)
It is only thru the prism of adulthood that we begin to understand that this Santa is kind of an ass!! While it isn’t surprising that other reindeer bully Rudolph about his…physical deformity…we expect more from Santa, who essentially says the whole red nose thing might prevent Rudolph from making his sleigh team. But then the weather gets bad (as if snowstorms are rare at The North Pole 🤷🏻♂️) and, like so many of us flawed human beings, Santa suddenly warms up to Rudolph when he realizes that red nose just might be advantageous. In other words, Rudolph is disposable until Santa needs to use him, which is pretty disheartening.
Best – Santa Claus (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)
For those of us of a certain age the Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated holiday specials produced in the 1960s & 70s are quintessential Christmas and represent a huge piece of our childhood. 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the first of those TV specials and is still shown annually a half century later. While Rudolph, Hermey the Elf, & Yukon Cornelius take center stage, The Jolly Old Elf is there as a supporting character, and, despite his questionable attitude, he is the first Santa many encounter on television as kids. He has the red suit, the full white beard, a deep booming voice, & the requisite “Ho Ho Ho!”.
6 Worst – Nick Claus (Fred Claus)
This one hurts because I freakin’ love Paul Giamatti. From his breakout role in Howard Stern’s Private Parts to the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon to portraying quirky writer Harvey Pekar in American Splendor to my personal favorite Sideways (a critically acclaimed yet underrated gem), Giamatti quietly became one of the most undervalued actors in Hollywood about two decades ago. It’s not that Giamatti is miscast as Sadsack Santa because vaguely depressed is kind of his wheelhouse, it’s the fact that characterizing Santa that way simply doesn’t feel right. Fred Claus isn’t a good movie to begin with, despite the presence of Vince Vaughn, Giamatti, & Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, but a milquetoast Santa with family drama who gets bullied by a bitter efficiency expert (🤔🤷🏻♂️👀) isn’t the least bit amusing. To top it off, Santa is unable to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve due to a back injury, so it’s up to his slacker brother to get the job done. And I’m supposed to laugh??
Best – The Norelco Santa Claus
From 1961-89 it was an annual tradition for Norelco (a division of electronics conglomerate Philips) to hawk their electric razor with a commercial featuring Santa Claus. This Santa didn’t say anything, he just zoomed thru snow covered hills utilizing an electric shaver head as a sleigh while a voiceover detailed the latest razor on the market that you might want to gift Dad, Grandpa, or any other man on your list. The irony of a full-bearded Santa shilling for a razor never occurred to me back then, and now those commercials (thankfully available on YouTube) provide a healthy dose of nostalgia, which becomes a huge part of the Christmas experience as one grows older.
5 Worst – Higbee’s Santa (A Christmas Story)
“Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never work a day in your life” is a quote I’ve seen attributed to both Mark Twain & Confucius, but the truth is that the vast majority of adults hate their job. We have bills to pay & oftentimes families to support, so you do what you have to do. Nobody embodies this ethos more than the department store Santa in our favorite 1983 holiday classic. In his brief time on screen he moans about possibly having to work overtime, shows utter disdain for the children standing in line to see him, grows impatient with a very nervous Ralphie, and literally kicks the boy in the face. Far from the jolly, kindhearted, magical elf we think of Santa being, this version is just Joe Sixpack anxiously awaiting the end of his shift, probably so he can go home, smoke a bowl, watch some porn, and eat a bologna sandwich with mustard dripping all over his wifebeater.
Best – Kris Kringle (Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town)
I love a good origin story, and this is the best explanation of all things Santa. Another well done Rankin-Bass production, it shows how a baby named Claus is abandoned, then found & raised by a family of toymakers named Kringle. When he grows up Kris volunteers to deliver toys to children in nearby Sombertown, ruled by the malevolent Burgermeister Meisterburger. Kris meets & falls in love with schoolteacher Jessica, who eventually becomes Mrs. Claus. He is forced to go down chimneys & leave toys in stockings after Meisterburger orders a lockdown (must be a Democrat). Jessica asks the Winter Warlock for help in freeing an imprisoned Kris, and he does so by feeding magic corn to reindeer, enabling them to fly. While in hiding Kris grows a beard, marries Jessica, & builds a toy empire at The North Pole. He decides that he’ll deliver gifts on one special night each year…Christmas Eve. It’s quite neat to have questions surrounding the Santa mythos answered, and seeing him grow from a baby to a red haired young man to the white-haired old man in a red suit we all know & love is delightful.
4 Worst – Emo Santa (The Year Without a Santa Claus)
Men are infamous whiners when we fall ill, but this dude takes the cake. Voiced by the legendary Mickey Rooney, this Santa Claus just isn’t feeling the good vibes or appreciation that he expects, so he sends forth the decree that Christmas is cancelled. It is this sort of thing that makes a lot of religious folks dislike Santa, as if he has the ultimate authority to cancel Christmas. Hollywood notoriously avoids focusing on the true Reason for the Season, something I reluctantly made peace with long ago. However, to insinuate that Santa Claus is in charge of the entire holiday is a bit much. And really, the guy isn’t even physically sick. He’s desperately seeking validation & an ego boost, and perhaps suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder. He should ask himself for some Vitamin D pills or a Sunlight Therapy Lamp for Christmas.
Best – The Coca-Cola Santa Claus
Coca-Cola’s signature red & white colors sync perfectly with Santa Claus, right?? However, it wasn’t always that way. If you look at visual depictions of Santa from the early 20th century or before how he looks varies widely. Sometimes he’s tall & thin, other times (in tune with his role as the Jolly Old Elf) he is seen as…well, elf size. He might be wearing the long & flowing robes of a typical bishop, or even military gear. When Coke began using Santa in advertising campaigns in the 1930s they hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a warm & friendly Santa with rosy cheeks, an amiable smile, & that twinkle in his eye. He appears as a full-grown man with an ample mid-section. Sunblom’s Santa became the standard, and his nostalgic drawings can still give one all the feels.
3 Worst – The Santas That Killed Grandma & Kissed Mommy
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (recorded in 1952 by 13 year old Jimmy Boyd) and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (recorded by Elmo & Patsy in 1979) are two of the most enduring novelty songs of the holiday season, and I can’t stand them. Despite the title of the song, the kid’s drunken grandmother didn’t technically get killed by reindeer. The lyrics even indicate that the corpse had “incriminating Claus marks on her back” and warns “they should never give a license to a man who drives a sleigh and plays with elves”. Santa should’ve been arrested for vehicular manslaughter!! The other song is only marginally better. No one dies, but a child seeing Mom play tonsil hockey with Santa is likely going to need therapy. He thinks Dad will get a good laugh out of his wife being a skank, but that’s probably way too optimistic.
Best – Scott Calvin (The Santa Clause Trilogy)
I love the origin story of The Santa Clause. Rather than having Santa be one guy who magically lives forever it is depicted as a role that one person takes over when the previous portrayer dies. It makes a lot of logical sense. Scott Calvin is just an Average Joe, a middle-aged divorced Dad navigating associated pitfalls like custody issues & the ex wife’s new boyfriend, all while working 9 to 5 as an executive for a toy manufacturer (convenient). The whole deal with Santa falling off the roof is a little weird, but we soon forget it once Scott & his young son Charlie are transported to The North Pole. When Scott fully embraces his new life and becomes ensconced in the ultimate dream job it is truly magical. It’s a very modern perspective on the Santa Claus mythology, but with just enough notes of enchantment to make it special.
2 Worst – Willie T. Soke (Bad Santa)
Y’all know how much I love Christmas movies. Whether it’s a Santa Claus story, wacky family hijinks, or one of the plethora of adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I’m always ready to jump onboard the Holiday Film Train. That being said, while I realize there are folks who absolutely love this “modern classic” from 2003, I’m not one of them. Willie is another mall Santa, but he’s even worse than the guy from A Christmas Story because he & his “elf” sidekick are pulling a long con…working at the mall until right before Christmas, then cleaning out the safe. But wait, there’s more!! Not only is Santa Willie a thief, he’s also a drunken, foul mouthed nymphomaniac who has sex with women in the mall dressing room & parking lot. On top of all that he is befriended by a mentally challenged young boy who he proceeds to take advantage of throughout the film. I’m no prude, and enjoy the occasional dark comedy, but come on man…this movie makes Die Hard look like a rom-com. They actually produced a sequel about five years ago, and it’s less amusing than the original.
Best – St. Nick (A Visit from St. Nicholas)
Published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel newspaper in 1823, it wasn’t until almost fifteen years later that Clement Clark Moore claimed authorship. At the time Moore was a middle-aged professor at a New York City seminary. The poem is very descriptive and solidified the Santa Claus persona, creating the perception most everyone has of him to this day. The idea that he is “jolly”. He rides a flying sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (and he gives us their names!!). He arrives on Christmas Eve and comes down the chimney. The twinkling eyes, jiggly belly, white beard, & rosy cheeks. It’s a beautiful story, one that many parents read to their children on Christmas Eve. I have always opined that anything…books, music, film & TV, etc…that we are still enjoying decades after its initial release deserves respect, and in this case we’re talking about a poem & a vivid interpretation of Santa Claus that has stood the test of time for two centuries.
1 Worst – Billy Chapman (Silent Night Deadly Night)
When I was a teenager our church had an active & tightly knit youth group. We shared some awesome times, one of those being our annual Progressive Dinner during which we’d have appetizers at one house, salad at the next, then go to another place for an entree, and finally end up at the home of our youth leaders for dessert. We’d stay there quite late, eating junk food, playing cards, and watching movies (oh to be a teen again). On one of these delightful evenings we watched a slasher film in which a young boy witnesses his parents get carjacked & murdered by Santa Claus. Billy ends up in an orphanage, grows up with…issues (shocker)…and becomes a murderous Santa himself. Look, I know that there are people who love this kind of thing, but horror films have never been my cup o’ tea, and involving Santa in such craziness, while undeniably creative, just isn’t entertaining. Surprisingly enough the movie birthed four sequels, and I think they’re going to remake the original.
Best – Kris Kringle (Miracle on 34th Street)
The first Christmas movie I watch every year actually begins its story on Thanksgiving, at the Macy’s Parade in NY City. When the man originally hired by the department store to portray Santa Claus is found intoxicated, kindly old Kris Kringle is Johnny On-the-Spot and takes over the gig. Along the way he befriends his world weary boss, her precocious daughter, & a quixotic attorney who is sweet on the single Mom. After claiming to be the REAL Santa the good-natured old man finds himself in a looney bin then on trial. Edmund Gwenn won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Kris Kringle, and of all the Santas ever seen on the big screen his is simply the best. He makes you want to believe that Santa Claus could actually be real.