Santa Claus has appeared in movies for decades, brightening our screens and our holiday season with a “ho ho ho.” Many men have donned the red suit in cinema history, some better than others. Here’s a Top Ten Countdown, ticking off appearances of Kris Kringle.
10) Trading Places (1983)
Santa can have bad days, too. Dan Aykroyd’s Santa is the sorriest of them all. His dirty, miserable donning of the Santa suit is equal parts schadenfreude and poetic justice as he switches places with Eddie Murphy in the 80s comedy classic, Trading Places. The moral of this Christmas story is that wealth and material possessions aren’t the most important things in life; teamwork and revenge upon your torturers are.
Special mention goes to the wretchedness of Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa and to the disappearing Santa Claus from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It turns out a cantankerous Santa, or one that appears in a padded cell, is an entertaining Santa, at least.
9) Jingle All the Way (1996) & Reindeer Games (2000)
Santa Claus’s merry red suit can be used for ill, as well! Groups of ne’er-do-well hooligans have dressed as Santa in two movies. The first of these is Jingle All the Way, an Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy from 1996. Turning Santa’s generosity on its head, these Santas are makers of counterfeit toys and brawlers. Jim Belushi as head criminal-Santa is definitely worth a watch.
The second group of Santa wannabes appears in Ben Affleck’s 2000 action flop, Reindeer Games. A group of robbers target a casino, all wearing Santa suits. You just can’t get more Christmas-y than that, in terms of casino heists. Plus, Ben’s character names of “Rudy” and “Nick” give that extra kick of holiday cheer, sort of.
8) The Santa Clause (1994)
I’ve give this one the 8th spot because it’s a verifiably heartwarming Santa movie. However, I find the premise kind of creepy. The protagonist accidentally kills Santa at the beginning of the movie and is therefore legally obligated to become Santa. If it were simply a matter of taking over Santa’s duties, that would be fine. But the character is forcibly physically changed into Santa, body and mind. Nonetheless, it’s a cheerful holiday movie that takes the classic portrayal of Santa pretty darn seriously.
7) Elf (2003)
Gruff and straightforward Santa actually does make an appearance in Will Ferrell’s Christmas comedy, Elf. But the other Santa in the film deserves a mention, as well: the fake Santa. “You sit on a throne of lies,” hisses Ferrell’s Buddy to the mall Santa. The ensuing fight, alone, makes this a great film to watch any time of year.
I would gladly put this movie at the top of almost any Christmas list, but Santa is a secondary character and fake Santa is tertiary at best. It only wins this spot because the scene is so hilarious.
6) A Christmas Story (1983)
There’s no Santa like a curmudgeonly mall Santa.
Where Santa traditionally tries to fulfill the wishes of good little boys and girls, this Santa rebuffs young Ralphie’s fervent request for a Red Ryder BB gun with a “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” Then he promptly kicks Ralphie down the slide. “Merry Christmas. Ho… ho… ho.”
5) Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
In this stop motion animated classic by Tim Burton, Santa is an idol to Pumpkin King Jack Skellington of Halloween Town. This Santa is kind and jolly, but calls shenanigans when he sees them.
To say nothing of Jack’s fantastically twisted version of “Sandy Claws”, the real Santa saves the day (Christmas Day), even after the film’s protagonist has veritably screwed it up.
“I hope there’s still time!” cries Jack.
To which Santa replies, “To fix Christmas? Of course there is! I’m Santa Claus!”
And then he does. He removes Jack’s nightmarish gifts, replaces them with pleasant ones, and then gives Halloween Town snow to show that there isn’t any ill will. Now that’s Santa Claus.
4) Arthur Christmas (2011)
With an all-star cast, this animated Christmas delight has earned its high ranking spot. It takes a rather practical approach to Santa Claus as a hereditary title granted to men in the Claus family in the North Pole. The eponymous Arthur, the current Santa’s son, shows his family what it really means to be Santa Claus in the course of his shenanigans.
3) The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) & Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) & Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
What would Christmas be without our favorite Claymation?! The Rankin/Bass stop motion Christmas specials have been staple Christmas-day entertainment for over 40 years. Sure, they seem a bit hokey the older you get, but the love never fades. Little felt Santa, with his bushy white beard and jolly laugh, will always be welcome in our homes.The best part about these movies is that you can plop the little ones in front of them and know for a fact that they’ll learn to love Christmas (while you go do something else).
2) Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Obviously the Santa who gets runner-up is Kris Kringle in the 1947 classic, Miracle on 34th Street. The classic Santa of legend is thrust into the real world. He’s unafraid to judge people naughty or nice and unwilling to accept that people don’t believe in magic. Edmund Gwenn plays this version of the big man without ever donning the red suit, but he convinces everyone, including us viewers, that he is the real deal.
The 1994 version, featuring Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle, is a fair portrayal but can’t match the original in heart or in message.
1) The Polar Express (2004)
This one gets the top slot because it is 100% about belief in Santa. It captures the idea that innocence is what makes Santa real in the eyes of children. Visually stunning and featuring the voice talent of Tom Hanks, this is the movie that I believe best shows the magic of Christmas that Santa brings. The childlike wonder that awakens in us all every Christmas sweeps into your heart as you watch this award-winning film. If you want your children to have affection for Santa Claus (and to revive your own love of the season), this is the one to watch.
So there you have it: the top 10 Santas in movies. You know, I can’t help but notice that the renditions of Santa appear to go from hilarious or ridiculous to heart-warming as the list counts down. I suppose that’s because, to me, Santa will always be the heart of Christmas time. Especially in movies.