Santa Claus, along with God, the Devil, and Spider-Man, is one of the most often performed roles in film history. Over the previous century and a half, he’s appeared in hundreds of films, but what constitutes a good, loveable, ho-ho-home run Father Christmas?
For your standard Santa – the one who doles out presents and waves from his sleigh – jolly twinkling tends to be absolutely essential. But there’s something more there too. On screen, Santa Claus is somewhere between your granddad, a mischievous schoolboy, and a big, red Gandalf. He tends to be less a man than a summation of all the pure, innocent joys of childhood Christmases. That, in turn, makes him a delicious target for subverting into something altogether more creepy. Empire has made a list – and checked it twice – of the 10 best Father Christmases, Kris Kringles and St Nicks on screen. Unwrap them all below.
- Tim Allen – The Santa Clause
Some are born great, some become great, and some have greatness land on their roof on Christmas Eve, accidentally murder it, and steal its job. After that unfortunate piece of manslaughter (Merry Christmas, kids!) Tim Allen’s toy exec Scott Calvin takes up the present-procuring gig and gives you two Santa films in one – with the cynical Scott playing Scrooge as he grumps about his son’s upbringing (“Who gave you permission to tell Charlie there was no Santa Claus?” Calvin rages at his ex-wife. “I think if we’re going to destroy our son’s delusions, I should be a part of it”) before eventually becoming a surrogate dad to every child in the world.
Read Empire’s review of The Santa Clause.
- Richard Riehle – A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
As you might expect in the Harold & Kumar-verse, this Santa’s bonhomie and fellow-feeling aren’t entirely born from the traditional Christmas spirit. After being accidentally shot in the head and enduring an incredibly gory operation in the street from our heroes (“Just let me die! Please let me die in peace!”) he’s back on belly-shaking form. And it turns out he dropped off a joint for the estranged buddies too: his “little way of bringing you boys together”. At the close he’s flying around in his sleigh with a bong. Stoner Santas are rare, but Riehle’s does answer the question of why he appears to do literally nothing the other 364 nights a year.
Read Empire’s review of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.
- Ed Ivory (Voice) – The Nightmare Before Christmas
Santa Claus – or Sandy Claws, if you’re Jack Skellington – goes through hell at the hands of the inhabitants of Halloween Town. Kidnapped while giving his naughty and nice list a check-over, he’s dumped into Oogie Boogie’s lair and faces certain death before Jack pulls his bony finger out. There’s a depth and wheeziness to Ed Ivory’s voice performance here that adds to the distance between him and the skeletal Jack, making that final sprinkling of snow that shows he and Jack are buddies all the more magical.
Read Empire’s review of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
- Edmund Gwenn – Miracle On 34th Street (1947)
When the guy who’s meant to be playing Santa Claus for Macy’s gets hammered and disgraces the very idea of Santa Claus, Kris Kringle takes it personally and takes on the job himself. He’s good. Suspiciously good. Ignoring the Macy’s top brass and their relentless drive for profit, Edmund Gwenn’s Santa merrily rejects the store’s exhortations to sell tat and instead goes about directing shoppers to rival stores, and spreading 24-carat Christmas joy with such abandon that he’s assumed to be mad and dragged into a courtroom showdown. Gwenn is the absolute embodiment of Father Christmas: buoyant, benevolent, and a very shapely beard, too.
- Ed Asner – Elf
Generally when Santa turns up in a Christmas film, there’s a tinkling of sleigh bells and a sense of wonder unfurling. Meanwhile, Ed Asner’s Santa threatens to brain Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) with a crowbar while stranded in Central Park with no juice for his sleigh. His is a more curmudgeonly kind of a Father Christmas, moaning that “there’s just no Christmas spirit anymore,” and sounding as drained of seasonal vibes as his ride is. But he’s no less loveable, and after meeting Buddy again and feeling the renewed Christmas cheer of a crowd of cynical New Yorkers, Asner’s Santa gets very sweetly carried away once more with that Yuletide feeling he’d been missing.
Read Empire’s review of Elf.
- Kurt Russell – The Christmas Chronicles
Christmas spirit is thin on the ground in Lowell, Massachusetts. Mum Claire is falling apart after her husband Doug died in a fire, and now her son Teddy’s stealing cars. But young Kate still believes in Santa, and is determined to prove it. She gets a lot more than she bargained for when she and Teddy get face to face with Kurt Russell’s swaggering Santa and they have to save Christmas together. He might look like a classic beardy type, but he’s got genuine rock’n’roll cred, his bluesy jail cell singalong becoming the film’s standout scene (“Is there a piano in this joint? Owwww!” he yells, before hammering out a solo). There’s a bit of fragility underneath the bluster too – for one, he’s separated from Mrs Claus (here played, of course, by Goldie Hawn), and he doesn’t do catchphrases. “I don’t go ho ho ho; that’s a myth,” he tells Kate. “Fake news.”
Read Empire’s review of The Christmas Chronicles.
- David Harbour – Violent Night
On screen, David Harbour tends to look quite a lot like a man who’s just been rudely poked awake from a long, peaceful hibernation – and this new entry into the long and ignoble history of irresponsible, borderline-alcoholic Santas is a very good fit. But after a supremely gross-out introduction – attempting his classic pre-sleigh flight sign-off, he pukes onto the head of a bystander – Harbour’s increasingly savage Santa turns John Wick (with a dash of fellow mythical Christmas hero John McClane too) to foil a band of mercenaries trying to bank $300m. Definitely the Santa with the highest body count – but hey, those are the dangers of being on the naughty list.
Read Empire’s review of Violent Night.
- David Huddleston – Santa Claus: The Movie
This is an extremely-lesser-spotted Santa origins movie, and one which really goes in on the lore: he’s a lowly woodcutter called Claus who makes toys for the local kids, but who bumps into some elves and learns his coming has been prophesied for generations. Soon, he’s been ground down by rampant commercialisation and a workload that no 800-year-old man could manage. David Huddleston’s breezy, unabashedly old-fashioned Santa is a tidy counterpoint to Dudley Moore’s technophile elf Patch and John Lithgow’s bellowing, cigar-munching toy magnate BZ.
Read Empire’s review of Santa Claus: The Movie.
- Billy Bob Thornton – Bad Santa
The subversive Father Christmas – one who’s really more of a Scrooge, who hates kids and takes liberties rather than giving gifts – is a familiar sight now, but few have ever been as authentically, grubbily horrid as Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie. Haggard and skinny, his straggly fake beard hanging limply and a leer never far from his lips, Willie’s a small-time crook who’s managed to alienate everyone he’s ever been close to. That is, until a little boy worms his way into Willie’s black, wizened heart. It’s a Santa Claus movie that’s actually a Christmas Carol movie. Christmas bonus!
Read Empire’s review of Bad Santa.
- Richard Attenborough – Miracle On 34th Street (1994)
No sooner had dear old Dickie razzed his Jeep away from a pile of dead raptors with Jeff Goldblum, he was being frog-marched into Cole’s Department Store to take up their big red coat and mittens. The plot of this remake more or less shadows the original, but the thing that really makes the difference is Richard Attenborough himself: the man twinkles so hard on screen he seems to shimmer, looking through his half-moon specs and melting even the most ice-encrusted heart. The bit where he unexpectedly whips out sign language to speak to a Deaf child – a very smart switch-up from the 1947 film’s slightly snotty Dutch kid – is especially lovely.
Read Empire’s review of Miracle On 34th Street (1994).