Charting the Cinematic Evolution of Santa Claus: From Magic Elf to Boogeyman and Beyond

How far can you stretch an icon until the imagery shatters? What is the core essence of Santa Claus?

Normally in this column we’d look at the evolution of an actor to see how their persona changed over time, but ’tis the season to examine the jolliest shape-shifter. The concept of Santa Claus is an amalgamation of mythologies that solidified in the United States at least a hundred years before film was invented. In many ways, cinema is both obsessed and afraid of the figure. He pops up occasionally in the earliest days of popular filmmaking, saw iconic moments pop up sparingly in the WWII era, and only recently has emerged several times a year to give multiple actors a shot at laughing with a bowl full of jelly belly and a cherry nose.

In that time, movies have remolded Santa from a benevolent gift-giver to a superhero, a horror villain, and the single dad next door.

The First Role: Santa Claus (1898)

Two years before the fly swatter was invented, Santa appeared in a British short film directed by George Albert Smith. It’s the simplest version of the modern Santa story. Excited children fall asleep. Santa jumps down the chimney. Stockings get filled, and Saint Nick disappears in a poof of special effects magic. (Their solution for making almost an entire room go dark was clever, too.)

Yeah, I don’t know why he takes the tree down with him either.

Not only is this a fantastic artifact; it feels like Santa in his purest form. Without fanfare, he pops into a home to reward good boys and girls with presents placed in their enormous socks. It cleanly follows the model from Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (“‘Twas the night before Christmas…”) which has been the basis for the American understanding of Santa Claus since 1823.

The Persona: Benevolent Gift-Giver

Cinematic Santa stayed jolly for decades. In 1947, his iconography was expanded by the sheer popularity and charm of Miracle on 34th Street. The holiday classic ushered in a deeply personal Santa Claus who we laugh with, fear for, and get to know beyond the suit and beard. It also instilled in little minds the possibility that the Santa you visited at your local department store might be the Santa Claus.

Without this film, we never would have seen the modern explosion of Santa portrayals or the subversions and alterations we’ve seen made to the character. As much as it echoes the 19th century ideal of Santa Claus, it also represents the end of the era where the central non-religious figure of the holiday season could remain a monolith.

Still, regular flawed humans wearing the Santa suit and doing bad things have been around for a century. In The Adventures of the Wrong Santa Claus from 1914, a burglar dresses up like Saint Nick to rob a house. In 1951, Bob Hope put a slew of conmen in Santa suits on every corner of the city to collect money for a phony-at-first charity in The Lemon Drop Kid. These are far cries from the evil that Santa will ultimately do, but it’s not like his boots were totally clean at the beginning.

The Latest Role: Grieving Widower and Anna Kendrick

There are now three distinct categories that Santa fits into. The ultra-traditional, the horror demon, and the conservative-with-a-twist.

In the decades after Miracle on 34th Street, Santa became a hot cinematic commodity, including multiple remakes of Miracle, stop-motion adventures in the 80s, and the annual Santa assault we now experience that started with The Santa Clause in the 90s. As with Miracle before it, the Tim Allen-starring hit rewrote the mythology while maintaining the core, empathetic essence and generosity of the figure (fitting firmly in the third category). Like Spider-Man, Santa could be anyone. That includes the salty divorced dad who accidentally kills Santa and becomes him.

Like a lot of modern Santa stories, it cribbed from A Christmas Carol to alter a cranky misanthrope into a holly jolly reveler through the sheer power of the season.

After exploitation flirtations in the 70s and 80s where a killer dons a Santa suit (or goes crazy after seeing someone in a Santa suit kissing his mom), the 2000s offered a genuine explosion of horror movies that rewrote the mythology completely, turning Santa into a demonic figure out for blood. Santa’s Slay and the Dutch Saint recast the kind figure as a punisher of bad people. The former declares him as the antichrist who enjoys drowning people in eggnog, and the latter casts him as the ghost of a disgraced Bishop who returns Freddy Kreuger-like to murder entire villages.

Then there’s Rare Exports, which seeks to return to an even older, Scandinavian concept of Santa Claus which is a massive, horned demon-beast that devours bad children.

Purists might claim these aren’t genuine Santas, but the counterargument is that the sparkly-eyed deliverer is a fabrication smoothed down from a dangerous fairy tale past. A Disneyfication along the lines of what they did to The Little Mermaid. Even at his nicest, there’s still a sinister air about Santa’s iconography: year-long spying on children, sneaking into homes, punishment for the naughty.

Plus, Santa is still almost solely punishing bad people. He’s just got extreme methods of goodness.

He has also fought Martians.

This year alone sees two new riffs on Santa Claus.

One is the animated Klaus where the big guy teams with a lazy postman to deliver toys, finding joy in creating joy while also mourning the loss of his wife and the hope of having children of his own.

The other is Noelle, wherein Anna Kendrick plays Santa’s daughter who mounts a rescue mission to find her brother Nick, the heir to the family business only to realize that she’s the competent, passionate, driven Claus who deserves the mantle. It barely counts because it’s delivered as the resolution, but a sequel would definitely place Kendrick as a female Santa Claus. (And it wouldn’t be the first time; The TV movie Call Me Claus turned Whoopi Goldberg into a female Santa Claus, too.)

The Persona: Almost Anything We Want

We’re only beginning to see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring this character. Over a century, American cinema has helped reinforce and demolish a traditional image. Still, there are only about as many portrayals of Santa Claus on screen as there are of Hamlet, even though the former plays a much, much larger role in our collective imagination.

Whether it’s by proving the subgenre popular or simply seeing a tipping point in the amount of movies depicting Santa, filmmakers and studios are finally completely comfortable making multiple movies a year about the magical old elf – whether he’s dropping presents, learning to re-love the holiday, or slashing through a greedy man’s face with a Christmas tree star.

In an era where Megyn Kelly said Santa is white and Daniel Kibblesmith wrote a children’s book where Santa is black, gay, and married, it turns out that the ancient icon’s malleability is winning. Audiences are more than game to see new twists on the ancient tale, especially if it means Santa can look like all the people the figure delivers presents to each year.

Regardless of race or gender or kill count, the character has maintained some core identity along the lines of surveillance, gift-giving, and moral enforcement. Without the horror versions (or if you can see retribution against the wicked as an intrinsically jolly thing), Santa is always ultimately generous and cheerful. The character is also mystical, operating just beyond human thinking in a way that’s profoundly optimistic about humankind.

We haven’t come close to pushing the icon to its breaking point. All of these Santas are still recognizably Santa. Which still leaves the question of how weird Santa can get before we don’t see Santa at all. What will the Santas of the future look like? And can we finally ditch the red suit?

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