With Thanksgiving safely behind us (except for the lingering calories) we can now set our sights on Christmas. The iconography of this holiday season is dizzyingly abundant, far more so than any other. Trees, gifts, various religious symbols, and of course, the jolly old fat guy from the North Pole. Santa Claus is a part of global pop culture and folklore and has been at the center of so many films in so many varying genres.
This week, he joins a team of other beloved cultural myths from our childhood to battle evil in Rise of the Guardians. What’s interesting about the assorted cinematic adventures of Santa Claus is that they supersede genre classification. As movie history shows us, jolly ol’ St. Nick works with nearly any theme:
Santa: The Romantic Ideal
Most movies that feature Santa Claus as a central character take it for granted that Santa is a real entity. He is revealed to the audience in his arctic abode surrounded by elves and utilizing magic as routinely as we use a can opener. The opposite approach of course is to present a character that possesses all of the qualities of Santa, but the question of his authenticity becomes paramount for the audience as well as the other players in the film.
Miracle on 34th Street is the best example of this model. A kindly old man who engages in nothing but good deeds is faced with the threat of institutionalization simply because he claims to be Santa Claus. But is he crazy? To wit, many television shows have Christmas specials in which a mysterious, kind-hearted stranger enters the proceedings and is teased as being Santa himself. The quest to prove Santa Claus’ existence, when it is not explicitly revealed a forgone conclusion in the narrative, is a function of the pursuit of childhood wonder and the struggle to reject cynicism. We want to believe in Santa because he connects us to a simpler, more innocent time in our lives.
Another interesting cinematic approach to the Santa myth deals with his origins. These are the films that seek to lend context to the multitude of quirks and tropes associated with St. Nick. In the grand tradition of Rankin and Bass, the animated Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town seems to be the standard for examining ol’ Kris Kringle’s backstory. We see everything from where he got his famous laugh, to the basis of his red suit. Therefore, like any great film prequel, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town identifies the roots of each of Santa’s recognizable features. The much-maligned Santa Claus The Movie similarly explores the origins of Claus, and also touches on the very specific notion of Santa’s immortality; a prophetic interpretation of the longevity of this whimsical myth.
It’s a Living
The counter to the concept of Santa as an immortal being is the idea that Claus is a position rather than an individual. In these filmic instances, Santa serves his time as the wearer of the suit and the driver of the sleigh, and then hands off the mantle to a worthy successor. Sometimes this is the result of the current Santa’s incapacitation and the heir to the beard is chosen by happenstance, as with Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause. This suggests the potential for any and all to make a major altruistic impact on the world around them. However, the favorable scenario is examined in last year’s Arthur Christmas. In this film, Claus is not just a family name, but a family business. When the ambitious, more successful Claus son is revealed to be incurably cold toward children, the bumbling, but sweet younger brother presents the more viable candidate to take over when their father retires. That sort of family conflict harbors relatable subtext that resonates beyond this festive figurehead.
Even if you claim Halloween as your favorite holiday, and even if horror is your genre of choice, there is no shortage of Santa cinema at your disposal. In fact, the number of evil Santa and killer Santa movies rival the more heartwarming, family-friendly entries. Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, and Santa’s Slay (starring professional wrestler Bill Goldberg) all cast the iconic old elf in a sinister light. As trashy, and at times possibly incendiary, as these movies may seem, some of them do serve a fascinating purpose. Rare Exports and Sint both delve into the existing darker myths of Santa Claus. These myths come from cultures wherein Santa is not a benevolent gift-giver, but a monstrous wraith who, along with his devilish minions, punishes naughty children and demands tribute; a demonic force whose visits are marked by terror, not joy.
Santa the Absurd
If you thought the horror iterations were the height of weirdness for St. Nick, you are in for a treat…a rotten, unpalatable treat. Some of the most bizarre Santa films are those made for children in the late 50s/early 60s. The oddball exemplar of course has to be Santa Claus Conquers the Martians in which Santa… well, that title is pretty self-explanatory. Many of the strangest of the Kris Kringle kids flicks involve him going toe-to-toe with some unusual adversaries. Along with Martians, there’s the 1959 Mexican film Santa Claus in which he wrestles with the devil for the souls of children. Finally, there is the mind-liquefying The Magic Christmas Tree in which a talking tree kidnaps Santa at the behest of a greedy child with a magic ring. Suddenly flying reindeer and an workshop full of elves don’t seem so out of the ordinary.
[Photo Credit: Oscilloscope]