Christmas is almost here, which means Santa is about to come visit all the children of the world and drop off toys (or coal).
While there was an actual Saint Nicholas, who was born in a third-century Greek village in what is now Turkey and gave his inheritance away to the poor and eventually became a bishop, the legend of Santa Claus has been around in American pop culture for almost as long as America has been a country.
Those pop culture references extend to film, and a variety of many actors have portrayed the man in the big red suit over the years. Here’s a list of the 10 best Santas, ranked from worst to best.
Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), “Bad Santa”
He drinks, he swears, he steals stuff. Not exactly the man you want to see in your home on a cold winter night, but a pitch-perfect Billy Bob Thornton somehow finds redemption in Willie despite this film’s (very, very) R-rated shenanigans.
It’s a great film to watch when you want something a little more cynical, but not if you’re looking for a good upstanding Santa Claus. (It’s also kind of sad to watch knowing that both John Ritter and Bernie Mac have died.)
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼.5 Santas
Mall Store Santa Claus (Jeff Gillen), “A Christmas Story”
Screaming kids. Visibly frustrated and jaded elves. “HO HO HOOO.” “Oh, I hate the smell of tapioca.” “How about a nice football?”
And, who could forget Santa kicking Ralphie Parker down the slide at the end of his quest to ask for a BB gun. Ol’ Willie Stokes may have been drunk on the job, but he never pushed a kid.
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼 Santas
Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), “Trading Places”
If we’re counting “Die Hard” as a Christmas movie, then “Trading Places” is certainly Christmas fare. Aykroyd’s Louis has lost everything, and, before he teams up with Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine, he nearly throws it all away as he dresses up like Santa just to steal some raw meat and hide it in his beard. He eventually comes back from this low point. But much of “Trading Places” is about Louis encountering desperation and learning to acknowledge his privilege. That’s timely, right?
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼.5 Santas
Nick Claus (Paul Giamatti), “Fred Claus”
Suspend your disbelief for a moment and give in to the proposition that Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti could be brothers. Then imagine that Giamatti is actually Nick/Santa and his deadbeat older brother Fred (Vaughn) must learn the error of his ways and help Nick/Santa save Christmas.
That is the plot of “Fred Claus,” and Giamatti plays it straight, weary and tired, a twist on Santa in family holiday fare. He still helps his brother, and all ends up nicely.
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼 Santas
Jack Skellington/Sandy Claws (Voices of Danny Elfman and Chris Sarandon), “The Nightmare Before Christmas”
All he wanted was to spice things up and bring Christmas to Halloween Town. A true visionary shot down by an unappreciative populace.
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼 Santas, 💀💀 Skulls and 🎃 Pumpkin.
Santa Claus (Voice of Stan Francis), “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
Yeah, he’s kind of a jerk to his elves, but he inspires loyalty. (”We are Santa’s elves!”) And he clearly cares for Rudolph from the beginning of the special. Arguably the template for much of the Santas in future American pop culture.
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼
Scott Calvin/Santa Claus (Tim Allen), “The Santa Clause”
Before Disney decided to turn this comedy classic into a franchise that featured Martin Short as Jack Frost (yes, it is true), Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor — er, Tim Allen — flexed his comedic chops as he resisted the hero’s call to become the Man in the Big Red Suit.
Sarcastic, heartfelt and hilarious, Scott Calvin learns the true meanings of Christmas and responsibilty by the film’s end. Just ignore the sequels. (Also, it took me entirely too long to figure out that the movie’s title is a pun. Merry Christmas.)
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼 Santas
Kris Kringle (Sir Richard Attenborough), “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994)
“I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor, you know...I’m a symbol. I’m a symbol of the human ability to be able to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives. If you can’t believe, if you can’t accept anything on faith, then you’re doomed for a life dominated by doubt.”
Deep words to come from a department store Santa but, this film does center on a court hearing where the very notion of belief is put on trial. Could it happen in America’s courtrooms? No. Does the ending of this film make me smile every time? Yes. (And I know this is the remake, don’t @ me.)
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼 Santas
Santa Claus (Ed Asner), “Elf”
Ed Asner is Christmas movie royalty at this point (on top of being Ed Asner). His Santa here set the stage for a nostalgic throwback to sincere portrayals of Santa, while also making room for modern-day flair. Plus, without him, there really isn’t a plot— Buddy would’ve just stayed in the orphanage. Doesn’t hurt that “Elf” has turned into a classic in its own right.
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼 Santas
Kris Kringle/Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney), “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”
Any film that tries to explain the “legend” of Santa largely fails, because it’s the legend that makes the dude interesting. (Same with horror films and prequels that try to explain why the killer is how he is. The scary part is that you don’t know.) Not so with 1970’s Rankin-Bass stop motion “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” starring Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Robie Lester.
Here we learn that a baby Kris Kringle was dropped on the doorstep of the evil Burgermeister Meisterburger. Kringle is then taken to an orphanage, but before he can get there, he is whisked away to the Mountain of the Whispering Winds, where Kringle is adopted by toymaking elves.
He later becomes an outlaw, since Burgermeister Meisterburger has outlawed toys in his town. Kris decides to make his toy deliveries to the oppresed kiddos one night a year, and the legend is born.
It’s crazy but it’s fun, and it’s as close as we have to an American canon for Santa. That is, until someone decides to make an American Legends Cinematic Universe or something.
Santa Rating: 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼 Santas and 🍔🍔Burgers