This isn’t about favorites. Favorites are flimsy and can be overdone, like a song or a sandwich filling you tire of after choosing it one too many times. This is about rightness. Of all the Doctors in the TARDIS, of all the Bonds in the Aston Martin, of all the Batmen in the Batsuit, there’s one that feels more right to you than the rest. They’re in technicolor while everybody else is in black and white (speaking figuratively if it’s William Hartnell).
Maybe they’re the one you first fell for as a kid, or maybe they’re the newest hire who made everything finally click into place. The point is that they’re yours, an actor in a role that is unchangingly, enduringly right.
You know your Bond, you may well know your Doctor and own the accompanying action figure/reproduction Sonic screwdriver. But who’s your on-screen Santa? Our writers share theirs below.
Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)
Look, I’m not any happier about this than you are. I’m not a particularly big Tim Allen fan (save for his performance in Galaxy Quest, which is literally a perfect movie top-to-bottom). Nor am I even a particularly big Santa fan. A hefty Dutch lad breaking into my home and eating my cookies? No thank you. But the prompt here is “who is YOUR Santa” and Tim Allen is my Santa, for better or worse. Children imprint on movies like ducklings imprint on their mother. And The Santa Clause just happened to be one of my earliest cinematic viewing experiences. My father took me to see The Santa Clause when I was four years old and just like that the guy from Tool Time forever became a gift-giving deity.
In hindsight, there is much to like about The Santa Clause. The movie technically opens with the death of Santa, which is pretty rad. And additionally, the fact that Tim Allen initially looks nothing like Santa adds a very “anyone can wear the mask” twist to the Santa myth. It gives me hope that at any point, I can just pack on a bunch of weight, grow a white beard, and become universally beloved. On the downside, however, the existence of The Santa Clause meant that I thought Santa’s name was “Santa Clause” for an embarrassingly long time. It’s not until I was a man grown that I realized the title of the film was referring to a clause in the Santa contract. Whoopsies! Alec Bojalad
Mel Smith in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas (1991)
Briggs’ Father Christmas is a distinctly British creation, a slightly grumpy but ultimately kind hearted working man. Father Christmas has the beard and the ruddy cheeks of a classic Santa but there is a sort of poignancy here – this Christmas lives alone with only his pets (has Mrs Christmas passed? We suspect so, sadly). He grumbles about his delivery man job, but secretly loves it though he dreams of going on holiday to somewhere sunny. Briggs based the character on his father, who was a delivery man, and when the book, and its sequel were adapted into an animation Mel Smith provided his deep, soothing voice. As someone who isn’t a big lover of Christmas I find this Mr Christmas familiar and comforting, an honest man who loves his animals and enjoys the simple things. It reminds me to appreciate a bit of lovely grub and being with the family. Happy Bloomin’ Christmas indeed. Rosie Fletcher
Ed Asner in Elf (2003)
Santa Claus may embody the Spirit of Christmas, and he may even be considered the father of the season, but at the end of the day he’s still a working stiff who spends his favorite holiday on the job and out in the cold. Ed Asner adds this everyman, working class gruffness to what is nonetheless still cuddly effect in the last great Christmas movie, Elf.
Bringing the same world-weary bluntness that Asner imbued in characters like Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or even later old Carl Fredrickson in Pixar’s Up, Asner’s Santa has seen it all and knows the score: right down to what street you want to be on if you want the original Ray’s Pizza in New York. But he’s still a warm-hearted loving man with a twinkle in his eye for those who deserve it. He sees the innate goodness in an innocent like Buddy the Elf, but he also has the wherewithal to spot the naughty ones who cannot be saved, such as the Central Park Rangers. In the end he’s the rare thing: a cool, no-nonsense Santa who’s getting too old for this stuff. David Crow
J.K Simmons in Klaus (2019)
This clearly isn’t a childhood choice. Despite my love of dungarees and McCain Smiles potato shapes, I’m not three years old. And when I was three, I don’t think I’d have grasped the joys of Sad Massive Santa. I’d have found the star of animated Netflix feature Klaus too sad, and too massive, and too damaged by loss, to see the Christmas in him. The older you get though, the more visible the bloom of sadness on Christmas gets… and the clearer it becomes that a man the size of a cliff face who knows his way around a lathe is a man who can call me.
Apologies for that, Santa’s not about lust. In Klaus, he’s about a broken heart restored by charity and community. Voiced by J.K. Simmons, Klaus is a 19th century Norwegian woodworker who built a cabin for his beloved wife, and filled it with toys he’d made for their future children. And then… life happened. Years later, Klaus meets nepotism baby Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) and disillusioned teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) and the three of them create something magnificent by swapping selfishness for generosity. It’s a beautiful story with an enduring message from writer-director Sergio Pablos. And this Klaus, with his Sam Elliott eyebrows, lake of white beard, wardrobe dimensions, and tragic hurt might just be the perfect Father Christmas. (Also, Klaus, if you’re ever in the UK, look me up. Bring the lathe.) Louisa Mellor
Timothy Olyphant in Go (1999)
My Santa is a young Timothy Olyphant in a Santa hat in Doug Liman’s 90’s crime caper, Go. Now, I know what you’re going to say. “Kirstie, he’s not actually playing Santa.” But for Sarah Polley’s desperate grocery store worker Ronna, Olyphant’s sketchy drug dealer Todd Gaines provides a big Christmas gift with a catch: a bunch of ecstasy she can sell to prevent her looming eviction, in exchange for “collateral”.
Young Timothy Olyphant in a Santa hat is a core memory for many film junkies of a certain age, including myself. He’d appeared in a handful of movies before Go, most notably Scream 2, but his brief screen time in this one was a real “moment” in his career. It was a showcase for the one key thing he’s been able to bring to the acting table in the decades since: quiet menace, with a generous side of being super dang hot, and Todd Gaines, though problematic and dangerous, is the most electrifying Santa of all time. Do you dare disagree? Kirsten Howard
Anna Kendrick in Noelle (2019)
As someone who has grown up with fewer female heroes to look up to than I would like (and because my childhood Santas are already covered by others in this list), I’ve decided to go all in and declare that Noelle Kringle (Anna Kendrick) from the 2019 Disney+ movie Noelle is my Santa. Noelle may not officially take over for her late father as Santa Clause until the end of Noelle, but she proves throughout the movie that she is the only Kringle up to the task. While the movie itself is a little heavy-handed on the whole “we can’t possibly choose Noelle to take over for her father, she’s a woman” thing, it’s still really cool to see a mantle with such a legendary mythos be passed to a woman in the end.
But it’s not just the fact that Noelle is a woman that makes me want to defend her as my one true Santa, it’s her compassion and optimism that truly embody the holiday spirit in my eyes. As Santa, she doesn’t just give children the material things they want like iPads and video games, she also gives an unhoused mother and daughter a job opportunity, helps a young boy spend Christmas with both of his divorced parents, and gives an overworked mall manager the vacation she’s been dreaming of for years. Noelle uses the magic of Christmas to lift others up and add joy to their lives, which is a great reminder of what this season is really about. Brynna Arens
Art Carney in The Twilight Zone “Night of the Meek” (1960)
Henry Corwin is a down-and-out alcoholic who only ever seems to find regular work once a year as a department store Santa. Even then, he seems to struggle to leave the bar in time to make it to the store. However, Corwin is no “Bad Santa.” His pain and self-destruction stem from the guilt he feels over never being able to do as the real Santa might and give everyone the happiness that the real world seems determined to deny them. As Corwin puts it, “I find of late that I have very little choice in the matter of expressing emotions. I can either drink or I can weep, and drinking is so much more subtle.”
However, Corwin’s circumstances change once he discovers a magic bag filled with unlimited gifts that always seem to be exactly what the recipient wants. For one night, Corwin might finally be able to ease the pain of the world and his own existence.
It’s easy to remember The Twilight Zone for its sci-fi twists and biting social commentary, but the true brilliance of the show was its ability to tell so many kinds of stories with dignity, intelligence, and heart. In this sometimes forgotten episode, the great Art Carney plays Henry Corwin as the ultimate Santa: a man who would gladly devote his entire life to ensuring that we all get to know a little bit of happiness if only for one night. It’s a tearjerker of an episode starring a Santa whose overwhelming humanity makes his efforts so much more magical. Matthew Byrd
Ruth Jones in Gavin and Stacey (2008)
In our house the festive season doesn’t truly begin until we’ve watched the ultimate ‘relatable Christmas’ masterpiece that is the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special from 2008. Drinking too much wine, marvelling over white chocolate Toblerone, stressing about the turkey and singing Do They Know It’s Christmas at ridiculous volumes in the car – it’s like looking in a mirror.
In amongst it all, Nessa (Ruth Jones) is playing what at first glance looks like the worst Santa Claus ever at her and Dave Coaches’ improvised ‘grotto’ moneymaker on Barry Island, with a fake beard doing nothing to hide her distinctive black bob, and a unique ‘oh oh oh’ twist on ‘ho ho ho’. But if you look past the terrible presents (‘we’ve had a lot of complaints’) and her lighting a fag in between seeing children, there’s an important message there.
She clearly knows the one child we see visit her grotto, and we discover his Dad’s in prison for doing something very sinister-sounding, so she’s quick to give a reality check on the lad’s hopes for an X-Box in Nessa’s textbook blunt kindness: ‘I don’t wanna disappoint you but I reckon the X-Box is a bit pie-in-the-sky, like,’ she says, before instructing him that whatever he opens ‘try and look surprised, because your mother’s been through enough this year without you sulking all over the shop.’ It’s funny yet simultaneously surprisingly touching, a reminder that not everyone gets a picture-perfect Christmas, but sometimes you’ve just got to make the best of things. Laura Vickers-Green
Ferdinand Munier in March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
March of the Wooden Soldiers, originally released as Babes in Toyland, may take place in July, but it is a perennial holiday favorite, broadcast every Thanksgiving and Christmas in New York City. Wondrous from the very opening sequence, it foretold antipasto and presents. The film is timeless, Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel’s Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum are motion pictures’ most selfless heroes, some scenes are genuinely frightening, and nursery rhyme characters get it right in the end. Ferdinand Munier captures the essence of Santa Claus in his cameo appearance. He enters in full costume, surrounded by happy and hopeful children, each of whom he promises not to forget. He is everything you want Santa to be in the off season: jolly, forgiving, and able to laugh at himself.
The film is set in Toyland, where Santa apparently outsources his more labor-intensive chimney stuffers. When a clerical error results in a gift too large for delivery, the jolly one doesn’t get angry, but concerned. “I thought you said 100 soldiers at six foot high,” Stannie-Dee protests. “I couldn’t give those to my children,” explains Santa, with all the empathy on earth. Munier goes uncredited in the film, and it wasn’t the only time he’d humbly played Old Saint Nick. This adds to the mystique of his Santa. If there is no credit, it must have been played by the real guy. No winter holiday season is complete without the film, and no Santa makes such a large impression in such a short span of time. Tony Sokol
Oliver MacGreevy in Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Since I’m not a particularly big fan of Christmas movies in general – nothing against them, I just don’t feel especially drawn to holiday screen fare – I’m going to go a little depraved and pick Oliver MacGreevy, a little-known Irish actor who portrayed a homicidal maniac dressed in a Santa suit in the 1972 Amicus horror anthology Tales from the Crypt.
MacGreevy shows up in the first segment, “…And All Through the House,” in which a scheming wife (Joan Collins) kills her husband on Christmas Eve, only to have her planned perfect crime foiled by the arrival of Santa – freshly escaped from the local asylum – at her front door. Since her husband’s corpse is growing cold under the tree, she can’t call the police right away; instead she pivots to make it look like the escaped killer claimed her husband’s life – a plan that seems airtight until, of course, the inevitable Tales from the Crypt twist ending.
His Santa suit filthy and bedraggled, his eyes wide and gleaming with madness, the silent, implacable MacGreevy is a genuinely unnerving presence, or at least he was to these young eyes seeing their first bad Santa back in the day. This is one St. Nick you don’t want coming down your chimney, no matter how nice or naughty you’ve been. Don Kaye
Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
I appreciate this is not the most imaginative Santa choice, but when I think of my Kris Kringle it’s good ol’ Dickie Attenborough working at Cole’s department store and making everyone believe in Santa again (after a court-mandated hearing). He looks the part (excellent fluff ratio on the white trim for the red outfit), he sounds the part, he’s got a great beard and top notch glasses.
Although there’s no denying that Attenborough did a stand up job as Santa, perhaps why this interpretation had such an effect on me was not just for Father Christmas (and peak 90s Dylan McDermott) but my searing jealousy of Mara Wilson. In 1994, I was eight years old and sure that I could do as good a job as her (with no acting talent or access to Hollywood) and perhaps I viewed this Santa as more of a future scene partner and colleague, but now (nearly thirty years later), when I think of Santa, he’s my guy. Elizabeth Donoghue
Phyllis from The Office (2009)
She’s waited years for the honor. In fact, it’s been a life-long journey, but her time has come: our beloved Phyllis Vance is finally Santa Claus at the Dunder Mifflin Scranton Christmas party. Putting on her deepest voice, the usually quite timid Phyllis plays the part with gusto, lighting the office Xmas tree, listening to her colleagues’ Xmas wishes, and spreading plenty of cheer from under a mighty white beard. By the end of the festivities, she’s even making out with her husband Bob in a matching Santa outfit. You can be the judge of whether that’s naughty or nice.
But Michael Scott isn’t very happy about any of it. A regional manager who loves making himself the main character of every single office Christmas party (and on normal days too), Michael can’t believe that his employees have rallied around Phyllis as Santa, a role he traditionally plays with disastrous results. Like it’s a game of rock paper scissors, Michael decides to one-up Phyllis Claus by instead dressing up as Jesus Christ, arming himself with a karaoke machine and a bad attitude. Things get nasty, and Phyllis threatens to get Bob involved, but it all works out in the end. Santa and Jesus are once again at peace. If that’s not a heartwarming holiday message, I don’t know what is. John Saavedra