On screen, Father Christmas cuts a mercurial figure

In “Elf” (2003), Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human who has been mistakenly brought up at the North Pole by Santa Claus and his helpers. When he discovers the truth about his heritage, he travels to New York in search of his parents and winds up in a department store during advent. “Santa’s here?” Buddy asks, excitement building in his voice. “I know him!” He is disappointed, however, when the person the shop has hired shows up: the man smells “of beef and cheese” and “sits on a throne of lies”. The “real” Santa appears in the final act, his sleigh powered by the festive cheer that Buddy has inspired in the hearts of jaded New Yorkers.

The mascot of the holiday season has had a clearly defined appearance since the early 19th century. “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, a popular poem by Clement Clarke Moore published in 1823, described the arrival of the sleigh and reindeer; brandishing a sack of toys, Santa is “dressed all in fur”, with cheeks “like roses”, a “broad face and a little round belly”. The first film about Father Christmas, a short silent movie released in 1898, showed the man dressed in the familiar cloak with white trim. He made it to the screen two years before that other perennial film favourite, Sherlock Holmes, and has remained there ever since. A clutch of Hollywood stars including Tom Hanks and Kurt Russell have donned the beard.

Though the visual iconography of Santa has remained consistent across these cinematic depictions, everything else about the big guy in red has been subject to experimentation. Two recent films have told contrasting origin stories. In the animated tale “Klaus” (2019), a reclusive woodsman and toymaker (voiced by J.K. Simmons) delivers a handmade present to a sad child; when other boys and girls get wind of this, Klaus is inundated with letters and requests and the tradition is born. The protagonist of “A Boy Called Christmas” (2021), meanwhile, is Nikolas, a young man who goes on a journey to the magical land of Elfhelm and, in the process, becomes a distributor of gifts.

Yet some films have put paid to the idea that Santa is an immutable figure, instead suggesting that the role of magical present-bringer can be assumed by more or less anyone. “Fred Claus” (2007) follows Santa’s cynical younger sibling (Vince Vaughn), who is pressed into action when his brother injures his back. In “Arthur Christmas” (2011), an animated British film, it is a son who has to fill the fur-lined boots and deliver a handout to a child who has been missed. “The Santa Clause” (1994, pictured) follows a toy salesman forced to take St Nick’s place after he is accidentally killed on Christmas Eve. The hero of “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947 and remade in 1973 and 1994) is Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn in the original), a lookalike who gets a job at Macy’s and is soon involved in a protracted legal battle to establish that he is the genuine article.

A few storytellers have sought to pierce the mystique entirely. An irreverent children’s book by Raymond Briggs, published in 1973, depicted Santa completing all manner of prosaic tasks, including going to the toilet. Film-makers have followed suit and focused on Father Christmas’s flaws as much as his fantastical qualities. In 1991 Mr Briggs’s book was adapted into an animated film, with Mel Smith providing the voice for the grumpy main character. “Fatman” (2020, pictured) starred Mel Gibson as a heavy-drinking Santa Claus who despairs at the state of the world’s children. In a jarringly violent action comedy, this Claus has to defend himself from a hitman hired by a spoiled rich child who was placed on the naughty list; Mr Gibson’s performance evokes Charles Bronson’s in the “Death Wish” films.

Many film-makers have played on viewers’ expectations of innocent fun and festive sweetness and light. “Bad Santa” (2003) does so for comic effect: Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, a swindler who impersonates Father Christmas in order to rob a department store. (Despite its bawdy, dark humour, the story retains something of the seasonal spirit as a gullible child is rewarded, the wicked get their comeuppance and Willie comes to his senses.) “The Christmas Chronicles” (2018) strives for surprise. Mr Russell’s depiction is suave, sexy and a bit rock’n’roll—his character is intended to pique the interest of adults as much as children. Most boldly, “Rare Exports” (2010) evokes horror. In the Finnish film Santa Claus is imagined as a horned monster frozen in ice, assisted by a horde of blood-thirsty elves keen to get their hands on badly behaved youngsters.

Just as the early Christian bishop had little in common with the St Nicholas who is his namesake today, the character continues to change in the 21st century. Rather like James Bond, whose requirements are martinis and fast cars, the only essential references for a plausible depiction of Santa Claus are snow, a white beard, a red suit and presents. Everything else is up to the imagination. After all, films and Father Christmas share something crucial: both invite people to suspend their disbelief.

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