Due to his instantly recognizable iconography and the fact that he’s in the public domain, there is no pop culture figure more omnipresent than Santa Claus. Iconic literary characters who have been adapted ad nauseam such as Robin Hood, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes have all tried to take a shot at the crown but none have come close to getting it. Even after what seems like a combined total of a million versions between them, the jolly fatman will always reign supreme because of his versatility. He can be a mascot for a soda company, a mythological figure filled with magic, a kindly old man who simply enjoys making presents, a horrific monster who likes to eat children or even a badass action star. As long as he has a white beard, a red coat and a bag full of presents, we love seeing him. These are the depictions of the character that have stayed with us the longest.
These are the 30 Greatest Santa Claus Performances of All Time.
10. Edmund Gwenn | Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Miracle on 34th Street remains one of my favorite Christmas films, mostly due in part to Edmund Gwenn’s phenomenal performance as Kris Kringle. Is he just an elderly man who believes he is, in fact, Santa Claus? Or is he really Santa? I would think even the most cynical people watching this film would be rooting for the latter. Kringle’s best scenes are when he is interacting with children, especially Susan, played by Natalie Wood. His demeanor is so kind and truthful that even Susan, ever the skeptic, comes around to believing he is the real deal. Gwenn received an Academy Award for his portrayal of Santa and it’s not difficult to see why. While the adults in the film question or outright dismiss his authenticity, I truly believe that the audience views Kris just as the children in the movie do… Santa is real.
9. Billy Bob Thornton | Bad Santa (2003)
What better way to spread cheer this Christmas than through a cantankerous anti-Santa? Willie Soke, as played impeccably by Billy Bob Thornton, is the perfect inversion of the fabled gift-giver: stealing gifts after a long con as a local mall Santa Claus, sullying the very image of Christmas. Drunk, surly, womanizing, and with not an ounce of holiday cheer, Willie encounters and befriends (if you want to call it that) young Thurman Merman, a rotund, rosy-cheeked, and unbearably optimistic boy who has bought into the holiday spirit completely. The two make an unlikely pairing as they navigate the holiday season by dealing with the seedier elements of Willie’s criminal endeavor and exploring the meaning of Christmas through an advent calendar and throwing down with skateboarding bullies. Never has raunch and Yuletide been married so well as what is on display here. If you want your Santa smoking, boozing, fornicating, cussing, or just being a general scumbag, then look no further.
In the end, as rotten as the titular Santa is, it becomes quite clear that with an extra bit of hope and optimism even the worst among us can perhaps take at least one step away from the naughty list and give back a bit of cheer to those who need it most.
8. Paul Giamatti | Fred Claus (2007)
Let’s be real. Fred Claus is not a very good movie. The premise is fun – Santa’s younger brother, the black sheep of the family, is sent to work off his debt at the North Pole – but the execution is pretty poor. Not to mention the terrible CGI of the elves. However, there is a bright spot when it comes to Fred Claus and that bright spot is named Paul Giamatti. He is earnest and kind as Santa should be, but Giamatti’s Santa is also stressed out, on the verge of losing his job while also dealing with a wayward younger brother who never really had the Christmas spirit to begin with. Giamatti is by far the best part of Fred Claus and is so good as Santa that he alone is worth watching Fred Claus. It’s a shame such a performance was wasted in such a mediocre movie.
7. Ed Asner | Elf (2003)
There is a reason Ed Asner has played Santa Claus a whopping eight times. He brings something new to the role every time, though I would argue that his best performance as jolly Old Saint Nick is 2003’s Elf. A little gruff, and perhaps slightly exasperated, Santa knows the Christmas spirit is waning and there’s not much he can do about it. The journey, and movie, belongs to Buddy the Elf, but perhaps Asner’s Santa is the film’s anchor, showing up just when Buddy, and the world, needs him most. Ed Asner has perfected the role of Santa so many times, he’s been inducted into the Santa Claus Hall of Fame (yes, that’s a real thing).
6. James Cosmo | The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Father Christmas appears in the first Chronicles of Narnia movie. However, James Cosmo’s brief appearance as the magical figure marks an important turning point in the film. For the last 100 years, the White Witch has cursed Narnia to eternally experience winter and never Christmas. With Father Christmas showing up to deliver presents (or should I say, “Tools not toys”), it is the first sign that the White Witch’s power was weakening and Aslan’s was growing stronger.
Since Cosmo is playing the Narnian version of Santa Claus, his Father Christmas is quite different than the other performances on this list. In a way, he’s viewed almost as a father figure to the Pevensie children, gifting them both weapons and magical tools and words of encouragement to help them defeat the White Witch and rescue their brother, Edmund. Cosmo’s Father Christmas may not “Ho Ho Ho” and wear a bright red suit like other Santas, but — from the moment he shows up — he commands the scene to fill both the Pevensie children and the viewer with Christmas spirit.
5. Mickey Rooney | Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is one of the classic Rankin/Bass “Animagic” stop-motion holiday specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus. It’s also one of my favorites, in part because it’s so dark! The village of Sombertown (guess what it’s famous for), where Bugermeister Meisterburger (the amazing Paul Frees) rules with a grumpy fist, is as much a dystopian nightmare as found any modern teen sci-fi novel. Even Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney), when he first shows up, is a little brusque with people – “I’m TELLIN’ you why!” he explains when questioned. Despite this, his warmth and awesome toys win over the hearts and minds of both children and the local schoolmistress. I love seeing what amounts to “Santa Clause Begins” story, with Kris learning to become the one, true Santa. Andy Rooney is always good value, and he brings an ever-so-slight edge to the young Claus.
While usually thought of as a feel-good story about the triumph of innocence and play over bitterness and evil, people miss the fact that Kris has to wait for Meisterburger to die before he can clear his name and stop living as an outlaw. The lessons are: friends are important, gifts are good, toys are great and evil has to die sometime.
4. Larry Drake | Tales from the Crypt: “And All Through the House” (1989)
Allen is a nostalgic favorite, Thornton is the funniest, Rooney and Simmons have the best origin story and Attenborough is the best overall but the scariest by far, is Larry Drake. Damn near a shot-for-shot remake of the segment from the film, the television episode tells the exact same story but is a million times more effective because of the presence of Larry Drake. He never speaks and his face has only two emotions — gleefully insane and terrifyingly insane but that’s all the ingredients a great actor needs to make a memorably scary soup. He has no origin or backstory and his motivations are never revealed, so when the ending happens, it is left open to interpretation of what he does with the little girl. Does he kidnap her? Kill her? Turn her into a murderous elf? Something far worse? It could be anything, which makes every possibility that much scarier. There are many evil Santas but this one takes the cake.
3. Tim Allen | The Santa Clause (franchise)
Santa Claus is one of the few characters who is generational. And what I mean by that is — like James Bond and Batman — different generations will grow up with actors in roles that were played by different actors during their parents’ childhood. If you grew up in the 2000s, there’s a good chance Tim Allen in The Santa Clause trilogy is the first Santa Claus that comes to mind when asked, “Favorite Movie Santa?” While the other Santas on this list (at least the real, non-murdering ones) have been delivering presents around the world for decades, Allen’s Santa is the new man on the job. Actually, he’s just Scott Calvin at the beginning, someone who knows Santa doesn’t exist and is sort of okay if his son Charlie found our Santa isn’t real.
If seeing is believing, then Scott is desperately looking for the quickest and easiest way to blind himself. He dreads it. He runs from it. Yet, Kringle arrives all the same, and it’s when Scott finally accepts his new purpose in life that’s when he finally realizes how good he is at being Santa. His crankiness and disbelief fade away and he begins to display trademark Santa characteristics. With three films and a Disney+ limited series under his belt, Allen is one of the few actors who has played the same version of Santa Claus more than once, allowing for each installment in The Santa Clause franchise to dig deeper into not only who Scott Calvin is but also how being Santa Claus works in this universe (or should I say, Yule-Verse). Allen’s version of Santa Claus will be remembered years from now and I’m positive will remain one of the three definitive takes on the iconic holiday figure.
2. J.K. Simmons | Klaus (2019)
One thing I love about Klaus is that it’s a Santa origin story of a different kind. An irresponsible postman is sent by his father to a small island in the far North region where he’s to succeed in setting up a post office. If he can meet his quota of letters, he gets to return home. It’s then that the postman befriends a reclusive toy maker and the legend of Santa Claus begins to take shape. Klaus himself enjoys living alone, surrounded by nature and the spirit of his lost wife. But then he finds a new purpose in providing toys to the local boys and girls, their joy becoming a healing balm to his tragic past. Klaus is a surprisingly emotional film with beautiful hand-drawn animation and a moving, original take on how Kris Kringle came to be. It embodies everything Christmas should be… joy, togetherness, and friendship. If the ending doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, then I said humbug to you!
1. Richard Attenborough | Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
When you need an audience to believe in a far-out concept, you hire Richard Attenborough. After playing the charming, yet naive dinosaur theme park founder John Hammond in 1993’s Jurassic Park, the acclaimed actor slipped — almost too easily — into the role of Santa Claus for the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. Let’s get one thing straight, Richard Attenborough is Santa Claus. He’s perfectly cast, oozing Christmas spirit in every scene he’s in with that Kris Kringle twinkle in his eye. Honestly, I think if this film revealed that Attenborough wasn’t playing Santa, audiences would have a harder time believing it. For all you naysayers out there, watch the 1994 film and tell me that you don’t think Attenborough made you reconsider whether Santa existed or not. His performance is simply that good. So, in summary, Attenborough is Santa. Enough said.
Do you have a favorite Santa portrayal? Tell us down in the comments!