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.
20. Tom Hanks | The Polar Express (2004)
For a Santa Claus that isn’t even seen until the very end of The Polar Express, his presence is still felt throughout the entire movie. A young boy who is doubting the existence of Santa Claus is chosen for a ride on the Polar Express, a magical train that takes a small group of children to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. While Tom Hanks plays several roles in Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of the beloved children’s book, it’s his performance as Santa Claus that has the most emotional impact. Aware of the boy’s waning belief in him, Santa’s kind and simple act of allowing the boy to choose the first gift of Christmas is exactly what the boy needs. Belief is a powerful tool and Santa allows the boy to find it on his own, with minimal guidance. Despite minimal screen time, Hanks’s Santa brings the most emotional impact, making the entire journey well worth it.
19. Bill Goldberg | Santa’s Slay (2005)
According to the lore in Santa’s Slay, Santa was the result of a virgin birth produced by Satan. Christmas was “The Day of Slaying” for Santa until A.D. 1005 when an angel defeated him in a curling match and sentenced him to deliver presents on Christmas for one thousand years. It’s 2005, which means Santa is free to kill again. If that ridiculous premise doesn’t sell you on this film’s tone, then the casting of professional wrestler Bill Goldberg will. He’s a testosterone-filled, one-liner-producing bag of walking muscle that kills people in holiday-related ways, such as stabbing them in the eyes with sharpened peppermint sticks or drowning them in egg nog. It’s an insane performance in an equally insane movie and God bless both for going for it.
18. David Huddleston | Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
Dudley Moore is one of those actors who’s so beloved, his personality tricks you into thinking he was in better movies than he actually was. 10 got him Arthur and that should’ve made him a movie star but that’s about where the streak ends, unfortunately. After that, he makes nothing but god-awful rom-coms and then eventually goes into narration but buried in the rubble of his shitty career is Santa Claus: The Movie, a movie slightly better than forgettable. Unlike the two good movies he’s in, his presence is actually one of the worst parts about it. He’s clearly on auto pilot and can’t be bothered to give a shit but thankfully the rest of the cast actually showed up. John Lithgow is the clear stand out as the villainous B.Z. but equal praise should be given to Burgess Meredith and David Huddleston who are great as an elder elf and the titular Santa Claus. Huddleston plays Santa exactly as one would expect, with warmth and jolly. He doesn’t do much to differentiate himself from other cinematic but he does do enough to leave an impression.
17. Patrick Floersheim | 3615 Code Pere Nöel (1989)
When first introduced in 3515 Code Pere Nöel (also known as Deadly Games), Patrick Floersheim’s character seems just a little dopey, a little simple, maybe a little too interested in playing games with kids. Then he has a weird interaction with a kid named Thomas online, becomes a Santa at the department store where the kid’s mom works, gets fired for slapping a little girl and stows away in a truck full of toys headed back to Thomas’ house. There he murders a bunch of people and a dog and stalks Thomas for the rest of the movie. Nothing in this description tells you how absurdly awesome this movie is – think Home Alone as directed by Dario Argento – but we’re talking about Santa here, and Floersheim’s off-kilter presentation is weirdly sympathetic. I mean, he is a killer, but he always seems absurdly hurt when the kids won’t play with him, and seems to think he and Thomas are having a grand old time. It’s those wounded eyes of his, beneath the white spray paint in his hair and beard, I think. Despite that, Floersheim’s Pere Noel is a great antagonist for the precocious Thomas and not just another personality-less slasher figure.
16. Bill Nighy (Grandsanta) & Jim Broadbent (Malcolm “Santa” Claus) | Arthur Christmas (2011)
I say this every year, but Arthur Christmas is an underrated gem of a movie. Santa’s progressed past a sleigh and reindeer to a high-tech ship manned by his eldest son, Steve. Santa is nearing retirement, but he’s reluctant to let go of the reins, so to speak. While he struggles with passing on the Santa torch to his son, his father, Grandsanta, is eager to see things go back to how they used to be, before technology took over the holiday. Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy voice Santa and Grandsanta and they’re both fantastic. Nighy approaches his performance with gusto as Grandsanta is determined to relive the glory days one last time. I love the idea that the role of Santa has been passed down through generations and Arthur Christmas does a wonderful job is showing the generational differences, especially between Santa and Grandsanta, not to mention Steve and his youngest brother Arthur, who embodies everything Santa Claus should be. This is a movie I try to watch every year, and I highly recommend it.
15. John Goodman | Futurama: “Xmas Story” (1999)
Very few actors have played Santa as much and as often as John Goodman. Hal Smith voiced him in a ton of projects from 1964 to 1990, Paul Frees was Stan Francis’ replacement in the Rankin-Bass animated specials and Charles Durning played him in a bunch of shit no one remembers. All were considered for the list but since none of them voiced a murderous robotic Santa, they didn’t make the cut. Goodman’s other performances were all good and his voice perfectly suits the character but they all lack the glee he brings to the version in Futurama.
14. Kurt Russell | The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
Kurt Russell as Santa Claus. The review could basically stop there. Russell launches what is otherwise a middling Christmas streamer to a whole other tier. He’s got all the charisma, he has a rendition of Santa Claus is back in town while in jail— what more could you ask for? Before this release, Russell was probably my second most anticipated actor that could fill out the red suit. I’m still hoping to see Jeff Bridges at the helm of the sleigh. And apparently there’s a sequel to this now as well. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll probably throw it on this Christmas season, not because the movie will probably be great, but because Russell is just irresistible as Saint Nick.
13. Brandon Maggart | Christmas Evil (1980)
I didn’t remember much about Christmas Evil except that I didn’t like it much when I was a teen. Looking at it now I can see why – it’s not your typical slasher film, despite featuring the classic ‘traumatic childhood trauma’ that informed so many of the early 80’s slasher movies. There isn’t much in the way of the standard slasher thrills and kills. Instead, Christmas Evil is a character-study/thriller about a guy who grows up wishing that Santa Claus was real, wishes the good were rewarded and the bad were punished, and who thinks that maybe he’s just the person to step into Saint Nick’s shoes and do the job. Do it PROPERLY.
Watching it now I find it to be superior to those other slasher flicks I had expected the film to more closely emulate. Other reviewers have noted that Christmas Evil is a kind of holiday-themed Taxi Driver, following an outsider as he reaches his breaking point and and beyond. There ARE murders – including some on some church steps with a toy solider and an ax – but we mostly follow poor Harry as his life, his job, and the people around him continually disappoint until he feels like he has no choice but to take things into his own hands. He’s mostly a good guy, if a little odd, until he takes things too far. Brandon Maggart is great in the role, making us like and care for Harry, even as he heads down a path we know can only end in tragedy.
If you’ve dismissed Christmas Evil (also known as You Better Watch Out) because it looks like another holiday-slasher flick in the vein of Silent Night, Bloody Night, then you might want to look again. It’s dressed up in those slasher clothes, but it’s got more depth and heart (and a crazy last 15 minutes or so) than any of those.
12. Alec Baldwin | Rise of the Guardians (2012)
I have to admit, when Rise of the Guardians introduced us to Santa Claus— excuse me, “North”— I was worried it was about to get stupid. As North is revealed, it is clear that this Santa is different. He has “naughty” and “nice” tattooed on his arms. He carves toys out of ice with a chainsaw. The movie leans into reimagining Santa as a Russian badass instead of the jolly old fat man that is the iconic portrait of the legend. While it’s good to mix things up, I was concerned the spirit of this Santa would be lost for the sake of trying to make Santa cool.
Luckily, as the movie goes on, they are able to soften North into an amalgamation of the Christmas character we all know and love, while leaving him played up so he can participate in the action sequences. What really works for the character is establishing Santa not just as a cheerful toymaker, but as a guardian of the wonder in the world. It’s an inspired direction that ultimately works well with North’s rough shell. Other movies have tried to reinvent Santa as a tough guy but Guardians does it in a way that will be hard to top.
11. David Harbour | Violent Night (2022)
Unless you’re watching a holiday-themed horror movie, it’s hard to imagine Santa Claus strangling someone with a string of Christmas lights and stabbing eyes with tree toppers. But in Violent Night, David Harbour’s cynical Santa does just that in an attempt to save a child named Trudy and her family from a group of mercenaries. Before being thrust into this particular violent evening, Santa was simply going through the motions and just about done with Christmas altogether. But it seems reliving his violent past is just what he needs to rediscover his own Christmas spirit. With his snarky wit and savage dispatching of the bad guys, David Harbour’s Santa is a pure delight and an absolute scene stealer. Violent Night might have just been released this year, but it’s an instant classic, as is Harbour’s portrayal of Father Christmas, wielding a sledgehammer and crushing skulls.
Do you have a favorite Santa portrayal? Do you think he’ll be in the Top 10?