Best Pop Culture Versions Of Santa Claus
Everyone knows who Santa Claus is — or do they? Originally based on Saint Nicholas of Myra, a real-life 4th century Greek Christian bishop who was known for giving gifts to the poor, the idea of a benevolent being who spreads good cheer during the holidays has been embraced by many cultures.
Not surprisingly, movies, TV shows, advertisements, and comic books have all put their unique spin on Santa Claus over the years. While certain aspects of Santa’s character remain unchanged, pop culture now has a massive pantheon of Santa Clauses, each with their own ideas about how best to celebrate the holidays.
So, we thought it would be fun to assemble a list of the best pop culture versions of Santa Claus. Spanning several decades, and emanating from virtually every form of media, these jolly (and not-so-jolly) Spirits of Christmas can show up in more places than you might think.
Santa Claus: The Classic
While there have been many variations on the legend of Santa Claus, the popular depiction many people are familiar with these days is that of a large, white-bearded man dressed in a red coat, trousers, and hat all trimmed with white fur.
Sporting a magical bag filled with gifts for children all around the world, Santa rides on a sleigh led by eight flying reindeer (occasionally joined by a ninth addition with a red nose). Jolly by nature, Santa enjoys announcing his arrival with a customary “Ho, Ho, Ho!” — although most kids don’t get to see him come down the chimney to deliver his presents.
Plenty of books, movies, and television shows offer some version of this Santa Claus. 1985’s “Santa Claus: The Movie” fully embraced this vision, showing how a kind-hearted woodcutter named Claus and his wife were saved from a snowstorm by a community of elves and taken to the North Pole.
Given many magical gifts, the now-immortal “Santa Claus” spends the next several centuries delivering gifts on Christmas Eve, inspiring many of the myths, legends, and traditions surrounding Santa Claus.
Of course, not all those myths depicted the exact same version of Santa Claus — as the Santas below reveal.
Santa Claus: The Fairy Tale
Long before Santa showed up in movies and television, he was the hero of many fairy tales — including one dreamed up by the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” himself, L. Frank Baum.
In his 1902 book, “The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus,” Baum reveals that when he was a baby, “Claus” was found in the Forest of Burzee and adopted by the wood nymph Necile. Claus grew up among the fairies, but upon reaching his late teens, he was reintroduced to human society and saw all the abuse, neglect, poverty, and fighting in this world.
Hoping to offer some kindness to the world, Claus settles in the Laughing Valley of Hohaho where he makes and distributes wooden carvings and eventually more elaborate toys. Although this puts him in conflict with the evil Awgwas who steal the toys, Claus gets help from the Immortals, reindeer, and even the Gnome King. By the time he reaches his 60s, the Immortals decide to grant “Santa Claus” the gift of immortality so he can continue making children happy for eternity.
Long before the MCU created their shared universe, Baum was linking all of his story worlds together. So, Santa Claus managed to appear in the Oz book “The Road to Oz,” where he attended the birthday celebration of Ozma of Oz and met Dorothy Gale.
Santa Claus: The Job
Most people believe Santa Claus is a single immortal being who has been performing his duties for centuries.
But what if this wasn’t the case? What if “Santa Claus” wasn’t just the name of the man, but a job title?
That’s the premise of “The Santa Clause” film franchise, which followed divorced dad Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), who accidentally causes Santa Claus to fall from his roof, dons his suit, and gradually transforms into a new Santa. As it turns out, there’s a special “Santa Clause” that requires Scott to take on Santa’s duties. While this causes Scott to gain an insane amount of weight in a short time, the job does have its perks, and he comes to embrace his new role.
The idea of passing on the Santa Claus role to others has been explored in other films as well, including “Ernest Saves Christmas” (1988), where simple-minded Ernest (Jim Varney), helps Santa pass on his duties to a Mr. Rogers-style TV host. Knowing there are multiple Santas out there might be disconcerting — but at least this means the big guy gets to enjoy a nice retirement … after a few hundred years.
Santa Claus: The Mutant
Santa Claus is powerful. How else could he move fast enough to deliver toys to all the children of the world in a single night? Heck, given his unique skill set, Santa would probably make an amazing superhero, which is probably why he is one in the pages of Marvel Comics.
Of course, this being the Marvel Universe, Santa’s not just any superhero. He’s an Omega Level Mutant, with a power level comparable to (and possibly higher than) god-like mutants such as Apocalypse. In fact, his off-the-charts powers caused the X-Men to try and recruit him in “Marvel Holiday Special (1991).” While Santa didn’t appear interested, he did end up transforming the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants into a bunch of toys, showing you really don’t want to mess with this Santa.
Santa would pop up again in multiple Marvel Comics over the years, revealing that he spends some of his time as a private investigator (well, he does already know who’s naughty and who’s nice) and even went toe-to-toe with Deadpool once. No offense to the Merc with a Mouth, but the smart money’s still on Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.
Santa Claus: The God
Over in DC Comics, Santa Claus isn’t just powerful — he’s mighty enough to take on the god-level Darkseid every year … and win.
Bear in mind: this is the almighty Darkseid, ruler of Apokolips we’re talking about. Not only does this guy possess phenomenal cosmic powers that make him more than a match for Superman, he also has an army of Parademons, countless foot soldiers, and a personal planet reinforced with the deadliest weaponry.
Yet, every Christmas, something happens that rips mighty Darkseid’s ego to shreds. In “DCU Holiday Bash” #2 we learn that, come the holidays, Santa Claus disables Darkseid’s satellites, takes out his Parademons, and easily out-maneuvers his ground forces and air missiles — all so he can stride into Darkseid’s inner sanctum and deliver him a lump of coal for being such a naughty despot.
Naturally, Darkseid orders his minions, “Do not let him leave here alive,” but Santa just goes on his merry way. The DC Universe is known for housing some powerful beings, but even Superman, Darkseid, and the Sandman are no match for Santa Claus.
Santa Claus: The Pumpkin King
Santa Claus may be known as a jolly man full of holiday cheer — but if you take a closer look, there are some unnerving components in his MO. The guy literally breaks into thousands of houses every year and eats everyone’s cookies. Sure, he leaves presents behind … but what if they aren’t the type of gifts the recipients even want?
That’s what happens when well-intentioned ghoul Jack Skellington decides to give Santa the night off in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), taking over his gift-giving duties. As the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, Jack has his own team of ghosts and monsters who can build mountains of gifts. Unfortunately, Jack and his undead friends have their own twisted ideas for making Christmas, gifting the kids with shrunken heads and demonic jack-in-the-boxes.
Honestly, there were probably a few kids who loved the new gifts — but the majority didn’t care for Jack’s new Christmas brand. Things are better, it seems, when Jack, Santa, the Easter Bunny and everybody else just stay in their lane.
Santa Claus: The Family Legacy
Movie franchises like “The Santa Clause” might claim anyone can become Santa Claus — while other stories explain that the Santa Claus role is kept in the family.
Take “Arthur Christmas,” a 2011 animated movie where we learn “Santa Claus” is a hereditary title that has been passed down from generation to generation. By the modern era, Santa’s son Steve has turned the job into a high-tech operation where hundreds of elves use advanced technology to deliver presents around the world. Even so, the old ways still haven’t gone out of style, as Santa’s other son Arthur (James McAvoy) shows when he discovers a present that didn’t get delivered to a little girl and decides to give it to her himself — using an old-school sled and reindeer.
While it might seem that the Santa title can only be passed down to male heirs, not all stories take this approach. Disney’s “Noelle” (2019), for instance, lets Santa’s perky daughter Noelle Kringle (Anna Kendrick) take on dad’s duties when her brother Nick (Bill Hader) decides he’d rather be a yoga instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. Seeing Anna Kendrick come down the chimney every Christmas to deliver presents would be a surprise … but it seems doubtful anyone would mind.
Santa Claus: The Propaganda Figure
There are a lot of things we look forward to seeing during Christmas. Decorated trees, festive lights … and the image of Santa Claus on Coca-Cola bottles and cans.
As depicted in 1931 by illustrator Haddon Sundblom, the paintings of Santa’s friendly, laughing face have become synonymous with the holidays. Although the Coca-Cola Company had been featuring Santa Claus in its ads since the 1920s, Sundblom’s jolly Santa made a huge impression on Christmas pop culture. Based on the description of Santa in Clement Clark Moore’s 1922 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (aka “A Visit From St. Nicholas”), Coke’s smiling soda-drinking Santa is often what people think of when they picture Saint Nicholas.
Other print ads and television commercials offer their own depictions of Santa Claus. In 1996, M&M’s loveable mascots Red and Yellow bump into Santa Claus in a commercial while he’s delivering presents — causing the shocked Saint Nick to faint upon realizing talking M&M candies do exist.
Twenty-one years later, M&Ms released a sequel to the commercial that showed Yellow taking over Santa’s duties and accidentally delivering the gifts to all the wrong people. Not to worry though — when everyone needs to exchange their gifts, they become closer with each other and get to experience the Christmas spirit.
Santa Claus: The Weight Loss Champion
Everyone knows Santa Claus is a big guy with a belly that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” — unless you’re a fan of the 1964 stop-motion animated classic “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” where Santa gets really skinny during the off season. Pressured by his wife to eat plenty of between-meal snacks so the kids won’t be disappointed, Santa still manages to keep the weight off by Christmas Eve. Fortunately, once he dons his famous big red coat, you really can’t tell that he looks like the “after” photo of a weight loss ad.
In all honesty, Santa’s job is so stressful (you try getting your employees to make millions of toys every year while they’re considering careers in dentistry) that it makes sense he would burn off a ton of calories as Christmas nears. Considering that Christmas was nearly cancelled due to fog that year until Rudolph’s shiny red nose saved the day, it’s surprising Santa didn’t get even skinnier.
Santa Claus: The Symbol
Santa Claus might be a real person in the movies, but even he knows his true worth lies in his ability to be a symbol for others. This is particularly true in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and its 1994 remake. In the films, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn in the original, Richard Attenborough in the remake) ends up becoming the Santa Claus of a major department store. Impressing families with his knowledge of toys, Kris starts recommending that they shop at other stores for better deals. While this upsets his bosses, they quickly learn the goodwill this generates is beneficial for them, and they start getting into the holiday spirit themselves.
As Kris reveals, Christmas isn’t a day in the year — it’s a state of mind. And once he starts spreading this gentle philosophy among hardened cynics, his ability to inspire proves his greatest superpower of all. Although his status as the “real” Santa Claus is left ambiguous, the film reinforces Santa’s status as a symbol of goodwill and decency.
Santa Claus: The Warrior
With all the magical holiday characters out there, it was inevitable that there would come a day when they’d need to assemble and form a superhero team. That’s the premise of “Rise of the Guardians” (2012) which sees the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman join forces with Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), aka “Nicholas St. North.”
But this Santa isn’t just the jolly old man to whom we’ve all become all accustomed. A seasoned warrior, North sports several biker-style tattoos and drives a souped-up sleigh. Charged with protecting the children of the world from the nightmares of Pitch Black, this Russian-born Santa is more than willing to show off his sword fighting skills when things get rough. Considering what a powerhouse Santa Claus is in both the Marvel and DC Universes, it’s a wonder why the Avengers and Justice League don’t just make him the official leader of their teams. He’s clearly one of the Guardians’ more powerful members.
Santa Claus: The Time Lord
How does Santa manage to deliver toys to all the world’s children in a single night? Maybe because he doesn’t really ride in a reindeer-powered sled, but a time traveling TARDIS. At least, that’s what has been suggested in a few episodes of BBC’s iconic “Doctor Who” TV show.
In the episode “The Doctor Dances,” the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) hinted to his companion Rose (Billie Piper) that he was Santa Claus, adding that Rose received a red bicycle when she was twelve. While he could have been joking, Santa is a real person in the Doctor Who universe. Indeed, a different Time Lord, the exiled cartographer Astrolabus, once claimed he was known by the name Santa Claus in the Doctor Who Magazine story “Voyager.”
Other stories and Doctor Who comics have shown the Doctor interacting with Santa, and Santa Claus appeared in the Christmas special “Last Christmas” alongside the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) in a shared dream. Frankly, considering all the different people the Doctor has been in his many regenerations, who’s to say he won’t morph into Santa at some point and fulfill Jolly Old Saint Nicholas’ duties for a few hundred years? He certainly has the experience — as well as the equipment.