Craig McKenzie takes a look at various depictions of Santa Claus in cinema and considers the power of belief and imagination in Christmas fiction…
Christmas time is almost upon us and that means many things to different people. For kids it means that an overweight man in a red suit will be due to do his rounds and provide them with every gift they could possibly desire. It could be the case for adults as well.
The myth of Santa Claus is told to children from a very young age to make Christmas appear to be a magical time full of possibilities. There’s a lot of iconography attached to the myth such as the North Pole workshop staffed by Elves; the sleigh dragged by reindeer; Santa coming down the chimney to deliver the presents. It’s a great harmless fiction that fuels the imaginations of children excited about Christmas as they buy into the magic. The older they get the more logical questions start to creep in such as “how does he fit down the chimney?”, “what about people who don’t have a chimney?” and “how does he get around every house in the world in one night?”
Even without being a parent, these are natural questions that often stump parents, many of whom will have their own explanation designed to appease their little ones in order to maintain the magic a little longer. This is something that often crops up in films where Santa is a character. In The Santa Clause Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin tells his son that believing in something sometimes means that you just believe in it. In this case he was using it to fob his son off so he would get to sleep earlier but the statement resonates because a great deal of films that feature Santa as a character promote variations on that message.
How powerful is imagination where Christmas is concerned, in fiction? There is an endearing innocence attached to the unquestioning belief in the impossible around this time of year.
The Santa Clause is a great example of belief in this way, sitting as it does at the core of the film on a couple of levels.
Scott’s son Charlie has stopped believing in his father because it’s a ’90s movie and he’s the standard ’90s Dad who spends too much time at the office and not enough time paying attention to his family. See also Jingle All The Way, Hook and countless others for examples of this. It’s a good arc for a family film because it tends to end with the father seeing the error of their ways, waking up to what’s really important in life and promising to change from that point on. Of course it’s never established what their employer will think of that but that’s not important for a heart-warming family film! One thing The Santa Clause does really well is connect Charlie’s belief in his father with believing in Santa. Once Scott becomes Santa he starts down the road to becoming a better father and he forges a strong connection with his son. Scott literally becomes the magical figure that Charlie believes in unconditionally.
Behind that is the mechanics of how Santa works in this universe. Scott takes on the role after startling the previous one who falls off the roof and dies. In this universe the Santa mantle is passed from person to person through a contract–appropriately for a businessman like Scott–that binds someone to it until it is passed to someone else. In many ways it behaves like a curse found in a horror movie which is another article entirely but this is how the universe this film inhabits explains the immortality of Santa. There are questions around whether it needs to be explained but the film is built around Scott becoming Santa so it’s a necessary explanation. Curiously the film doesn’t explain other aspects of the myth such as the ability to get around the entire world in a single night. In the film it’s just something that happens despite how long he is shown to pause to deal with things like angry dogs or conscious children.
Magic is very much a force that exists in this universe so it’s easily explained in context.
The film does something that many films featuring Santa does – it highlights that adults don’t believe in Santa any more because at some point they simply cease to believe in magic.
Something about the process of growing older and maturing removes the ability to believe in the magical and that’s very much seen as a bad thing to lose. Framed slightly differently it could be depicted as a morbid eventuality for the young characters in those films but it’s broadly used as a way to lament the loss of youth in the adults. They are to be pitied because they’ve lost the ability to believe whereas children still understand how this world really works. Once again, very standard stuff for a family film and framed through the lens of Christmas it makes perfect sense.
That unconditional belief is used in different ways elsewhere. The Miracle on 34th Street remake uses children’s belief in Santa to benefit him in a legal sense, i.e. if enough children believe in him then Richard Attenborough’s Santa must be the real deal. It’s probably beyond flimsy in a legal sense but very much in keeping with the Christmas spirit. It’s similar to The Santa Clause in that belief is the most important thing but it’s deployed differently and ultimately left up to the viewer to decide if Attenborough is playing the real Santa or a crazy old man who believes he’s the real Santa. It challenges those watching to express what they believe in their capacity as an observer which is a really clever way to do it. There’s enough evidence within the narrative to suggest that every good thing he does was going to happen anywhere but just enough of a hint towards the magical to make a case for the contrary.
The Netflix movie The Christmas Chronicles starring Kurt Russell as Santa plays around with the idea of belief in its own way.
Kate (Darby Camp) is described as coming from a long line of “True Believers” which means those who never stopped believing in Santa or the magic of Christmas. The film creates an arc for her brother Teddy (Judah Lewis) where he has to reclaim his lost belief by accepting his father’s death and recognising his own self-worth. In his case belief in Santa is tied to belief in himself and achieving one means achieving the other. The way it plays out is really poignant and hammers home the theme perfectly, if rather obviously. Kurt Russell’s Santa is somewhat careless as he gets himself caught on camera before falling into the trap set by Kate and Teddy that ends up revealing him to them as a real person.
As the film progresses he doesn’t try to hide who he is from anyone and uses his boundless knowledge of what they wanted for Christmas as children to encourage them to help. There is an implication that the adults would forget what happened soon after he departs and go back to being non-believers but a lot happens in this film because of the power Santa has to inspire. Once again belief is powerful because of what becomes possible when people cast aside doubt and actually believe.
Christmas is quite literally a magical time in this universe with “Christmas Spirit” being a powerful force that prevents the world from descending into darkness. Santa talks about his last missed Christmas resulting in the Dark Ages so the loss of Christmas Spirit is established as being something very powerful and restoring it sets up the stakes for the film. Santa has to finish his rounds before Christmas Eve ends or there’s no telling what horrible things will ensue.
As for the familiar Santa iconography this film has it all and explains how Santa is able to complete his rounds through using what appears to be a wormhole to quickly move from place to place and a magical hat that allows him to turn into coal dust in order to quickly travel down chimneys to leave the presents. His reindeer achieve flight through attaching Jingle Bells to them so explanations crop up organically as the story is being told, though they aren’t detailed and rely on suspension of disbelief to accept them.
Since you’re already watching a Christmas movie with Santa as a major character it’s not an unreasonable expectation but the wormhole approach strikes me as a fun science fiction way to explain one of the most famous Santa mechanics. His immortality, magic hat, magic list and endless knowledge of what seems to be every person on Earth is just something you have to go with. The immortality is actually explained in the sequel though the explanation is still magical in nature.
There is a conclusion to be drawn from all of this. The films mentioned all feature magic specifically associated with both Christmas and Santa Claus as a figurehead of that time of year. Belief in both him and the magic is something that children just have and adults tend to lose over time so in that context belief is associated with innocence and that belief being lost is symbolic of losing that innocence.
To me, Christmas is still a magical time even though I’ve long since stopped believing in Santa. Many of us will have our rituals that we perform around that time of year such as decorating the house, making particular traditional festive food, listening to specific music, watching a personally curated playlist of Christmas films to name but a few. It is a holiday that has been heavily commercialised but beyond that there’s a purity to it that brings back at least a fraction of that cherubic wonder that made it such an anticipated time of year when very young.
Christmas can be the time of year where anything is possible and given this year it’s more important than ever to remember that.