Break out the mince pies and hand me a glass of eggnog! In case some of you have been locked in a cupboard since October, or are a graphic designer, Christmas, like a speeding truck with its drunken driver asleep behind the wheel, is approaching full speed with headlights blazing. All over the western world we anxious shoppers are filling the malls and emptying our wallets, pausing only to munch on a festive turkey ‘n cranberry burger before launching ourselves once more into the breach. Soon we will all stagger home, tearful and loaded with useless crap only to discover that once more we have forgotten to buy sellotape and we will have to improvise with homemade flour and water glue to secure our wrapping paper. After a couple of strong drinks, we will shove our insecurely covered gifts under a leaning, shedding tree and try to forget what we did at the office party by switching on the television and relaxing in front of a seasonal film.
Chances are, at some point during that film, a familiar figure will make an appearance. A red overcoat. A white beard. A gut to rival that of Hugh Rowland on Ice Road Truckers. At this time of year, the schedules are packed with Santas of every size and persuasion and chances are whichever one you happen to come across, he’ll be about as convincing as your Dad used to be in that rayon suit and dead-possum facefur get up he used to try and fool you with when you were six. But which of the many is the least persuasive as the bringer of gifts and good cheer and, more importantly, why? Let’s take a look and see…
Least Convincing Santa #5: “As soon as this is over I’m calling my agent”
At some time in every comedian’s career trajectory, usually somewhere well after the ball has peaked, lies the Christmas film. It’s as though every agent in Hollywood thinks the answer to fading popularity is to stuff their client into a red hat and hand them a sack of toys. You only have to glance at Tim Allen’s face in The Santa Clause to realise what a death blow to an actor’s pride this experience can be. How much worse then, to find yourself in said red hat, but not even be the star of the show? How much worse to find yourself prancing around a workshop full of elves, ho-ho-ho-ing like a rapper stuck on repeat and discover that you are playing second fiddle to a gurning, obnoxious, limelight stealing ham like Vince Vaughn?
Very much worse. In the film Fred Claus, Paul Giamatti plays sensible elder brother Santa to Vaughn’s man-child younger brother Fred. Now Giamatti has an Emmy and not one, but two Golden Globes. He is a proper actor and although he must have been thinking of his paycheck when he signed up for this limping travesty of seasonal cheer, his despair and loathing shines through his large white beard like a set of 240v Christmas lights. As Vaughn grandstands and hollers, it’s all Giamatti can do not to take a candy cane and shove it up Vince’s butt. Any child confronted by this Santa would probably feel more like slipping the poor sad man a couple of Valium from mommy’s medicine cabinet than taking a toy from his sack.
Least Convincing Santa #4: “I’m trying so hard to be jolly it’s creepy”
But at the other end of the jollity scale, things aren’t much better. A Miracle on 34th Street, is a heartwarming, simple little tale of a man who must prove to a disbelieving world that he really is Santa and not just some loony who likes inviting small children to sit on his knee. This concept worked in 1947, but even by 1994 when the film was remade with Richard Attenborough in the starring role, the idea of Father Christmas actually being some kind of madman was becoming uncomfortably possible. Attenborough does his best to overcome this unfortunate slide into mass cynicism by being the only actor playing Santa to actually have a real beard and twinkling away over its white fluffiness for all he is worth. Sadly, although Mara Wilson acts her little socks off as the darling muppet who believes Santa is really true, Attenborough never manages to shake off the impression that lurking beneath the good cheer is a maniac just waiting to whip out a gun and hold some wailing infant hostage.
Least Convincing Santa #3: “Scaring small children is my metier”
So insincerity is a real problem for those attempting the St Nicolas role. For Santa to work, we need to really believe that the man under the costume genuinely wants to hand out toys to children and drink mulled wine until he falls over. How about a Santa who throws in a whole flourishing career as another seasonal myth in order to don the furry mantle of good will to all men?
For Jack Skellington, becoming Santa is a response to midlife crisis. As brilliant as he is at reducing humans to piles of weeping terror, even a master can become weary of his craft. Jack embraces his new calling with the enthusiasm and attention to detail one would expect from a man who has taken Halloween from a dreary pagan festival involving chanting and chicken-beheading to the pumpkin festooned multibillion dollar spending opportunity it has become. Sadly, Jack doesn’t make a very convincing Santa. He has the attitude, but the one thing the previous two had and he lacks is the correct silhouette. The problem with Jack is that he’s just too bony to make a good Santa.
Least Convincing Santa #2: “Sleigh? That’s my getaway car.”
So back to humans. How about a Santa who ends up in a suit for totally pragmatic reasons? In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton puts his devil may care persona to good use playing an unreconstructed drunk and petty thief who uses his costume to scope out burglary opportunities in the mall where he works. This Santa reeks of whisky and has vomit stains on his boots. No female elf is safe around him and he’s more likely to empty your stocking than fill it with goodies. Yet strangely, this version of Santa is the most convincing. Anyone who has queued up for hours, squalling kids in tow, (or even been one of those squalling kids) waiting for a bored teenager in striped tights and fake ears to direct you into a dingy hut where a fat sweaty guy who hates children is going to hand over a “gift” which cost a tenth of what you paid for the whole experience, will heave an instant sigh of recognition when Billy Bob staggers into view with his suit on back to front. Yes, this Santa is the personification of today’s Spirit of Christmas Present – naked greed, hedonism, instant gratification – and because of that loses this particular award hands down.
Least Convincing Santa # 1: “I love reindeer. Especially roasted.”
The final entry takes us back to the very roots of Christmas. Long ago, before Jesus came along and someone had the bright idea of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Men, deep in the dark woods of Scandinavia lived the supernatural creatures upon which our kindly version of Father Christmas is based. Hairy, hungry, these pagan spirits would rather eat a child than give it a present and in a welcome example of raw honesty, the film Rare Exports rips aside our comfortable modern platitudes about a jolly Santa to give us the truth: Father Christmas is an antler horned God of the type that scampers about the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch torturing lost souls. Instead of making toys, this Santa’s elves collect naughty children, put them in sacks and place them at the feet of their master, ready as a handy snack for when he wakes up on the 25th. Yes, according to the Finns, Santa is none other than Pan, Old Nick, The Horned God or whatever you care to call him and although we never get to see him in all his goat legged glory because he is encased in a block of ice, we can be sure that once his elves have finally managed to thaw him out, ho-ho-ho! isn’t what he’s going to be bellowing when he emerges.
Which makes him the least convincing Santa. Because although the others have their flaws, at least they look vaguely like something you might find on a Christmas card, rather than the Baby Daddy in Rosemary’s Baby. Or to put it another way, of all the Santas out there, this is the one I definitely wouldn’t want to hear coming down my chimney.
And with that, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one and all!
(note: Cath originally posted this article over at the F-List Podcast. Check them out)