Various theories abound regarding the origins of the jolly fat Santa Claus, as he has come to be known and idolised by Western littlies (before they embrace adulthood cynicism and dismiss the concept). The ruddy-cheeked fat man in the garish red suit, hauling a bottomless sackful of pressies, was actually the work of Haddon Sundblom, who adapted turn-of-the-century artist Thomas Nast's Germanic ancestral images. (The jolly elf persona was known as 'Berchta' and, before that, to the Romans as 'Befana').
Sundblom's work soon became the standard by which all modern interpretations of Santa Claus have been based. In fact, an urban myth has long circulated that the Coca-Cola Company invented the modern Santa Claus image after utilising the Dutch graphic designer's work in an ad campaign from the late 1920s. Though it has been debunked, the legend was fuelled in the early 1980s when Coca-Cola acquired the Columbia Pictures studio and immediately greenlit the tentpole blockbuster release Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), starring David Huddlestone as the fat man and Dudley Moore as his chief elf, Patch. The movie reeked of corporate profiteering, and bombed.
The 'truth' behind the mythology of Santa Claus is currently being re-examined onscreen in Jalmari Helander's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), a pitch-black Finnish comedy that embraces the altogether more frightening origins of the joulupukki , or “Christmas buck” – a goat-headed spirit that sought out and disposed of naughty children at Christmas time.
Finland and its Benelux neighbours have stridently adhered to the darker Yuletide traditions of the region when depicting Santa Claus in on film – just last month, Dutch director Dick Maas' Sint caused a stir amongst parent groups (and a stampede at the local box office) with its depiction of Santa Claus as an ancient, murderous spirit unleashed upon modern Amsterdam.
In all fairness, the region which lays claim to ownership of the Santa Claus story (the name itself comes from the Dutch variation of 'St. Nicholas' – 'Sinterklaas') occasionally plays up the sweeter side of the fat man's legend – The Netherland's Joram Lürsen directed the blockbuster romantic-comedy Alles is liefde (2007), with a goofy department store Santa as its lovable hero; Norway's Bestevenner (aka Rafiki, 2009), directed by Christian Lo, features Santa inspiring a young girl to fight wrongful deportation; and Helander's countryman, Juha Wuolijoki, helmed the delightful Santa bio, A Christmas Story (2007).
However, the recent bad press that sullies Santa's reputation by making him a symbol of consumerism and gross sentimentality, undoubtedly has its origins in Hollywood. Such crass manipulations of his visage as John Murlowski's Santa with Muscles (1996, starring 'Hulk' Hogan) and John R. Cherry III's Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) were made in the spirit of such Z-grade abominations as Nicholas Webster's Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964); in 2011, we will see George Bonilla's Santa Claus Versus the Zombies. (Kudos to Mexican filmmaker Fernando Rovzar, whose beautiful 2008 work Navidad, SA pitted Santa Claus against the consumer might of Western society, in a bid to rid the world of crass Christmas commercialisation.)
Even in fine Christmas season films from the US, Santa Claus has been tarnished with a cynical brush that paints him as a rather desperate loser or out-and-out nutcase – Gene Hackman's undercover cop Santa in William Friedkin's The French Connection (1970); Dan Aykroyd's smashed Santa in John Landis' Trading Places (1983); and the one-two combination of cinema's worst shopping mall Santas, Jeff Gillen in Bob Clark's A Christmas Story (1983) and Billy Bob Thornton in Terry Zwigoff's bad-taste, big-heart classic Bad Santa (2003). Of course, one can wash away the grime of all these 'anti-Santi' depictions with a viewing of the heart-warming Christmas gem, George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street (1947) or, if you must, any of Tim Allen's The Santa Clause hits (1994, 2002, 2006).
Since George Albert Smith's 1896 silent short The Visit of Santa, Santa Claus and all that he represents has featured in the output of a great many filmmaking nations. Just as Santa is able to circle the globe and bring joy to the children of every country on Earth so, too, does his message of happiness shine through in the films from so many of those countries. Maybe not so much in Max Ophüls' L'assassinat du Pere Noël (The Killing of Santa Claus, 1941), starring Harry Baur, Marie-Helene Daste and Renee Faure and the first film to be made in German-occupied France, but certainly in Jean Eustache's deeply romantic Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (Santa Claus has Blue Eyes, 1966). In 1982, Christian Clavier starred opposite French comedian Gérard Jugnot, who filled out the Santa suit in his own inimitable style in the coarse farce, Le Père Noël est une ordure.
The powerful turn-of-the-century Russian film industry was one of the first to explore the cinematic magic inherent to Santa Claus in the stunning stop-motion short, The Insect's Christmas (1913). Germany's low-budget, independent filmmaking duo Till Schauder and Chris Valentien enjoyed festival exposure with their grungy New York-set street-Santa love story Santa Smokes (2002); the specifically-Aryan legend of Krampus – the evil spirit that, much like the Finnish joulupukki, grabs children on Christmas Eve and punishes them fatally for a year of wrong-doings – is a particularly potent Christmas image for those from the Germanic region and was turned into a dark but charming puppet-piece by director Zack Ward, called The Story of the Christmas Krampus (2008).
The influence of the Santa Claus legend appears to be borderless. India's leading animation powerhouse Toonz and veteran producer Ashok Amritraj's Hyde Park Productions are working with Hollywood technicians on that nation's first Santa-themed cartoon feature, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (due for a 2011 release); Hong Kong's animation leader T-Films lit up this Cannes film market with its animated Santa Claus adventure, the 3D feature Little Gobie; and Senagalese director Dyana Gaye was feted on the short film festival circuit for his moving short film Ousmane (Dewenti), an enthralling 16-minute drama about a street child (Abbasse Ba) who turns his back on begging and pens a letter to Santa Claus, pleading for his help.
In Japan, Hotei – a Buddhist monk with a shaved head, cheerful face and a big belly, symbolising the largeness of his soul – is one of the Seven Gods of Luck, signifying abundance and happiness. It is this image that has led to the acceptance of the Santa Clause mythology in Japanese culture; in legend, his Ho tei (cloth bag) is filled with candy for children, rice (signifying wealth) or food. Japanese filmmakers have not ignored the nation's love of Santa Claus – hip director Sabu made the frantic heist comedy Horudo appu daun (Hold Up Down) in 2005, featuring dim-witted crooks in Santa garb who lock their booty in train station lockers but don't have the change to retrieve it.
Japan also produced The Present, a 47-minute torture-porn shocker from director Kazuo Umezz. Its ickiness lies somewhere in the middle of what is most offensive about the sub-genre of horror films that feature dear old St. Nick as the perpetrator of horrible acts against young people who have been both naughty and nice. Most countries, for whatever reason, have dabbled in the bauble-lit world of Christmas nasties – America (Silent Night Deadly Night, 1984; Santa's Slay, 2005); Canada (the seminal snowy-slasher pic, Black Christmas, 1974; Christopher Plummer in The Silent Partner, 1978); India (Hide & Seek, 2010); Spain (Paco Plaza's '80s-set homage, A Christmas Tale, 2005); and Mexico (the psychedelically bad Santa Claus and The Devil, 1959).
It must be said, lagging well behind both the sentimental and sordid film versions of Santa Claus is the Australian film industry. Our film craftsmen have made valiant attempts to portray a summertime Santa – most notably, animation pioneer Yoram Gross' 1981 kids' classic Dot and Santa Claus (aka Dot Around The World) – but the conspicuous lack of snow-covered rooftops, button-and-carrot adorned snowmen and reindeer, would suggest the Australian summer Christmas landscape may not suit a big, fat man with a full beard and thick suit (some past Test cricketers excluded). There is hope – Delta Goodrem was recently confirmed as one of the voice actors on board for the Christmas 2011 animated release, Santa's Apprentice. But to firmly establish our own on-film Santa Claus heritage we may need a Christmas miracle, one that only a solidly built ageing elf (from the snowy plains of Lapland, if you'll believe our Finnish friends) can deliver...
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