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The Best TV and Movie Santas of All Time

Put the ho ho ho in your holidays with this must-watch list

(Left to right) Edmund Gwenn in "Miracle on 34th Street" and Tim Allen in "The Santa Clause."
(Left to right) Edmund Gwenn in "Miracle on 34th Street" and Tim Allen in "The Santa Clause."
Bettmann/Getty Images; Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection

This holiday season will see two new entries in the pop culture Santa Claus canon — one with a familiar face and one brand new. On Nov. 16, Tim Allen, 69, returns in a Disney+ miniseries sequel to The Santa Clause trilogy, in which everyman-turned-Santa Scott Calvin sets out to find his replacement as he nears retirement age. On the other end of the spectrum, Stranger Things star David Harbour takes on the man in red in Violent Night, a black comedy action thriller in which he helps a wealthy family defend their compound after mercenaries attack on Christmas Eve. Below, see how Allen stacks up against some of our other favorite movie Santas, then check out Violent Night to decide if Harbour belongs on the naughty or nice list.

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The Santa: Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

The premise: In this beloved holiday film, Macy’s special events director Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) hires a man to play the department store’s Santa Claus after his predecessor is discovered to be drunk during the Thanksgiving Day Parade. The new guy throws a wrench into Doris’ plans when he claims to be the real Kris Kringle, kicking off a sensational trial in which he defends his sanity — and makes those involved in the case question their own beliefs in the magic of Christmas. Gwenn won the best supporting actor Oscar, and Richard Attenborough earned acclaim for taking on the role in the 1994 remake. 

Why he belongs on the nice list: In a world full of cynics, Kringle manages to restore faith in the hearts of nonbelievers by something as simple as talking to a little girl in Dutch. 

Watch it: Miracle on 34th Street on Prime Video, Apple TV, Disney+

The Santa: Stan Francis in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The premise: OK, we know the Rankin/Bass special is a seasonal classic, but we have some complaints about this stop-motion Santa: Reindeer bullying runs rampant at his North Pole workshop, and he’s, well, a bit svelte for our liking. (As Mrs. Claus says, “Whoever heard of a skinny Santa?”) The “king of jing-a-ling” does get bonus points for having a catchy musical number with “Jingle Jingle Jingle,” a feisty partner and a keen fashion sense — we’d definitely wear that plaid hunting cap he dons the first time he meets a newborn Rudolph. 

Why he belongs on the nice list: In the end, Santa emerges as a visionary hiring manager who recognizes how the innate strengths of his future employees (namely, a shiny red nose) might help out in a crisis (a Christmas-threatening blizzard). 

Watch it: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on Prime Video

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The Santa: Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)

The premise: After divorced toy salesman Scott Calvin (Allen) accidentally makes Santa fall off his roof on Christmas Eve, he finds a card that says, “If something should happen to me, put on my suit. The reindeer will know what to do.” Although initially skeptical, he suits up and helps finish delivering the toys, before being whisked back to the North Pole, where head elf Bernard (David Krumholtz) fills him in on some legalese: According to the “Santa Clause,” Scott has formally accepted all of Santa’s duties! The film was such a runaway smash that it launched a trilogy and this fall’s upcoming miniseries. 

Why he belongs on the nice list: In addition to being a magical entity, Scott/Santa is a dedicated father to son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), and he fights for visitation rights when his ex-wife mistrusts his slide into Santadom.

Watch it: The Santa Clause on Prime Video, Apple TV, Disney+

Ed Asner in "Elf."
New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Santa: Ed Asner in Elf (2003)

The premise: The late sitcom legend won five Emmys for playing the curmudgeonly Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and his own spin-off series, but he shows off a decidedly jollier side as Santa. When a human baby crawls into Santa’s sack and is accidentally taken back to the North Pole, he’s raised as Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell, 55) by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart, 93), who works in Santa’s workshop. Asner’s Santa presides over a winter wonderland populated with Rankin/Bass-inspired polar critters, and much like Lou Grant, he seems like the kind of boss who’d make for an excellent mentor. 

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Why he belongs on the nice list: When Buddy heads to New York City to find his real family, the world traveler offers three pieces of advice about the Big Apple: “First off, you see gum on the street, leave it there. It isn’t free candy. Second, there are, like, 30 Ray’s Pizzas. They all claim to be the original. But the real one’s on 11th. And if you see a sign that says ‘peep show,’ that doesn't mean that they’re letting you look at presents before Christmas.”

Watch it: Elf on Prime Video, Apple TV, HBO Max

The Santa: Paul Giamatti in Fred Claus (2007)

The premise: An Emmy winner for HBO’s John Adams, Giamatti, 55, stepped into the role of another consequential man with white hair and a belly in this heartwarming comedy written by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman. When his brother Fred (Vince Vaughn, 52) is arrested for impersonating a Salvation Army worker, Nick invites him up to the North Pole to earn back the money he gives him to make bail. As they make toys in the run-up to the holidays, a supernatural entity efficiency expert named Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey, 63) — who recently canned the Easter Bunny — threatens to shut down the North Pole. Can Fred and Nick save the holiday and deliver toys in time?

Why he belongs on the nice list: Much to the chagrin of the cutup Fred, Nick is not only a bringer of joy to millions of children and a literal saint, but he’s also a heck of a nice brother. How annoying.  

Watch it: Fred Claus on Prime Video, Apple TV, HBO Max