It's easy to believe in God. Oh sure, there's a lot of baggage–do you encourage your neighbors to share your beliefs; is Crusading still obligatory, and if so, do you really need the full suit of armor; are poor people deserving of charity, or simply receiving punishment for their sins; and do you join up with a pre-existing religion, or do you spend your time naked in the forest, covered in chicken fat, and muttering incantations you read off the back of cereal boxes? Important questions, to be sure, but a basic belief in God–a belief that some sentient force is responsible for and still intimately involved with the whole of Creation–isn't that hard. We've been trained by movies and TV to view Him as a sort of conscious Universal Remote, existing to adjust things whenever the plot requires; if there's a contradiction, we're simply told, "Ah, but that's just ineffability at work."
It's trickier with Santa Claus. Everyone knows how there's always one kid on the playground come December who likes running around spoiling it for everyone, telling the younger grades that there's no jolly fat man coming down their chimney 'round midnight; Mom and Dad eat the cookies, Mom and Dad buy the presents, wrap them, and leave them under the tree. Thing is, that truth-telling snot wouldn't be nearly as convincing if it weren't for the fact that Santa is an inherently hard sell. You couldn't convince a devout Catholic that God is all vapor and paternal wish-fulfillment just by saying, "He doesn't exist," but take an even moderately clever seven year-old, point out the number of mall Santas in existence, and you're already two-thirds of the way to crushing a piece of the brat's adorable innocence.
There are a lot of reasons for this, most of which are far too serious for this blog, so let's focus on the most basic one: the mechanics. Space-time-wise, Claus is a huge pain in the ass. When you're a kid, you believe just about anything, since you haven't been on the planet long enough to know how full of shit nearly everything is; but even with that, it's a little embarrassing to realize how long you were willing to accept the notion of one man being able deliver millions upon millions of presents in the space of one night's worth of rapid transit.
But implausible or not, Santa is a holiday tradition, and a regularly recurring character in any number of Christmas-themed movies and cartoon specials. Placed in a fictional context, The Great Red One is easier to justify, but there are still certain problems that have to be overcome to get past suspension of disbelief. You're never going to get a realistic Santa, obviously; so the question becomes one of balance. If fiction can provide us with a reasonable God, how hard is it to give us a St. Nick that makes sense?
Pretty hard, actually, and that's in no small part due to the difficulties in making a decent Christmas movie. There's nothing inherently wrong with David Huddleston–he's jolly, he's got the beard, he fits the suit. But when you surround him with a crap fest like Santa Claus: The Movie, it doesn't matter how appropriate he looks; there's not a lot of Christmas spirit going around. Santa has any number of flaws, but probably the greatest for the subject at hand is its attempts at a painfully misguided mythology, coming up with all sorts of fancy reasons for why Big Red does what he does, and the more complicated those reasons become, the more attention is drawn to the utter absurdity of the concept.
Did you ever see Lady In The Water? Remember how every five minutes Paul Giamatti had to go running to the old Korean woman to get more back story, and how each time it felt like the already shaky plotting was getting that much worse? This is like Santa Claus; you don't take something impossible and explain it by throwing in other, unconnected impossible things. It'd be like trying to put out a house-fire with a cat–you get points for originality, but you still have a fire. Plus a dead cat, and that really nasty burnt-hair smell that gets into everything.
Or how about Tim Allen's Santa Clause? Watered down from a supposedly much darker script, the high concept hook is simple enough: Allen inadvertently "kills" the current Santa, then puts on the dead man's suit and starts delivering presents with his son. The premise goes out of its way to explain what's probably the easiest part of the mythos to swallow–that St. Nick isn't immortal, he's simply a Yuletide version of the Phantom, with some magic thrown on the trap to ensure its success. But the idea of progression, of a logical system that follows from point A onward, does a lot for the viewer's disbelief. Clause isn't a great movie, but that small nod to consequence does a lot to ground the weirder parts. (Like, for instance, the hoary cliché that every adult has a "lost present," the one gift that would automatically melt their stony hearts. I don't think getting a Sega Genesis would make me into a better person at this point.)
But then came the sequels, and as always with sequels, the increasingly forced "twists." In part two, it turns out that the Clause has a Catch; Allen has to find a Mrs. Claus, or else the holiday is ruined, etc. I'll admit, I haven't seen this (or the follow up, Santa Clause 3: Some More Bullshit We Just Made Up), but if every Santa has to have a Mrs. Claus, what happened to the wife of the guy Allen killed in part one? The system in the first movie is designed to ensure the continuity of Claus-dom; the system in the second seems to be working against that. It's nitpicky to obsess over a kid's movie (especially an apparently not-very-good-one), but at the heart of the complaint is an idea that's bogged down a good many supposedly fun-filled holiday romps: it's all about the letter of the law and not the spirit. Santa needs a wife for no other reason than that's how the story goes; which is the same reason why he had to fatten up, wear red, and grow a beard in the first movie. Oh, it's also the same reason he had to spout some hollow crap about family togetherness–not because it means anything, but because the words have such a pleasant sound.
There are great Santas out there, though, like Kris Kringle from the Rankin & Bass classic, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. The special starts with a baby Kris deposited on the doorstep of some friendly toy-making dwarves; once he grows to manhood he sets out to find his destiny, running into a quickly thawed Winter Warlock, a love interest, and the heinous Burgermeister, who hates toys. Over the course of his adventures, we learn the origin of the flying reindeer, the reason behind the name "Claus," and even an explanation why Santa only gives out presents once a year. And it all works, too–the writing is serviceable, the songs are catchy (I will now have "Put One Foot In Front Of The Other" in my head till July), and the fantasy elements are charming. But what makes Town work where, say, the convoluted claptrap of Claus fails is a light touch, and that it never seems to be taking place in the "real" world. The Burgermeister's realm exists in the pseudo-European township where all of Universal's classic monster movies were set, and the stop-motion animation means that even when the story catches up to the present, there's still a good distance between it and ourselves. (The Nightmare Before Christmas operates the same way; it updates the human world to mid-'50's domestic bliss, but much like the pinkly perfect suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, there's no question that what we're seeing is stylized.)
Since Santa is for kids, it makes sense he'd work best in stories made for children; and while Santa Claus: The Movie and The Santa Clause franchise are unquestionably "family" entertainment, the attempt to address adult concerns (for Santa Claus: The Movie, a far too serious and unwieldy concept, for Clause murder, indentured servitude and enforced matrimony) makes for cluttered, insipid movie-making. But it is possible to do a Santa right without resorting to stick figures–and my vote for the best in the business has got to go to Edmund Gwynn from the original Miracle On 34th Street. Miracle reaches for the brass ring–it wants to sell the kiddies and their parents on Christmas magic, but instead of overloading us with treacle, bad special effects, and noisy comedy, we instead get whimsy, a handful of cleverness, and a script that favors ambiguity over head-thumping theatrics. (Although there is a bit of the latter, to be sure.) Gwynn is never shown doing any overt magic; beyond being decent, caring, and well-educated, he's largely normal, his belief in his Claus-ness being the most unusual thing about him. By not getting into the details–all that stuff that makes Santa so hard to swallow for anyone with a basic knowledge of physics and/or reality–it allows you to lay back and bask in the non-specific holiday wonderfulness. And really, that's what Christmas is all about: warm, cozy generalities. You start focusing in, you start remembering the stress, the bad health, the way your grandma's house smells like eggnog and sawdust; or else, how all those tags signed "St. Nick" looked a lot like your dad's handwriting.