From the Archives: I Am Santa Claus tracks those who live the St. Nick myth

From the Archives: I Am Santa Claus tracks those who live the St. Nick myth

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Growing up, I had a neighbor who reminded me of Santa Claus. He was an older fella, rotund, with a beard as long as it was white. He invariably wore red, and over the years he drove nothing but a series of red pickup trucks. He was the jolly sort, and even though he didn’t outwardly present as Santa Claus, there’s no denying that he leaned into the image a little. And why wouldn’t he? Young or old, Christmas celebrant or not, few feel anything less than joy when the image of Santa Claus is invoked. Even adults, who long ago stopped believing in the existence of a magical man who slides down the chimney to give presents to children over the course of a logistically impossible evening of charity, still feel a near Pavlovian glee when they hear Santa’s hearty “Ho, ho, hoooo!”

While all can agree that Santa Claus doesn’t actually exist, I Am Santa Claus makes a very strong case for the idea that Santa is indeed real. We see him on an annual basis at shopping malls around the world. We see him on TV and in movies. We see him slinging Coca Cola seasonally. We can even follow him on NORAD’s festive “Santa Tracker” every Christmas Eve. Many of us have scores of photographs with any of a number of Santas over the years, often times remarking “this year’s Santa was really good” or “the Santa at Macy’s this year was kinda lame.” What we never stop to consider is just who these flesh-and-blood people are that feel the need to portray Santa Claus for the masses. Because let’s face it, if you want to be a good Santa, it takes some commitment.

Writer/director Tommy Avallone follows a handful of Santas in the months leading up to Christmas. He also follows wrestling legend and Christmas enthusiast Mick Foley as he prepares to work as a Santa at his favorite seasonal Christmas village. Despite a host of similar features amongst the rank and file of Santas, no two are the same. There’s a gay Santa, a swinger Santa, a Santa that reads as Jewish (my assumption, of course — but I will note that he’s the BEST of the Santa’s), and even a purist Santa who prefers that all fellow Santas be religiously, behaviorally, and demographically similar to himself (he doesn’t mind getting blackout drunk, however).

Each Santa has a compelling story that Avallone smartly ties to their commitment to portraying everyone’s favorite North Pole citizen. For some of these guys, it’s an annual paycheck that they can’t live without. For others, it’s an opportunity for immortality in the family photographs of total strangers. For all of them, however, it’s a chance to put some love out into the world — a task that each of the Santas takes quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they’ve created an organization called FORBS or, The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. This group has regular meetings where Santas (at a number greater than you could ever imagine) meet to discuss both the business and pleasure of portraying jolly old Saint Nick. I’m reminded of Ringling Brothers circus clowns in that there is a very specific code of conduct that performers are held to while in clown makeup. It’s similar for Santas, but the limits of control are a little grayer, given that for most of these performers, their Santa look is a year round commitment.

This causes some controversy amidst their ranks, but not enough to devote much screen time to it. Instead, Avallone employs depictions of these tensions simply to illustrate how multicultural these men are, as well as how wedded they are to the brand, whatever shape it takes.

With a soundtrack full of a Christmas standards (alternate versions of course, such as a Blue Christmas cover by The Misfits) and even a few segments done in Rankin/Bass style claymation, I Am Santa Claus is a delightful seasonal treat. That said, I watched it in the middle of spring, and it went down just as easy. Add to that our current state of quarantine, and this lovely little documentary serves not just as a look into a little known subculture, but as a timely reminder that the spirit of Christmas is not one relegated to a single month out of the year. Love, kindness, and selflessness are inherently human qualities, and they can be practiced and cherished by anyone at any time.

I Am Santa Claus is available for digital rental/purchase.

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