“Around the year 330 A.D. in what is now Turkey, there lived a kind-hearted bishop named Saint Nicholas.”
Much as the title of Andrew de Burgh’s short film The Legend of Santa promises myth while suggesting its flipside, the text with which it opens similarly equivocates between fact and fiction by situating its events in a historical context while presenting them in a fabulistic, once-upon-a-time register. That text is the only verbal anchor in a film that will otherwise be told visually. Though certainly not crude, its style is simple. Its images – inchoate forms impressionistically sketched and coloured in pastel shades – appear, but for some minimal animation, to have been lifted from a children’s book. Which is in fact exactly right – for this is an adaptation by writer Daniel Colyer of his own 2017 book A Magical Christmas Adventure.
The Legend of Santa is an origin story, offering an aetiological account of the bishop’s transformation from smalltown giver of gifts to elf-helped international toymaker. On this journey we see a figure rooted in reality (or at least realism) gradually becoming a myth. Traveling upland through Asia Minor with a gift-laden cart, Nicholas must, in the increasingly wintry conditions, replace his horse with a reindeer and his cart wheels with snow runners, until somehow he ends up, old and white-bearded, at a North Pole all lit in Christmas-bauble colours by the aurora Borealis, where he finds a colony of friendly little folk to assist his production pipeline – and then, when the moment to deliver comes around, his reindeer start to fly. Each of these steps in the invention of Santa makes an incremental sort of sense, although the ground covered from beginning to end involves miraculous distance and a considerable leap of faith. Cutaways to sand in an hourglass and or to the hands on a clockface show the slow passage of time which calibrates this ordinary man’s apotheosis in the popular imagination.
Sweet and sentimental, this is a far cry from de Burgh’s previous horror shorts like Just One Drink (29015), The Twisted Doll (2017) or Queen of Hearts (2017), while the complete lack of dialogue here distinguishes this piece from his talk-heavy sci-fi feature The Bestowal (2018). All of which is to say that de Burgh’s study in the emergence of a Christmas icon is also a sign of his own emergent versatility as a filmmaker.
© Anton Bitel