Photos: The Scariest Santas You’ll Ever See

Browse our selected illustrations of some of the strangest and creepiest Santa Clauses ever put down on paper and then vote for your favorite

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Smithsonian.com

Snickering Santa

Snickering Santa
(Image by The Gallery Collection/Corbis)

Maybe it is the jagged brow on this 1959 rendering of Father Christmas by Pablo Picasso, but Santa’s smile is more like a menacing smirk.

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Smoking Santa

Smoking Santa
(Image by PoodlesRock/Corbis)

It may seem odd that Santa is smoking and touching his nose in this illustration from an 1888 version of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” later called “The Night Before Christmas.” But the verses of Moore’s poem, first published in 1822, mention both habits. “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,” writes Moore. In a later stanza, he adds, “And laying his finger aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!”

Moore borrowed these traits from an earlier description. Washington Irving wrote about St. Nicholas smoking a clay pipe and “laying his finger beside his nose” to magically disappear in A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty in 1809.

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Glowing Santa

Glowing Santa
(Image by ImageZoo/Corbis)

The lighting, cast from below, gives this vintage Christmas postcard an eerie feel. With a feather or quill pen to his nose, Santa appears to be plotting something. Or is he simply checking things twice?

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Santa Schemes

Santa Schemes
(Image by Corbis)

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries has a rare, 1883 edition of Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” with intricate illustrations by artists William T. Smedley, Frederic B. Schell, Alfred Fredericks and Henry R. Poore. Below this particular wood engraving, the text reads, “His eyes: how they twinkled! his dimples: how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.”

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Angry Santa

Angry Santa
(SuperStock/Getty)

This scowling Santa with deep-set eyes appeared on the cover of Black and White magazine, which from 1889 to 1912 included engravings and sketches amidst its weekly coverage of politics, literature and science.

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A Santa Holdup

A Santa Holdup
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In 1912, Will Crawford, who would later illustrate Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, created a rather startling cover for an issue of Puck magazine, a publication started by a cartoonist in 1876. Titled “Hands up!” and captioned “As Santa Claus looks to some of us,” his design depicts Santa, left eye closed, right eyebrow arched and pointing a handgun directly at the viewer.

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Snooping Santa

Snooping Santa
(Mary Evans Picture Library)

This circa 1900 illustration of Father Christmas peering over the headboard of a bed where two children are opening presents adds a layer of creepiness to this verse of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”

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Monkeying Around with Santa

Monkeying around with Santa
(Estate of Lawson Wood/Chris Beetles/Mary Evans)

Lawson Wood, a cartoonist who lived from 1878 to 1957, was famous for his imaginative drawings of animals, especially monkeys. This comic illustration shows two young monkeys fooling Santa Claus (played by Wood’s reoccurring character, Gran’pop) into filling a bottomless Christmas stocking.

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Forgetful Santa

Forgetful Santa
(National Christmas Center)

In this illustration from the late 19th century, Santa forgoes his sleigh and rides a reindeer. Something about it is unsettling.

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Cold-Blooded Santa

Cold-blooded Santa
(Michael Blaine to Helen Kohen, 1988. Helen L. Kohen papers, 1978-1996. Archives of American Art.)

Amidst the letters and postcards from artists, interviews and photographs that Helen L. Kohen, a former art critic of the Miami Herald, donated to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in 1997 is this holiday card with an alligator donning a Santa suit. The egrets and smaller alligator also in the lithographic print seem as curious as we are.

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Beastly Santa

Beastly Santa
(Warrington Colescott christmas card to Ray Gloeckler, 2000. Raymond Gloeckler papers, 1952-2008. Archives of American Art.)

In December 2000, Warrington Colescott gave fellow Wisconsin printmaker Ray Gloeckler a Christmas card with this monstrous Santa Claus on it. The etching or drawing, now in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, shows Santa with a serrated smile, long fingernails and a rat peering out of his beard.

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Santa the Burglar

Santa the Burglar
(Boris Artzybasheff to W. Langdon Kihn, 1951. W. Langdon Kihn papers, 1904-1990, bulk 1904-1957. Archives of American Art.)

Boris Artzybasheff, whose illustrations appeared on many covers of Time in the 1940s, ‘50s and 60s, and his wife Betty sent this Christmas card to artist W. Langdon Kihn in 1951. Kihn’s widow donated the card—with a Santa bandit robbing “your income” transposed on a fake 1040 tax form—to the Archives of American Art in 1959, two years after her husband’s death.

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Boozy Santa

Boozy Santa
(Edward Virginius Valentine to Milch Gallery, ca. 1920. Milch Gallery records, 1911-1980. Archives of American Art.)

This sketch of a blitzed Santa Claus made by Edward Virginius Valentine sometime between 1911 and 1930 stands in great contrast to the stately bronze and marble statues of figures such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson that the artist is better known for. The Archives of American Art acquired it along with other records from Milch Gallery, a now defunct New York City establishment once owned by brothers Edward and Albert Milch.

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Santa the Arsonist

Santa the Arsonist
(Ralph Fabri to Dale Pontius, 1939. Dale Pontius papers relating to Ralph Fabri, 1935-1974. Archives of American Art.)

Hungarian-born artist Ralph Fabri gave this frightening print of Santa sitting on an asteroid, fist under chin, like Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” to his friend Dale Pontius for Christmas in 1939. Looking down at a fiery Earth, Santa doesn’t seem to be thinking happy thoughts. Fabri signed the print “with apologies to Rodin.”

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Mischievous Santa

Mischievous Santa
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Artist Robert Walter Weir’s 1838 oil painting “St. Nicholas” is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collections. “Weir’s Nicholas, with an impish gleam in his eye, resembles a classic trickster as much as a jolly gift-giver,” writes Owen Edwards in “A Mischievous St. Nick from the American Art Museum.” “He may be poised to fill stockings with toys and goodies—but he also looks as if he could be making off with the family silver.”

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Elfin Santa

Elfin Santa
(National Christmas Center)

It is clear that this illustration, which appeared in a 1940s edition of Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” took cues from Robert Walter Weir’s “St. Nicholas.” In both, Santa is beardless. He has a pipe fastened to his hood, and he is peering over his shoulder and touching his nose. Even the fireplace tools are similarly positioned. “He just isn’t the jolly, old guy that we know today,” says Jim Morrison, founder and historian at the National Christmas Center near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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Dancing Santa

Dancing Santa
(National Christmas Center)

American cartoonist Thomas Nast is largely to credit for the modern image of Santa Claus. For a few decades, beginning in the 1860s, he drew a roly-poly gift giver with a white beard, rosy cheeks and a red suit. But this engraving by the artist T.C. Boyd, which was featured in an 1848 edition of “The Night Before Christmas,” shows a very “Dutchified” Santa with knickers and a fur trapper’s hat.

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Santa Sewing

Santa Sewing
(National Christmas Center)

Brother Jonathan, a weekly, illustrated newspaper based in New York City in the mid-1800s, was known to publish special broadsides every 4th of July and Christmas. Appearing on one from 1852, this image is one of the earliest known depictions of where Santa lives. The artist places Santa’s workshop in an icy cave. (Thomas Nast would be the first to suggest the North Pole in the 1870s or ’80s.) Santa, who is finishing a jumping jack doll, is wearing a very courtly getup.

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Unkempt Santa

Unkempt Santa
(National Christmas Center)

This illustration titled “Santa Claus Paying His Usual Christmas Visit to His Young Friends in the United States” appeared in Harper’s Weekly on Christmas Day in 1858. Oddly, Santa’s sleigh has a turkey mounted like a hood ornament on it and children, instead of reindeer, are pulling it. Santa himself is wiry haired and looking a bit disheveled.

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Masked Santa

Masked Santa
(National Christmas Center)

In the 19th and early 20th century, a popular tradition for Pennsylvania Germans was to go belsnickling on St. Nicholas Day, or December 6. This meant that at least one person in a neighborhood—the “belsnickle”—would dress up, usually in raggedy clothes and a mask, and visit the homes of their neighbors, delivering either candy or coal to the children.

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Santa the Packrat

Santa the Packrat
(National Christmas Center)

By an artist named S. Merinsky, this “Santa Claus” lithograph from 1872 portrays a droopy-eyed Santa schlepping a tangled mass of loot. A black cat lurking near the chimney adds to the illustration’s dark vibe.

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Santa the Punisher

Santa the Punisher
(National Christmas Center)

In this image—one of ten included in a short storybook from the 1870s about holiday balls hosted in New York—a soot-covered Santa Claus waves switches at children, perhaps threatening to whip them if they behave badly. One of the young girls may even be crying; she has her eyes covered. Rather frighteningly, the caption reads, “I am coming little children.”

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Apathetic Santa

Apathetic Santa
(National Christmas Center)

Santa’s nonchalance on this 1870s trade card, measuring about four inches by two and a half inches, is a bit disconcerting. With all the houses he needs to get to, does he have the time to kick up a heel?

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Wild-Eyed Santa

Wild-Eyed Santa
(National Christmas Center)

The story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by a catalog writer at a Montgomery Ward department store and distributed in a souvenir book to kids visiting the store during the 1939 holiday season.

But the very first department store handout of this kind probably came from a John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. In 1878, the store gave out a booklet called “Christmas Chimes and New Year Greetings,” with this bug-eyed Santa on its cover. He looks about as scared of us as we are of him.

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