A Different Kind of Christmas is a 1996 made-for-TV movie, originally broadcast on Lifetime on December 9, 1996.
While playing hockey out on a neighborhood street during a hot summer day in June, a group of boys discover that a man dressed as Santa Claus has moved into a house that was previously up for rent. The "Santa Claus" has turned the house into a year-round Christmas wonderland, consisting of a workshop filled with toys and candy, holiday decorations that cover the front yard and both the inside-and-outside of the house, and a small herd of reindeer. The man introduces himself as Santa Claus, even though one of the boys, ten-year-old Tommy Gates does not believe it. But Santa manages to help Tommy believe in him, and everyone is amazed to see the decorations light up and the Christmas bells ringing when Tommy says, "I believe in Santa Claus." He then allows the boys to take a look around at his new workshop and laughs merrily as he waves at an elderly couple watching him from their front porch.
Meanwhile, Tommy's mother, Elizabeth Gates is a member of the local attorney in the town hall, who has been struggling to achieve her career during her college graduation. At the end of one meeting, she holds another with her friend Susan and a business developer named Alan Schaefer, who is discussing about turning an abandoned railroad station into a community center through certain programs either for children or for adults. She promises to make her final decision before the city council in the next two weeks.
One of Elizabeth's partners, Frank Mallory soon learns about the "Santa Claus" man that has moved into Elizabeth's neighborhood and decides to learn more about this mysterious man. He soon learns that Santa's real name is Robert George, who has moved into the neighborhood to help the people get into the Christmas spirit not once a year, but through all 365 days of the year. He also learns that Robert had recently appeared as Santa to several famous men he met previously, including President John F. Kennedy, Ike, and Elvis Presley. Frank then promises Santa that he will print out an article in the next newspaper for the whole world to know about him.
Within the next few days, dozens of children and their parents start visiting Santa's workshop, admiring his house, decorations, toy shop, and his herd of reindeer. Unfortunately, some of the elderly neighbors begin to complain about Robert's plans about having a year-round Christmas business in their neighborhood and inform their complaints over to the local attorney, Elizabeth Gates, who is also the daughter of "Santa Claus" Robert George.
After discovering that her father has set up a year-round Christmas business and receiving multiple complaints from the neighbors, Elizabeth has the place shut down and "Santa" arrested. Later, she releases her father from jail and tells him to stay away from herself and her son, Tommy. Robert tries to find a new job in town, but after several failed attempts, he soon learns that being Santa is the only thing he's good at. A few days later, Elizabeth reveals to her son that the man who has played Santa is actually his grandfather and her father. Despite Tommy's objections, Elizabeth refuses to let him see his grandfather. After watching the news on their television, revealing the events that occurred the last few days, Tommy soon learns that his mother had put his grandfather in jail and tells her that he hates her.
Frank Mallory talks to Elizabeth about Santa and asks her why she hates her father so much. Elizabeth explains to him that her father has played Santa ever since she was a little girl growing up, and she was utterly embarrassed by his intentions on playing Santa, whether it was at home, at church, or even when they went out to eat. On the day of her graduation from college, she was embarrassed and upset when her father arrived to see her, dressed up as Santa Claus. Her hatred against her father was finished when her father wasn't at the hospital the night her mother died of cancer. Frank feels sorry for Elizabeth and is able to comfort her in her grieve and anger.
Realizing that he has messed things up with his daughter since he arrived, Santa decides to leave town and open up his Dream World elsewhere. He gives Frank Mallory all the money he had saved for Santa's Dream World and asks him to make sure it goes to a good place. Frank Mallory feels sorry for what has occurred the last few days and apologizes to Santa for him leaving. He then asks Santa where he was the night that his wife had died, and Santa explains to him that the doctors forced him to leave the hospital that night because he refused to leave his wife's side in several days. Instead of leaving the hospital, he went downstairs to spend some time with the children and enjoy their company.
Tommy soon learns from his friends that Santa was planning to move away, so he decides to stop his grandfather from moving out of town. He and all his friends head for Santa's house on their bikes, but Tommy rides ahead of his friends and calls out for them to catch up. As he rides his bike onto another street, an oncoming truck hits him off his bike, while his friends look on in complete shock. Shortly afterwards, Tommy is sent to the hospital.
At the hospital, Elizabeth is devastated when she learns that her son was trying to see his grandfather and had been critically injured in an accident. She blames her father for everything that had gone wrong since he arrived, though Frank points out to her that none of it would have happened if Elizabeth had not tried to keep Tommy away from his grandfather. He then tells Elizabeth about what had really happened the night her mother had died from cancer, and Ms. Gates soon learns that her father was not the obnoxious and crazy man she thought he was. She then enters the room that her son is in, and finds out that Tommy is unconscious, has several bruises on his head, and received a broken arm.
Later that day, Elizabeth's father arrives wearing his Santa suit, but is stopped by the security guards when he tries to see his daughter and Tommy. Elizabeth allows her father to see Tommy after seeing that her father is just as concerned about her son as she and Frank are. Later that night, Elizabeth asks her father why he was wearing that suit and he points out that this was the suit that her mother sewed for him. After a brief conversation, Elizabeth then confesses to her father that she had made a few mistakes just like him; by spending more time in pursuing a dream to be the town mayor, she hardly spent much time with her son. Santa then points out to Elizabeth that even though he was able to bring joy and happiness to others, he would trade it all in a second to have spent more time with his daughter.
The next day, Elizabeth is told by one of the nurses that a number of children that are hospitalized found out that her father was in the hospital and that they could use some cheering up. Elizabeth is able to make her father go out of Tommy's room and spend some time with the children, promising him that she will call him if Tommy is awake. But during his time with the children, Santa discovers that his daughter wants him to help her son recover quickly. However, Santa tells her that he cannot give her that gift unless she believes in him. Elizabeth finally gives in and tells him that she does believe in Santa Claus.
As she leaves the room, Elizabeth runs into her assistant Susan at the waiting desk. Susan demands that Ms. Gates waits for five minutes quickly sign some papers that will give Elizabeth the chance to be mayor of the town, but she declines and turns down the offer, telling Susan that the only thing important to her for the moment was to spend more time with her son.