What makes a Christmas movie?
Over the last few years, as the Die Hard debate reached peak internet meme status, there seems to have been some degree of confusion as to what constitutes a Christmas movie. “Well if Die Hard is a Christmas movie,” says some joyless homunculus, “then so does Lethal Weapon! So does Gremlins! So does Batman Returns!”
To which I reply, “Yeah, okay.”
To my way of thinking, there are three qualifications for being a Christmas story, and any film which matches at least TWO of them can rightly be called a Christmas movie. These qualifications are:
- The film must primarily be set during the Christmas season. The vast majority of great Christmas movies have their climax on Christmas Eve, but any time in the stretch from post-Thanksgiving until New Year’s qualifies. The key word here is “primarily.” A film that has only one scene at the holidays, such as Toy Story or several Harry Potter movies, does not meet this qualification, no matter what the Freeform network tries to tell you. The classic It’s a Wonderful Life sneaks in because, although large parts of the movie are non-Christmas flashbacks, the framing sequence and the entirety of the film’s action take place on Christmas Eve. In a fantasy setting where Christmas would not logically exist, I will accept as substitute their local equivalent, such as Hogswatch (Hogfather) or Life Day (The Star Wars Holiday Special).
- The film must include traditional Christmas figures in a prominent role. These figures include but are not limited to Jesus (remember him?), Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, and Krampus. The figure does not necessarily have to be the protagonist to qualify, but they must feature in a large way. In Ernest Saves Christmas Santa is a supporting character, whereas in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street he never appears on screen, but as the story is about Big Bird’s quest to discover how Santa enters a home with no chimney, it still meets this requirement. Interestingly, this qualification can be applied to a film retroactively, if it becomes beloved as a holiday classic. Upon their original release neither the Grinch nor Jack Skellington would have been considered “traditional” Christmas characters, but nobody would dispute their status today.
- A film must feature one of the traditional Christmas themes, such as love, hope, generosity, faith, redemption, family, or fear. Yes, fear. What, did you think that line in the song about “scary ghost stories” is just a throwaway? Before Halloween grew into the holiday it is today, scary stories were a Christmas tradition. It is no coincidence that the most re-told Christmas story of all time is about four ghosts trying to scare a miser straight. This is also the reason horror movies such as Silent Night, Deadly Night are acceptable as Christmas films. (If you’re into that sort of thing. If you don’t like horror movies, there’s no requirement that you watch them.)
So there’s our litmus test. Pick a movie and ask yourself if it fits at least two of these qualifications. If it does, it’s a Christmas movie. Some examples:
- A Christmas Story. About a family at Christmastime with a main character hoping for a special gift from Santa. Meets all three qualifications.
- It’s a Wonderful Life. As mentioned before, it sneaks in on #1, and as a tale of redemption, meets #3.
- Any traditional retelling of A Christmas Carol meets all three qualifications. It takes place on Christmas Eve, it’s the story of Scrooge’s redemption, and the story is so universally known that Scrooge and the ghosts all count as traditional characters, even if interpretations of them vary significantly. Most non-traditional versions, such as Scrooged or A Flintstones Christmas Carol also qualify.
- Home Alone. Set at Christmas, with its major character arc being the redemption of a family (focusing on a child and his mother) with a strained relationship. Try not to think too hard about the fact that they had to re-learn the same dang lesson the next year.
- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Meets #1 and 2. I will not venture to make an argument that this film has anything that counts as a “theme.”
- The Sound of Music. While inarguably a classic film, the only qualification it meets is #3, so sorry, it’s not a Christmas movie. Please remove “My Favorite Things” from your holiday playlist immediately.
- Shazam! Set at Christmastime (the climax, in fact, takes place at an actual Christmas fair), with a surprisingly strong message about the family you choose rather than the family you’re born with. It’s a dark horse candidate, but I say this superhero film counts as a Christmas movie.
- Die Hard. The argument that started it all, but honestly, I don’t even know why there’s a question. Set at Christmas, and features the redemption of John McClane as well as the film’s true hero, Sgt. Al Powell. Set up your gingerbread Nakatomi Tower, it counts.
- Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. The film is expressly set five days before Christmas and features Santa Claus, as well as other holiday figures such as the Ice Cream Bunny, Thumbelina, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry… Finn? Look, this movie is a brain-torturing mess and watching it should never be attempted without the assistance of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, but it still technically qualifies.
- Miracle on 34th Street. Goes from Thanksgiving until Christmas, it’s all about faith and family, and it stars Santa Claus. Boom, boom, boom, done.
- Holiday Inn. This 1942 classic almost doesn’t make it. While it is undeniably a love story, it time skips to several holidays over the course of the year. I say it meets standard #1 because it both begins and ends at Christmastime. It also gets bonus points for giving us the classic song “White Christmas,” 12 years before the movie was kinda-sorta remade with that title in a version that is more clearly a Yuletide film.
- Any Hallmark/Lifetime/Netflix movie about a no-nonsense businesswoman who finds love with a small town boy and his adorable dog and/or child at the holidays qualifies. Go ahead and cue ’em up.
- Avatar. This meets none of the qualifications. That was stupid, why did you ask?
So there you have it, your litmus test for Christmas movies. You’ll notice this test says nothing about the quality of any such movie (I’m lookin’ at you, Ice Cream Bunny), just whether it has enough Christmas flavor to count in your yuletide marathon. Hope this was helpful!
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What I’ve Watched In… December 2016
In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!
- I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
- A Christmas Carol (2009), B-
- The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983), B+
- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Live Riff, B
- The Night Before (2015), B-
- Santa Claus (1959), F; Rifftrax Live Riff, B
- A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), A
- Snow (2004), B
- Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008), B
- Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978), A
- Christmas With Rifftrax: Santa’s Village of Madness, B
- The Shop Around the Corner (1940), A
- Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), B+
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998), D
- Christmas Eve (2015), A-
- Scrooge (1970), B+
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), A-
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A-
- Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), B-
- Trading Places (1983), B
- National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), A
- A Very Murray Christmas (2015), A-
- Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight (2015), B
- The Ref (1994), B+
- An American Christmas Carol (1979), B+
- Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy (2004), C
- Ebbie (1995), D
- Scrooge and Marley (2001), C-
- Die Hard (1988), A
- Home Alone (1990), A
- Santa’s Christmas Circus (1966), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A+
- Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), A
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
- A Christmas Story (1983), A
- In the Good Old Summertime (1949), B
- Captain Phillips (2013), B+
- Hail, Caesar! (2016), B+
- Life of Pi (2012), A-
- 12 Years a Slave (2013), A
- Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), C
- Night Shadows (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
- No Country For Old Men (2007), A-
- Keanu (2016), B
- 12 Angry Men (1957), A+
- Wild Things (1998), B
- The Sting (1973), A-
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952), A+
- The Jungle Book (2016), C+
- For the Love of Spock (2016), A
- Ghostbusters (1984), A
- Ghostbusters II (1989), B