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By David Young · December 19, 2022
There’s something about the holiday season that tends to turn things on their heads. Not only do stores revamp their entire layout for the anticipated sales of Christmas trappings and such, but they also start blasting Mariah Carey more often than any other time of year. The biggest and most important change, however, is not aesthetic at all: It’s the stories we tell — and there’s nothing better than grabbing some jammies and hot cocoa, and cozying up by the fire to watch some of the best Christmas movies of all time.
Which ones are quintessential? Which holiday movies have become more irreplaceable than pine trees in the zeitgeist? Take a look at the films below to answer that question.
A staple if there ever was one, A Christmas Story has lived on in the minds of many families as a Christmas tradition. After all, it’s even held in a marathon that day every year, giving the holiday strong associations with bunny costumes, Ovaltine, Chinese restaurants, and the Red Ryder air rifle. If your family thinks of popcorn-and-cranberry decorations, that’s fine. But the fans of this film will instead expect the season to be filled with window-shopping and thoughts of getting their own “major award.” This story told in vignettes of Midwestern Americana holiday shenanigans shows a writer how to write everyday life into the holidays.
A Christmas comedy can’t hurt, can it? Well, it might if it’s Home Alone. Kevin McCallister, an overlooked member of a large, loud family, is left alone by accident when his family leaves for vacation. Of course, that’s not the only problem. Two burglars take their chances with Kevin’s home, only to find that not only is the house still occupied — it’s booby-trapped, to boot. A slapstick comedy to outshine them all during the holidays, Home Alone shows how much our family should mean to us, even when we forget them.
The pun in the title here should be highlighted for its ability to set a precedent. The clause of a supernatural contract sets Scott Calvin’s new life in motion when he unwittingly accepts his role as the new Santa Claus. This iconic Christmas film follows him for two Christmases and the year in between as he learns the ropes of his new job and his estranged family becomes more affected by it. This well-done melding of fantasy and real-world realms creates a story that’s truly unique and truly made to be a holiday movie.
The paragon of Christmas movies is one of frustration and desperation — a 1940s classic film about a town whose fate depends on a suicidal businessman, George Bailey. Doesn’t sound like much of a holiday film at first, does it? But what happens when someone desperate for the end learns what life would be like without him? In It’s A Wonderful Life, an angel steps in at Christmastime to prove George has a lot going for him, even in the darkest times. This story is all about hope and the realization that every life has meaning. If that’s not a holiday movie, we’re not sure what is.
The fascination with holidays has a lot to do with how our worlds transform during those times of the year. For Halloween, one such transformation is the creepy decor, or even the chill in the air that pervades as the otherworldly veil grows thinner. However, during the Christmas season, that chill is fortified with fireplaces and hot cocoa to make an oasis of warm feelings. That transformation is what transfixes Jack Skellington, whose home of Halloweentown has lost its charm to him. Instead, he discovers the magic of Christmastown and tries to take over that new world — with effects that are much to the dismay of both worlds.
You may not think of horror when you think of Christmas, but let’s be honest — ghost stories were once the biggest holiday tradition. Now, though, instead of sitting around the fire for stories like that, you can watch on your own screen as monsters of an unknown origin take form. Gremlins is a holiday film, and it’s also a comic horror flick with rules that have made it an oft-quoted family favorite since the 1980s.
As a film that combines many separate stories, Love Actually uses the holiday season as an active backdrop (and sometimes, almost a character itself) for each separate couple. Contending with their love lives and an approaching holiday, each couple struggles through its unique related conflicts — using Christmas as a tool to teach audiences a little bit about love.
Fans of Christmas films may balk at the idea of an action flick being considered, but Die Hard is still a holiday movie. Its focus on dedication and reconciliation amidst the dangerous activity of terrorists makes its message all the clearer — and everything starts with a Christmas party anyway, so that should answer all your remaining questions.
It’s possible that other films scream “tradition” to you — and you’re likely to find a good reason for many of them. However, some films deserve recognition for making themselves fit the celebration en masse. Whether it’s as a Christmas comedy-horror or a holiday romance flick, each of the above works to bring together the best features that holiday movies have to offer!