What Makes a Movie a “Christmas Movie?”

The characters from Santa Claus is Coming to Town

I got in a discussion recently about what makes a movie a Christmas movie.  (By the way, in this post, I will use the term “movie” liberally, applying it to 22-minute short animated shorts as well as live action feature films.)  The movie in question was March of the Wooden Soldiers, starring Laurel and Hardy.  While most people don’t know who Laurel and Hardy were, I still find their shorts and features entertaining.  I’ve always considered this a Christmas movie, probably because it was shown on television around the holidays when I was a kid, no one had cable television, and you had to be home to watch these holiday favorites the one or two times a season they would be on television.

I have always considered this movie (and the sad Disney remake, Babes in Toyland, despite Annette) to be a Christmas movie.

But what about this movie makes it a Christmas movie?  Santa Claus appears for a few minutes in one scene, but the movie doesn’t revolve around a Christmas message or even a storyline remotely related to Christmas.  It features clever effects (for its time) depicting nursery rhyme characters.  The humor is light and clean — as would be expected of a movie of its vintage.  The story is uncomplicated and fun, with a happy ending.  Perhaps what makes a movie a Christmas movie is clean family entertainment, a few laughs, and a happy ending?  Is that enough to be considered a Christmas (or holiday) movie?

Is death and mayhem that happens to occur on Christmas Eve a Christmas movie?

While I like Die Hard and even the second film in the series, just because it takes place on Christmas Eve I can’t consider this a Christmas movie.  Somehow dozens if gruesome killings doesn’t seem like a family, holiday movie to me.

I never considered this a Christmas movie until my daughter watched it yesterday and claimed it is.

While You Were Sleeping is among my favorite chick flicks, but I never considered it a Christmas movie.  My daughter recently claimed that it is, and I think she is right.  It takes place at Christmas, and many of the scenes revolve around Christmas celebrations and traditions.  The ending is a bit sappy, but it ends on a high note and is generally a very family friendly film.

Frosty the Snowman takes place at Christmas, features Santa saving the day, and talks about the magic of Christmas snow.
Frosty the Snowman takes place at Christmas, features Santa saving the day, and talks about the magic of Christmas snow.

Frosty the Snowman, featuring Jimmy Durante singing the title song which he made a hit in the 1940s or 1950s, always aired during the ramp up to Christmas, so I always considered this a Christmas movie.

A Charlie Brown Christmas has a clear Christmas message.

In retrospect, these Rankin Bass Christmas movies often portray Santa as not so nice, but they are Christmastime staples at our house — and probably yours.  Is any movie with Santa Claus a Christmas movie?  Rudolph has to be considered a Christmas classic; most of your favorite versions of many holiday songs are the Burl Ives version from this movie.

This version of A Christmas Carol is arguable the best adaptation of the Dickens Classic.

And of course, there have been many versions of A Christmas Carol.  It think it would be hard to argue that this is not a Christmas movie.  If you haven’t seen this version, you are missing out.

This version of A Christmas Carol is not as good as the Alistair Sim version, but it's still quite good.
Patrick Stewart is a terrific actor, and he makes this a solid version of A Christmas Carol.

The Patrick Stewart version is quite good — and his radio adaptation of him reading the story is worth the money as well.

Holiday Inn debuted the classic song, "White Christmas."
Holiday Inn debuted the classic song, "White Christmas."

Holiday Inn takes place across a full year of holidays, but it debuted the song “White Christmas,” and the movie’s finale takes place on Christmas Eve with Bing reprising the song and winning the girl.  While largely overshadowed by its big budget, VistaVision follow-on, this is a terrific movie to watch at Christmastime.

White Christmas is an excellent movie that takes place at Christmas and involves a Christmas present for Bing and Danny's general after WWII.

Though most of the dancing and singing sequences have little to do with Christmas, the basic plot that Bing and Danny pull together a nice Christmas present for their former commanding general is both fun, heartwarming, and tear jerking.  All of us former military folks aspire to that level of loyalty and respect; few achieve it.

Going My Way has a tear jerking ending on Christmas Eve.
Going My Way has a tear jerking ending on Christmas Eve.

If you don’t have to brush away a tear at the end of this movie, you are pretty callous.  I don’t know if this is a Christmas movie, per se, but it ends at Christmas and has a warm feel throughout.  This is the movie that make Bing Crosby a movie star as well as a singing star.

The follow-on to Going My Way, this is a forgotten, feel-good movie.
The follow-on to Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary's is a forgotten, feel-good movie.

Bells of St. Mary’s is decidedly not a Christmas movie, but as wholesome family entertainment, this is great for the holiday season.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was first heard in Meet Me in St. Louis and became a hit for Judy Garland and others.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a movie that is NOT about Christmas, but it ends at Christmas and featured a hit single, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Apparently if a movie ends at Christmastime, it is often considered a Christmas movie.

Another example of a movie that has nothing to do with Christmas, ends at Christmastime, and is considered a Christmas movie.

The Little Drummer Boy has a clear Christmas message.
The Little Drummer Boy has a clear Christmas message.

The Little Drummer boy has a clear Christmas message.  While not as enjoyable as some of the other Rankin Bass movies, it is nonetheless well worth the time to watch it.

A Year Without a Santa Claus portrays Santa in a little better light than Rudolph.

A really forgotten game, It Happened on 5th Avenue takes place at Christmas and has a heartwarming feel.

It Happened on 5th Avenue is a terrific, though forgotten, film.  It involves a group of (oddball) strangers who meet around Christmastime in New York City, work through their troubles, change for the better, do nice things for each other, etc.  If you haven’t see this movie, you are missing a really great movie.

Miracle on 34th Street is a heartwarming tale that not only takes place at Christmas, but has a pretty good warm Christmas feeling about it.

There have been a few remakes of this classic, but none match the original.  Based on a short story, this a fun movie about a man who thinks he is Santa Claus and all the things he does to help a number of people.

The Home Alone series has no Christmas message, per se, but they take place during the Christmas season. Is that enough?
How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a classic cartoon with a solid Christmas message.
A Christmas Story is a hilarious and nostalgic look at Christmas through the eyes of a child.

A Christmas Story was a sleeper when it first came to theaters.  It has become a classic staple in our house — despite Ted Turner showing it for 24 hours on Christmas day and threatening to over play it as they did with It’s a Wonderful Life.

The Santa Clause is a modern Christmas movie with good messages and a feel good ending.

Though revolving around the secular, rather than religious, meaning of Christmas, the first two movies in this series are solid family entertainment.  This movie was nice in the way it explained a lot of the Santa mythos.

Christmas in Connecticut has always been a Christmas favorite for me -- though not my kids.

Christmas in Connecticut is a largely forgotten gem in the vein of the screwball comedy.  Involving secrets, hidden identities, an overbearing boss, some fun character actors, and a happy ending, we’ve always considered this a Christmas movie.  Though Christmas is in the title, the fact that it takes place during the Christmas season and involves some celebrations and traditions, makes it clearly a Christmas movie in my book.  Don’t waste your time with the 1970’s remake; see the original.

Christmas Vacation is a very funny movie that takes place at Christmas, but not suitable for younger viewers.
Christmas Vacation is a very funny movie that takes place at Christmas, but not suitable for younger viewers.

Christmas Vacation has many hilarious scenes, but it is not appropriate for younger kids.  Now that my kids are older, this has become a holiday seasons staple. The Christmas message is a little light, but Chevy Chase is trying to make a special Christmas for his family as he goes through a number of slapstick misadventures.

As with all animated shorts by Big Idea Productions, The Toy that Saved Christmas has a strong religious message.

The Veggie Tales videos were originally sold only in Christian book stores but are widely available now.  This one and Rack, Shack, and Benny are my two favorites.  This one is about a group of kids — and a toy, named Buzzsaw Louie — trying to find the true meaning of Christmas.  The whole series of Veggies Tales videos are good for both adults and kids.

The Lemon Drop kid introduced the song "Silver Bells."

Another forgotten gem, The Lemon Drop kids, based on a Damon Runyon story, is about a confidence man who is down on his luck and comes up with a scheme to dress up as Santa and collect money on street corners.  The movie has an ending not unlike the Capra classic Lady for a Day.  This movie also introduced the world to the Christmas song “Silver Bells.”

The Bishop's Wife as a five-star, wonderful movie.

Saving probably the best for last, if you haven’t seen this gem, you are again missing out.  The movie centers around a bishop and his wife who are visited by an angel around Christmastime.  In the end, the Bishop realizes that even he has lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas and family.  There are a number of memorable scenes.  Unlike modern movies this is not about action.  Listen to the dialog.  There is a lot of depth to this film.

So, I started out trying to answer the question,”What makes a movie a Christmas movie.”  Along the way, I highlighted some of my favorite Christmas films, but I’m not sure I answered the question.  While I have enjoyed movies like Elf and Jingle All the Way, I didn’t highlight them in this missive.  I suppose for me, a Christmas movie needs to be family friendly, have a positive message, and largely take place at Christmastime.  While movies like Meet Me in St. Louis and It’s a Wonderful Life are terrific, family friendly films, I’ve never considered them Christmas movies, but perhaps I should.  For me Christmas movies must be the kind of heartwarming, uplifting, sometimes tear-jerking movies that help you get in the “Christmas mood.”  Though March of the Wooden Soldiers has little to do with Christmas, we watch it every year at Christmastime.  Perhaps it is the naiveté of innocence of these films that make them Christmas movies.  So maybe the fact that we can enjoy that innocence year after year as a family is what makes them Christmas movies.  In the same way that many “Christmas songs” are really winter songs that have little, if anything to do with Christmas but help you get in the Christmas mood, maybe that’s what makes Christmas in Connecticut, The Bishop’s Wife, and A Christmas Carol “Christmas movies,” even though they don’t explicitly talk about the true meaning of Christmas or even the secular mythology of Santa Claus.

My kids will soon be moving out and starting their own lives on their own.  We’ll only see them on holidays and the occasional visit.  Our life will be different — and not all in good ways.  But I’ll bet when she get together at Christmas, the movies I highlighted above will be part of our holiday activities.

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