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A Theory on Christmas Movies

Presenting a new way to determine what belongs in the Yuletide cinema canon

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There’s a war on Christmas — one that pits movies with traditional Christmas stories against tangentially festive holiday romps. In particular, the Die Hard franchise has inspired some viral social media arguments about whether Die Hard and Die Hard 2 — both taking place on Christmas Eve — qualify as proper holiday cinema. John McClane may be a Grinch, but he saved Christmas not once, but twice. Happy holidays, motherfucker!

Since I find the seasonal debates redundant and exhausting — if occasionally exhilarating, too — I’d like to settle this general ambiguity for posterity, and in an exceedingly formalized manner. So here’s a rubric comprising three classifications of what people typically consider Christmas cinema (or don’t):

(A) Movies about Christmas

By far the most popular sort of Christmas movie, this classification suggests that it’s not enough for a story to be set during the December holidays: It also needs to be specifically concerned with Christmas as a religious or commercial holiday with significant, practical implications to the characters and plot.

Examples: It’s a Wonderful Life, Die Hard, Home Alone

(B) Movies set during Christmastime, though not necessarily concerned with the holiday as a matter of importance

This relatively secular classification suggests that a movie set during Christmas — regardless of whether the holiday is a key point of the story or merely a contextual backdrop — should be considered a Christmas movie.

Examples: Batman Returns, Trading Places, Carol

(C) Movies especially popular with viewers during Christmastime

This most liberal classification, which includes categories A and B, holds that any movie that experiences a popular surge in private viewing during the holiday season, regardless of story or setting counts as a Christmas movie. (This excludes holiday box-office releases; e.g., Django Unchained debuted Christmas 2012 and performed quite well in its opening box-office week, but it is by no means a Christmas movie.)

Examples: The Sound of Music, The Hunt for Red October, the Harry Potter movies

With our parameters established, let’s work through this codification of Christmas movies toward a better, universal understanding of holiday cinema, once and for all:

Christmas Movies About Christmas

The conservative tier of Christmas cinema includes all the movies about holiday antics (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), Santa and Co. (The Santa Clause, Elf), winter hyper-consumerism (Jingle All the Way), and Christ’s timely love (The Preacher’s Wife).

Still, keep an open mind here. The fact that there’s a heated argument regarding whether or not Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie might suggest that the film belongs to one of the more liberal, comprehensive (and thus contentious) B or C categories. But the first two Die Hard movies are actually pretty conventional Christmas stories. Die Hard is about a guy racing across the country to reunite with his estranged wife at a Christmas party and Die Hard 2 is about winter holiday travel going horribly, violently wrong. Die Hard is Home Alone with more guns, basically. The rush to disqualify Die Hard as a first-degree Christmas movie reveals a pernicious genre bias against action flicks in favor of explicitly festive, holiday genre movies such as Love Actually or The Best Man Holiday. Here at The Ringer, we preach inclusion.

Christmas Movies Not About Christmas

Forget Die Hard. Where things really start to get tricky is when you’re watching a movie in which Christmas is aesthetically prominent but not particularly important on any practical level.

In Batman Returns, Christmas is the backdrop for the Penguin’s origin story and also for his gang’s first public criminal display at a tree-lighting ceremony — but that’s the trivial extent to which Christmas influences the movie. Likewise, Carol isn’t a Christmas romance so much as it’s a love story that begins and plays out through the holiday season. Yet based on the “contextual backdrop” corollary, both of these films should be included on the master list.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is filled with festive hints of Christmas, and so even though it takes place over the course of a full year, it counts. So does Deadpool, just on the strength of the one scene where Wade Wilson (wearing a red Christmas sweater) proposes to his girlfriend Vanessa (wearing a similar sweater) with a Ring Pop. Christmas is just another existential checkpoint on this journey we all call life. Do we really want to be so narrow-minded as to define these perfectly seasonal films as insufficiently festive just for daring to think outside of the box?

Random Movies That Are Inexplicably (Yet Totally) Appropriate for Christmas If Only Because TV Networks Air Them Repeatedly During the Holiday Season

And so we find ourselves sliding fast down the slippery Christmas slope.

The most liberal category gets even more complicated than the two aforementioned kinds of Christmas movies, which hold the holiday in differing regards but at least share Christmas as a common setting. There’s an additional layer to all of this given that TV networks determine what to air while everyone’s sitting around swapping presents and smelling cloves. A lot of people watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmastime, but a lot of people watch The Sound of Music, too, since NBC and ABC have aired those movies in prime time during the holidays for decades. More recently, Freeform — previously known as ABC Family — has incorporated the Harry Potter movies into its regular Christmas programming, perhaps a rebuke to the conservative Christian activists who once boycotted the Harry Potter universe due to its occult elements and “anti-Christian” themes.

I took a look at several networks’ programming schedules for this year’s relevant December weeks. Of course, it’s important to note the variety of channels available to TV viewers compared to half a century ago. When NBC and ABC begun to establish It’s a Wonderful Life and The Sound of Music as holiday classics, the major networks had a virtual monopoly of programming options. The explosion of cable TV and the advent of streaming services have greatly expanded any given household’s options for holiday viewing.

Now, while all major networks air at least one indisputably festive holiday classic — TNT/TBS airs A Christmas Story on loop from the earliest hours of Christmas Eve through midnight Christmas Day — I found that a few networks take great pains to distinguish their holiday programming with movies that fall into category C. Just as Christmas isn’t all about presents, December isn’t all about Christmas, you know. VH1 airs viewings of Friday, Friday After Next, and Bad Boys; there’s no snow in any of these movies, in fact they’re all very sunny and tropical, so I suppose you’d turn to VH1 specifically because you need a break from the Northeastern polar vortex. And then you have BET, which airs only one bit of holiday entertainment programming, A Very Soul Train Christmas, amidst a marathon of music dramas and biopics like The Five Heartbeats, Ray, Get On Up, and Sparkle. If BET airs The Five Heartbeats for 20 Christmases in a row, then it becomes a Christmas movie, just like how ABC turned The Sound of Music into a Christmas movie. Them’s the rules!

The radical conclusion of this manifesto is that you might regard pretty much anything that lots of people are likely to watch during the holiday season as a Christmas movie. Search Twitter, and you’ll discover deep support for The Hunt for Red October as well as The Fugitive for appointment to the Christmas compendium. (Unsurprisingly, both movies are in heavy rotation on basic cable during the holidays.) We’re left with an all-consuming collection of films that are basically only fit to be watched with loud families or alongside grandparents who still watch old VHS tapes exclusively when company visits for Christmas dinner. The canon is democratic and fluid. It’s a Wonderful Life, Trading Places, Die Hard, Carol, The Sound of Music, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hunt for Red October — they’re all Christmas movies, each and every one. Consider this article your guide to litigating the genre arguments of Christmases past, present, and yet to come.