A couple of years ago, we talked about “comfort reading” at Christmastime. “Comfort viewing” is, of course, just as vitally frivolous a concern. What kinds of shows are good to watch at the holiday season?
Tone and Timeliness
I’m going to use the term “movies,” because most of the ones I have in mind are theatrical-length. But the category includes TV programs as well, from “novella”-type brief movies to the half-hour (minus commercials) Christmas specials. Most of them are available on demand or on DVD in this day and age, so the old distinction between scheduled programs and view-on-demand is less important than it used to be.
Not all Christmas movies are comfort movies. We’ve got plenty of more or less gloomy shows about dysfunctional families or Christmas catastrophes, too—TV Tropes collects some under the heading “Twisted Christmas.”
They don’t have to be literally disastrous. I recall seeing Home for the Holidays (1995) some years ago and being surprised how generally unpleasant the story was. Bill Murray’s variant on A Christmas Carol, the 1988 Scrooged, is a good deal darker and more horror-like than most such Dickens adaptations. We’ve got action movies, which by definition are not soft and fuzzy: Die Hard (1988) leaps to mind. (Maybe there was something in the air in 1988.) Searching “Christmas horror movies” kicks up quite an array of bloody holiday tales, with which I am (deliberately) unfamiliar.
That’s not what I want to talk about here. The majority of Christmas flicks tend to be comforting on the whole, even though there’s conflict; they draw on the warmth, generous feelings, and general connectedness of this holiday. As a colleague recently put it, they’re the kind of stories that “serve as an antidote to the evening news.”
If you want an action movie set at Christmas, by all means pull up Die Hard, or its sequel Die Hard 2 (1990); I like those. But for purposes of today’s discussion, I’m going to assume we are aiming at heartwarming.
The following are my own recommendations, of course, not a comprehensive survey. You can find on Wikipedia a commentary on “Christmas by medium”; a list of Christmas films; and a list of TV specials. For a more focused and informative survey, there’s a set of excellent lists at the end of Connie Willis’ collection A Lot Like Christmas (2017).
A Quick Taxonomy
There are several ways a movie can be appropriate to the season, depending on what sort of Christmasy you’re looking for. I tend to divide them up this way:
- Movies about Christmas
- Movies that involve Christmas but whose focus is elsewhere; for example, Christmas romances
- Movies that happen to be set at that time of year, but in which the holiday itself plays a relatively minor part; or that have particular scenes set at Christmas
All of these can be good, healthy holiday fare. We may want one atmosphere for Christmas Eve, for example—and a rather different mood for New Year’s Eve.
There are probably a lot of video productions that depict the Christmas story itself—the birth of Jesus—but I’ve tended to rely on just a few. 2006’s The Nativity Story takes a straightforward approach, with empathetic characters, steering a middle path between excluding and emphasizing the miraculous—a good mix for contemporary sensibilities, to my mind. Further back, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth contains in its early sections an appealing rendition of the Nativity chronicle.
Slightly offstage from Bethlehem, so to speak, is an old favorite of mine, Amahl and the Night Visitors. This brief opera was composed for television in 1951 by Gian Carlo Menotti; I have a DVD copy of the 1955 telecast in black and white. Amahl is a young crippled boy whose wild imagination and enthusiasm soar despite the poverty in which he and his widowed mother live. They are astonished one night to receive a visitation from three kings, following a star to find a different child. The music is haunting and lovely; the story blends humor with deep feeling.
In the Spirit of Christmas
There’s a wider field of movies that have their roots in the original Christmas story, but capture the spirit of the feast in different ways.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is of course the most well-known example. There are all sorts of film versions of the book, including those with Scrooges played by Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951), George C. Scott (1984), Captain Picard Patrick Stewart (1999), and Kelsey Grammer (2004, a musical).
A favorite Christmas game is to re-do the story by casting favorite character ensembles, such as Mickey Mouse and friends or the Muppets, to play Dickens’ parts. Or one can transpose the story into the modern day—I mentioned Scrooged above. I must admit that, for me, the Carol that will always be the canonical screen version of the tale—chalk it up to ‘imprinting’ as a child—is the one featuring 1960s cartoon character Mr. Magoo. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) has the distinction of being the first animated TV Christmas special. It’s a surprisingly faithful rendition of the original story, using a lot of Dickens’ original language and managing to convey considerable seriousness, as well as comedy, with extremely minimal artwork. The songs, by noted Broadway composer Jule Styne, are also remarkably effective. Or so it seems to me—there’s bound to be a sizable nostalgia factor in my evaluation.
Another cluster of films springs from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), which takes place at Christmastime and may constitute the very definition of “heartwarming” in America. This story, too, has been adapted into innumerable variations in TV movies and series. I like Wonderful Life, though I prefer to keep it to once every two or three years for fear it’ll become cloying. And for some reason I think of it as a good show for New Year’s Day (still within the “octave” of Christmas). Among the spinoffs, one of our family favorites (for grown-ups) is The Family Man (2000) with Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni, a kind of reverse-Wonderful Life in which the main character is given a glimpse of how his life would have been better if he had made a different decision years ago—as a spur to making a new decision now.
Sometimes a spirit-of-Christmas movie may involve some kind of Christmas miracle—for example, Miracle on 34th Street (1947, remade in color in 1994). Sometimes it simply involves a Christmas celebration: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) gains some of its abundant cheer from wacky Muppet-ish comedy, but more from being a kind of family reunion, including not only the familiar Muppet Show cast but also characters from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies. I’d put the venerable Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and the original TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) in the same class.
An honorable mention in this category goes to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is so brilliantly awful that Lucasfilms (so I hear) has never allowed it to be commercially released as a recording; it’s only available in bootleg versions. I’m not telling who gave me my copy. It’s fun to see the familiar characters hamming it up in the context of a Wookiee celebration of “Life Day,” but beyond that, I wouldn’t advocate it for either sentiment or space opera.
I’m particularly attached to The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), a 46-minute frame story for a series of songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra featuring Jewel. The story, about a runaway girl who takes refuge in an abandoned theatre on Christmas Eve, is sufficiently sentimental to qualify; and if you are at all fond of TSO, you’ll love the music. In particular, this is the show that includes “Promises to Keep,” which I tapped a couple of years ago for the Quote of the Week page.
The Santa Mythology
Many Christmas-specific shows, on the other hand, focus instead on our good friend Santa Claus.
This isn’t a bad thing per se. There is, after all, still a connection: St. Nick was, in fact, a saint. But the system of amiable legends that’s gathered around Father Christmas provides ample fodder for drama (and comedy) without explicitly going back to those roots.
There’s a class of TV specials that have, for us older kids, the pleasure of nostalgia, and also (as far as I can tell) still appeal to more recent generations. The archetype may be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the first of the Rankin-Bass animated holiday productions. The Abominable Snow-Monster, the Island of Misfit Toys, and Hermey the elven-dentist have become familiar icons of of pop culture. I also have some fondness for Frosty the Snowman (1969). Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), a favorite in other branches of our family, gives us a novel sort of origin for Mr. Claus. Full-scale live-action movies have also drawn on the Santa mythology. I found Will Farrell surprisingly tolerable (playing off Zooey Deschanel’s sardonic romantic interest) in Elf (2003). As I recall, Arthur Christmas (2011) wasn’t too bad either—though now that I look back at it, that one was CGI, not really live-action.
From there, we slide down a formulaic curve into routine holiday episodes of all sorts of TV series. I’ll take Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas (1992) as a sample (my kids used to watch the rather amusing Inspector Gadget). As a useful litmus test, any show that invokes “saving Christmas” is generally at the bottom of the barrel: “saving Christmas” may be glossed as “ensuring that toys get delivered,” and signals that the primary concern has moved from anything important to mere presents under the tree. Such episodes may be mildly entertaining, but won’t be comforting. It’s hard to be heartwarming when the crucial issue in a story is just to make sure that nothing interferes with the distribution of toys. Note that The Grinch was specifically designed to make the contrary point: Christmas comes for the Whos of Whoville without any presents at all.
On the other hand, the Santa mythology can develop into something of real depth, depending how the author takes off with it (so to speak). Our counter-example is Rise of the Guardians (2012, based on a series of books by William Joyce). This tale actually manages to meld epic fantasy with a pop-culture undercarriage, as various eccentric holiday icons including the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, along with “Nicholas St. North,” collectively the “Guardians of Childhood,” battle the ‘Dark Lord’ Pitch. The story has a genuine point, too: the glad surprise of good gifts coming out of nowhere is presented as crucial to the innocent acceptance of childhood. What’s at stake is the disillusionment of children, not just their asset inventory.
Guardians also features a genuinely Badass Santa (“Action Santa” division)—a Santa who’s not just jolly but rather formidable, like the Father Christmas who appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. To combine high merriment with forceful purpose can make for an intriguing contrast. (While researching this point, I was charmed to discover that in DC Comics mythology, Santa visits Apokolips to give Darkseid a lump of coal each year. Here’s the actual graphic-novel scene. Now that’s badass.)
In the next ‘ring’ away from the center, we have movies that involve Christmas tangentially, but not as the main theme. The holiday season casts a fireside glow, as it were, that invites other genial stories to blossom in its presence. Romances, in particular, bloom here: there’s nothing quite so sweet as a Christmastime romance.
This category may overlap with some of the spinoff movies above. An iconic example is White Christmas (1954), which is good fun with an actual good deed (helping out one’s former commanding officer in the postwar era), as well as two romances, at its heart. (If you want a sort of earlier prototype, with less plot but more holidays, you can alternate it with Holiday Inn (1942), where the song “White Christmas” actually originated.)
There are lots of more modern examples, which vary in the degree of the story’s connectedness with the holiday. My favorites include While You Were Sleeping (1995), which I find endearing although for some reason it was never a great favorite with the rest of my family; Love Actually (2003)—any movie that plays “God Only Knows” over the final scene gets extra points in my book; The Holiday (2006), a kindly romantic comedy about two women who switch homes for the season and find love; Serendipity (2001), a far-fetched but enjoyable rom-com with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale; The Sure Thing (1985), starring a much younger Cusack for the college-age set. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) exemplifies the same sort of approach in a previous generation.
Further afield, we have a range of movies one can arguably justify as Christmas material for one reason or another. Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Hook, an intriguing sequel to the Peter Pan story, is set at Christmastime. About a Boy (2002), which seems intended to demonstrate that Hugh Grant cannot play an unlikable character, no matter how dubious that character may be, involves a Christmas setting. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a tale with which I feel a certain kinship for other reasons, has its climax on Christmas Eve. Father Christmas makes a cameo appearance in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), as noted for the novel above. Even Little Women, in its various film iterations, features Christmas scenes.
Hallmark Christmas Romances
The Hallmark Channel has created an entire cottage industry of Christmas romances in its annual “Countdown to Christmas” seasonal blitz. It appears that Netflix, as with romantic comedies generally, has now decided to join the action, with a very similar look-and-feel (The Holiday Calendar, 2018); and the Lifetime channel has also entered the competition (Christmas Around the Corner, 2018).
If you don’t watch out, you can spend the entire season swimming in an ocean of these holiday love stories; if I’m counting this correctly, Hallmark alone produced 22 new shows this year, not counting those returning from previous years. It’s hard to choose which ones to check out; they all sound much the same in the blurbs. They don’t tend to be terrifically great or abysmally bad; to my mind, they tend to fall either just above or just below my usual cutoff criterion (namely, would I seek it out to watch again?).
Obviously, there’s a lot of repetition, but as usual, “Tropes Are Tools”: it’s not whether you’re drawing on a well-established pattern, it’s how well you use it. The standouts (those that land above the line) tend to have a little something more going for them: perhaps especially engaging actors/characters, a little more plot complexity or depth, wittier dialogue, or the like.
A couple of examples will serve to illustrate. Angels and Ornaments (2014) features a particularly winsome heroine, and, in defiance of the traditional meet-cute, she and her opposite number have known each other all their lives. They have to come to the realization that they’re meant for each other, a subtler and more interesting process than love at first sight. To facilitate this process, we have a matchmaker angel, who, in the tradition of It’s A Wonderful Life, is not an angel strictly speaking but a dead human being—who has his own story and character arc. His encouragement of the main characters’ romance is sometimes silly but reasonably believable; he gives them some sound advice. The story also involves writing a song—not a tremendous song, but likable enough (as it recalls the movie) that I downloaded it for my audio playlists. (You’ll note that I give extra points for music; you may or may not have the same reaction.)
A Christmas Detour (2015) gives us an engaging pair, apparently mismatched from the start. They end up on a road trip together, along with a married second couple, when a snowstorm closes down an airport. The main characters, Paige and Dylan, develop a relationship along the classic friction-then-affection lines (what TV Tropes dubs “Belligerent Sexual Tension”), and that development works pretty well. Closure comes when the heroine finally arrives to meet her boring, snobbish fiancé’s equally off-putting parents, and finds (of course) that Dylan is who she really wants. Meanwhile, the secondary romance—a long-married middle-aged couple that start out constantly sniping at each other (‘Like An Old Married Couple’), but become reconciled with each other via the Christmas spirit and the inspiration of watching the main characters fall in love—adds interest.
Sturgeon’s Law applies, as always—but some of the Hallmark ventures do make good, meat-and-potatoes holiday fare.
There are those who object to the “secularized” versions of Christmas that inspire many of the movies above. But I see it the other way around: Christmas is so powerful an idea that it casts a sort of penumbra on everything that comes close to it. The stories that are not explicitly religious aren’t a distraction from the “true meaning of Christmas.” Rather, they reflect the feast’s tendency, like a benign infection, to seep into and ennoble everything related to it. (I wrote a song, about twenty-five years ago, to make just this point.) The luster of Christmas gives an extra warmth, a heightened sweetness, to romance and toy-giving and every other good thing. And who couldn’t use a little added warmth at this chilly time of year?
A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.