What Makes a Christmas Movie? A Listing of the Classics.
Ever since Hollywood began making movies, a certain number have been specific for the Christmas season. Until maybe two or three decades ago, defining what makes a “Christmas” movie was relatively straight forward. The givens were: 1) it was set during the holiday season, 2) usually involved some sort of magic (ie-Santa), 3) was sappily emotional, 4) focused on family, 5) probably contained lots of snow, and 6) always ended on a happy note with the entire town singing Joy to the World. Okay, I am being a bit cheeky, but essentially that was the standard formula for an indisputable Christmas movie.
As movie genres shifted, especially with movie makers and screenwriters taking chances with edgier or more real-life themes, the clear-cut distinction of precisely what classifies as a holiday movie have blurred. Movies such as Bad Santa and Gremlins, for instance, or our family favorite Die Hard, are excellent examples of not-so-traditional Christmas movies that, nevertheless, are generally now accepted as fitting within the genre.
Or, as the author of a 2018 article on Project Derailed put it:
The easiest way to classify these films is define them as “Christmas adjacent” or “incidentally Christmas.” Christmas adjacent movies are films that engage with Christmas in multiple ways. Normally, they’re set during Christmas, show a great deal of Christmas iconography (Christmas trees, Santa, etc), play at least one Christmas song, and implement at least one Christmas movie trope–usually dysfunctional families or returning home for Christmas.
I happen to agree with most of what is said in the above article. My only quibble is IN the quibbling over categorizing! In my opinion, if themes of love and family are central, and the movie is set at least in part during Christmas, it is fine to label it a “Christmas movie” and just be done with the debate. Little Women is a great example of what I mean. Not a movie or novel set exclusively at Christmas, obviously, but the drama begins at Christmas time with the familiar themes setting the stage for the entire story. Does that make it a firm “Christmas movie”? I admit that it does not fit into that genre primarily, but can anyone argue that watching any version of Little Women does not ignite the Spirit of Christmas?
With those broad distinctions clarified, at least as I see it, there are so many fabulous holiday-themed movies made over the decades since cinematic film-making began. Movies for the family, movies with humor, movies of faith, movies full of sentimentality, movies with romance, movies starring Santa Claus, movies with edginess or dark humor, movies with Christmas as a setting for the drama, movies filmed with live action, movies animated in some fashion, and on it goes. One could watch three or four movies a day beginning on December 1 and still never see ALL of the choices!
For the past several years, Christmas themed movies have become standard fare on streaming services. The plethora of online subscription services and channels have taken over for big theatrical releases, even before the pandemic. No longer are big budget, excellently crafted Christmas movies only released onto the silver screen. Nor are “TV” movies exclusively the schmaltzy, poorly acted stuff relegated to the Hallmark Channel! Between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Lifetime, UPtv, Disney+, and, yes, Hallmark, the list of holiday movies fresh each year has exploded. According to Entertainment Weekly, there are 146 new Christmas movies premiering in 2021 alone! Click HERE for a full list of titles and where they can be watched.
Below are some of the best movies for the season based on every list of traditional and timeless Christmas movies. Get to watching!
Despite this extensive list, I have surely missed a few.
Do you have any favorite Christmas season movies I didn’t mention?
Share your movie-viewing traditions!