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What makes a movie a Christmas Movie?

The likes of Elf, Home Alone, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Santa Clause are all definitively Christmas movies. There’s no debate there.

Caitlin Hall

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Santa Claus sitting on the couch and watching movies on television, he is eating popcorn

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However, in any article that discusses the vital ingredients of Christmas movies, there will always be a bone of contention….namely, Die Hard. 


My parents and I love Die Hard; we try to watch it every Christmas. My sister, on the other hand, is adamant that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie, because the festive holiday, in her opinion, isn’t a main plot point. 


Her favourite Christmas flick is Nativity!, starring Martin Freeman, with the sequel, starring David Tennant, a close second. You’d be hard pressed to argue that the Nativity trilogy isn’t a Christmas franchise—the films are soaked in brandy and wrapped up in tinsel, metaphorically speaking, even if they do decline in quality as the series concludes. Set in a British primary school, they focus on the staging of the Christmas nativity play, and harken back to the nostalgia of our own childhoods at Christmastime. 


To try and answer the question of what makes a film a Christmas movie, I trawled the internet. Reddit argues that a Christmas movie has a plot that is directly affected by Christmas, rather than a film that just happens to be set at Christmas, but which could also take place at any other time of the year. Interestingly, the poster of this comment includes Die Hard in their definition, arguing that the Bruce Willis action film is a fully-fledged Christmas movie—though only just, owing to the Christmas office party in the Nakatomi Plaza, and the fact that John McClane is in town for Christmas. Another Reddit poster implied that John McClane is the action hero equivalent of Santa Claus, protecting people from a few terrorists that would no doubt find themselves on the naughty list.


But where does this leave classic holiday movies, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, and Trading Places, whose Christmas themes aren’t as overt as Elf’s, for example, but which are festive staples for good reason. 


Following this train of thought, none of the Harry Potter films could be classed as Christmas movies. And yet many people enjoy settling down to binge watch the eight films in the wizarding franchise across December—maybe because the few Christmas scenes at Hogwarts are full of decadence. However, the majority of the Harry Potter storylines aren’t set at Christmas, and they’re not affected by the festivities in the slightest. This doesn’t stop Sky Cinema bringing out its own dedicated Harry Potter channel as soon as the temperature starts to drop. 


Anyone whose stance is ‘if it takes place at Christmas, it’s a Christmas movie’ is met with a barrage of questions about whether Iron Man 3, Stepbrothers, Lethal Weapon and Batman Returns fit this bill. Questions are often raised about Gremlins—after all, Billy receives Gizmo as a Christmas gift, and the whole movie serves as a commentary about the consumerism of the holiday. But at what point do we go too far and the link become too tenuous? A couple of people argued that Hot Fuzz could be a Christmas movie, as it features a two-second scene of Sergeant Nicholas Angel being stabbed by Santa (who just so happens to be the Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson). Surely this is not enough, though? 


Many people say that the thread that ties all Christmas movies together is more than just the holiday setting, but overarching themes of love, togetherness, family, selflessness and generosity—which is what Christmas is all about. For example: the point when Kevin realises he misses his family in Home Alone, when the Grinch’s heart starts to defrost, and when Buddy the Elf and his father start to understand each other. 


But there must be a line drawn somewhere. If you take away the festive setting, a movie about family, love, friendship and generosity starts to feel much less Christmassy. Almost any children’s film or Disney movie could fall into this category. 


This is why there’s such fierce debate surrounding the subject. There really is no right answer, but, perhaps, a lot of wrong answers. 


Die Hard director, John McTiernan, said that they ‘hadn’t intended it to be a Christmas movie, but the joy that came from it is what turned it into a Christmas movie’. The movie’s screenwriter, Steven E de Souza, points out that Die Hard has four Christmas songs, and a Christ-like selfless sacrificial scene, where John McClane walks on broken glass. Bruce Willis was asked his opinion; he replied that Die Hard wasn’t a Christmas movie. He said, ‘It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie.’ Whatever that means.  


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