What in the Heck is a Christmas Movie?

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

So goes the age old question. It takes place on Christmas Eve at an office holiday party. Christmas is a constant presence in the movie. Is that what defines a Christmas movie? The presence of Christmas? Wikipedia refers to John McTiernan’s 1988 classic as an “action film.” The film’s primary purpose is to entertain its audience with action, not with Christmas spectacle. Perhaps the action genre takes precedence over Christmas when categorizing Die Hard.

Is It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) a Christmas movie? Some key sequences of the film take place on Christmas Eve, just like Die Hard. Also like Die Hard the plot is not specifically “Christmassy.” It’s a family drama, there are hints of coming-of-age in there, it’s a bit of a fantasy-time travel film too. Although Christmas is not the primary focus of the film, It’s A Wonderful Life has become a bonafide Christmas classic due to social traditions. Initially the film was a financial flop. In 1974 someone, somewhere made a very fortunate mistake that caused the film to lose its copyright status. Television stations could play the film for free, and they did. It became a holiday staple by accident 30 years after its release. The ritual of its yearly TV broadcasts embedded it in the social consciousness as a Christmas film.

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The Santa Clause (1994) is explicitly a Christmas film. Tim Allen accidentally kills Santa Claus and is forced to take his place. It relies on American Christmas mythology. There is magic, elves, flying reindeer, and a whimsical theme about faith in the absence of evidence (“Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing”) It’s a film about reluctant transformation. Scott Calvin (Allen) is a bad business dad who is forced to reckon with the responsibility of being jolly and giving to his son (and also every other child in the world.) Both the literal plot and the themes are specific to Christmas.

Let’s pivot from the original question-

What makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie?

Is it as simple as the setting? It takes place on or around Christmas so it’s a “Christmas movie?” Is a movie a Christmas film because of the tradition it’s associated with? Is it more about when the film is watched than what it’s about? (I know someone who watches Pirates of the Caribbean every Christmas. Is Pirates, for them, a Christmas film?). Does a film need to engage with the mythology of Santa Claus and themes of giving, faith, and gratitude?

Die Hard’s John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York City cop who visits LA to reconnect with his estranged wife at her company’s Christmas party. A gang of terrorists take the party hostage while John is in the other room. Although he is totally alone, outgunned, and shoeless, John McClane uses his NYPD experience and wit to combat the terrorists and save the day. This whole plot could happen without Christmas. But Christmas adds an edge. The special day is a reason for him to seek reunion with his wife. The familial strife is more potent in the holiday setting.

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Similarly, in The Santa Clause, Scott Calvin is a workaholic who rarely sees his son because he mostly lives with his mother and her boyfriend Neil. Much of the film is a family drama dealing with visitation rights, custody, and anxiety about how Scott is influencing his child (who is obsessed with the idea that his dad is Santa Claus). The human drama is enhanced by the audience’s connection to Christmas, not the film genre, but the real-world event.

John’s final, flailing attempts to reach out to his wife are that much more desperate because it’s Christmas. A judge telling Scott Calvin he can’t see his son anymore is all the more heartbreaking because, hey! It’s flippin’ Christmas! A time of year when these characters should be in their family’s gracious, loving presence.

What makes the “Christmas movie” a unique category is that it’s bound to a cultural event outside of cinema. A comedy is defined by an emphasis on humor. It can be about anything, anyone, anywhere, it just needs to be funny. A science fiction movie needs to include speculative science in someway. These genres hold together conceptually, but Christmas movies hold together on the inclusion of Christmas. These films bank on the audience having emotional associations with a particular time of year, usually along the binary of incredible joy and soul crushing sadness. It’s a time of celebration, charity, family, and friendship. When those things are absent the contrast of expectation against reality amplifies despair, loneliness, and disappointment. All the giving and receiving, all the food and drink, all the loved ones we surround ourselves with make for fantastic times! And when that doesn’t shake out how we’d like it too it hits hard.

So I guess the answer to “What makes a Christmas movie” is simple: Christmas. Somehow, some way, within the film’s plot, aesthetics, themes, or through when the film is enjoyed, Christmas is there as a point of reference for the audiences. The Christmas movie is in the eye of the beholder.

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