We’ve been binging Christmas movies in our house the past week or so. Which has made me come to the realization that “Christmas Movie” is a bullshit genre. None of the Christmas movies I could think of were about the birth of Christ. Of all the movies we watched on day 1 when I made this observation, only 1 even mentioned the birth of Christ. I said as much on Facebook, and received a very short list of supposed exceptions (making it even more apparent that these were exceptions). So what gives?
As I watched more and more of these movies, I decided to rank them on their Christmasyness.
To do this, I first needed to develop a scale. And as I thought more about what counts as Christmasy, I decided there need to be multiple different criteria:
- Christian Christmas: Most-Christmasy! Movie is about the birth of Jesus. Partial credit for mentioning or featuring the nativity, or going to church to celebrate.
- Pagan/Old-time Christmas: Plenty of our current Christmas traditions and beliefs have more to do with local cultural beliefs that existed before Christian missionaries showed up. Winter solstice traditions such as carolers and yule logs, local folklore like old-timey Santa Clauses, and other stuff is as ingrained in the current holiday as the actual nativity. So big points for being about these old beliefs. Partial credit for mentioning them or being about a modernized version of them.
- Modern Christmas: Plenty of atheists and other non-Christians celebrate Christmas and skip over the Jesus part. So big points if the movie is about these actual celebrations, such as a whole movie about people meeting up with their families and exchanging gifts. Partial credit for tangential mention.
- Wintertime: Tons of these movies are about something completely and totally unrelated to Christmas, but just happens to be around Christmas time. This may be about winter elements (snow, sledding, etc) but not necessarily. Often Wintertime movies could really be happening at any time of year, but just happen to be in December, thus get shoehorned into your Christmas movie lists.
- Arbitrary Christmas deadline: I don’t know why this is a prevalent theme, but it is. Completely non-Christmas plot, except that XYZ HAS to happen before Christmas!
SO! Using this highly un-scientific scale, here’s the…
Helga Without the H Official Review of Christmas Movies!
(Note: Please do not tell me about other movies! There are literally thousands. I know they exist. These are just the 16 I happened to watch this week.)
In order from MOST Christmasy to least..
1. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
EASILY the hands-down winner for most Christmasy. This short 80’s film based on a book tells the tale of a Sunday school class getting ready to do their Christmas pageant. When a group of super bad kids show up (they heard there’d be snacks) and bully their way into the main roles, the whole class revisits the Christmas story through the lens of these bad kids, and everyone learns the lessons of the nativity all over again. We learn to place hope in children, to accept refugees, to share our resources, etc. This one could frankly use a remake, but I guess the “show kids swearing and drinking for laughs” crowd and the “let’s make a Jesus movie” crowd don’t really overlap.
2. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Very squarely landing in the Pagan/Old-School Christmas zone, this action/horror is surprisingly high in the rankings. This action/horror goes way back to the very first Santa Clause. Today’s Santa focuses on rewarding good kids, but plenty of traditions include Santa (or an equivalent) punishing bad kids. The ancient people of Finland knew there was something really weird and creepy about this ageless child-obsessed punisher, and buried him under a mountain. Now he’s escaped, and he needs to be stopped. Pretty spot-on.
3. Bad Mom’s Christmas
Modern Christmas. This highly inappropriate but delightfully hilarious film is all about 3 families trying and failing to celebrate Christmas. These attemps include all the essentials: shopping, decorating, cooking, party-throwing, Santa, caroling, etc. Somehow the movie where a woman falls in love with a stripper while waxing his buttcrak manages to rank pretty high because it has a pretty solid Christian Christmas subplot. One of our mom’s goes to midnight mass, and (spoiler alert) the other moms join her. Presumably the idea here is that they are using this setting to think about what Christmas is really about. They pick family without talking about Jesus, so they don’t quite get there, but I dunno, much closer than tons of other movies. Plus later there’s a camel, so plus one bonus point for a manger reference.
4. The Night Before
Surprisingly Christmasy! This one falls mostly into the Modern Christmas category, but with plenty of references to Christian Christmas and Old-School Christmas. Years ago, a young man’s parents passed away right before Christmas, leaving him alone. But his friends show up and declare “we’re your family now” and take him out on the town. Now in their 30’s, with families of their own, it’s time to move on. Tucked in among the super gross not-family-friendly comedy are explorations of what traditions mean to us and why they’re important. Foe example, our orphan gets mad at drunk pub-crawling Santas for shitting on what is a treasured tradition for children. This movie also has one of the most Christian-Christmas scene of almost any of this week’s movies, when a (VERY HIGH) character finds himself talking with the nativity scene characters outside a Catholic church, then winds up accidentally joining his wife’s family in the pews for Midnight Mass (making it maybe the only movie which referenced a denomination).
5. Four Christmases
Heavily Modern Christmas with a very solid nod to Christian Christmas. This year many families stayed home for Christmas, avoiding the annual awkwardness of deciding where to celebrate. In Four Christmases, our two protagonists try to do the same by flying to a beach and pretending it’s for charity work. When they get busted, they are forced to visit all 4 of their parents’ families, exhibiting 4 very different approaches to the holiday. One approach includes a visit to church to celebrate the nativity, stripped back of any of the non-nativity elements we’ve tacked on, making this one rank well on the Christmas scale.
Very much vying for a ranking of Very Pagan/Old-Time Christmas, but not really executing. I actually loved the beginning of this movie, which did a great job showing Modern Christmas and everything that has gone wrong (people being trampled at Black Friday sales, dirty Santas checking out teenaged girls, etc.) There is a nod to Christian Christmas when the main family gets into a fight at the nativity play. But the focus of the movie is spooky German folk character Krampus, who helped sort out naughty kids. But once the commercials have announced that the movie is about Krampus (WOOT!!!), they don’t seem to know what to do with it. A German grandmother makes up some sort of weird backstory about a village forgetting about Christmas, or something, and then some toys come to life and snowmen appear and the whole city gets a snowstorm. The movie had so little to do with Krampus that I can’t give it too high a ranking. If choosing between this and Rare Exports, go for Rare Export.
7. National Lampoons Christmas Vacation
A shining example of all things Modern Christmas. The Griswold family gathers to make their way through every single modern Christmas tradition. Crazy lights on house? Check. Battling with a tree and all that REALLY entails (sap, unruly size, fire hazards, and woodland critters)? Check. Figuring out how to cram 100 family members into a house? Check. Christmas feasts? Check. Presents? Check. Relying on that company bonus? Check. Sledding (this is winter and not Christmas, of course)? Check. Nothing Jesus-related, but otherwise 100% about all things Christmas-related.
8. Trapped in Paradise
This easily-forgotten 1994 comedy isn’t billed as a Christmas movie, but it comes a lot closer than most of the movies that are billed this way. Three ex-con brothers (er, 2 ex-cons and their straight-laced brother) rob a bank in a charming small town on Christmas Eve. Hijinx ensue, and along the way our ne’er-do-wells learn some valuable Christmas-inspired messages. We get to see plenty of Modern Christmas and Wintertime content (Winterfest, bad holiday sweaters, presents, family meals, etc). But also references to the birth of Jesus (someone accuses some bad dudes of acting this way on the night Jesus was born), a scene where everyone shuffles to church for Christmas celebrations, and strong parallels drawn between our protagonists (the outsiders) and Mary and Joseph (the outsiders).
9. Office Christmas Party
Mid-range Modern Christmas, with a few bonus points for scattered Christian Christmas references. I was disappointed in this movie, considering the all-star cast. But the Office Holiday Party is a staple of modern holiday celebrations, complete with tip-toeing around the boundaries of what can and cannot be said and done (Kate McKinnon as the stressed head of HR was a highlight). But the party serves as a setting more than a theme and frankly the movie could have happened during any other company party, so this movie skirts with the “Just happens to take place around Christmas” category, On the other hand, we have a couple actual references to the birth of Jesus (a man dressed as Jesus tells people it’s his birthday), and there’s a nativity scene. So quite a mixed bag here.
10. The Happiest Season
[Full disclosure, I only saw parts of this since my husband was watching it.] Wintertime, closely bordering Modern Christmas, I think. A woman travels to spend Christmas with her girlfriend’s family, only to discover her girlfriend isn’t out and they need to pretend to be just friends. I cried multiple times during this one, not gonna lie. The story could have happened at ay time of year, really. Christmas references include: going to Christmas parties, shopping for white elephant gifts, and capturing the perfect family portrait for Insta. Again, take this ranking with a grain of salt since I missed half the movie.
11. Die Hard
Yes, I know. But I’ll go ahead and say it… If you count ANY of the movies lower down on this list as Christmas movies, ESPECIALLY the romantic comedies masquerading as holiday flicks, then you have to count this one. With that being said, my rating is Wintertime with strong bonus points for Modern Christmas elements. This is, of course, a straight-up badass action movie, first and foremost. It happens on Christmas Eve, which is the strongest Christmas link, hence the Wintertime rating. But it also is built around the Modern Christmas tradition of the company holiday party, and is all about a man traveling to join his family for Christmas, and doing whatever it takes (including killing an entire band of terrorists) to keep his wife safe and get to his kids in time for Christmas. He’s brought presents for the kiddos and has to deal with holiday travel. We also get to hear the name “Jesus” a LOT, but… well… the Lord’s name in vain probably shouldn’t count for points here.
12. It’s a Wonderful Life
This will be unpopular, but… NOT a Christmas movie! Instead, I rank this movie “Wintertime.” And BARELY Wintertime. The vast majority of the movie has NOTHING to do with anything Christmas-related. Towards the end, something bad happens to our protagonist, and that bad thing just happens to happen on Christmas Eve. Then something good happens, still unrelated to Christmas. The closest we come is the protagonist’s kid playing Silent Night on the piano in just 1 scene (Christian Christmas reference), and the family is decorating a tree.
13. White Christmas
Wintertime movie, but decidedly NOT a Christmas movie (despite the title). This was my first time watching this classic. It has a really touching opening scene where our protagonists are deployed during WWII and give all the sad lonely soldiers a little revue on Christmas Eve before they get called up. Bing Crosby sings White Christmas, and the moment is really sweet and touching. Fast forward a few years, and the same guys are famous TV stars who, through a series of kinda boring events, wind up doing a live show on Christmas Eve again, which is touching in another way. So the two shows happen on Christmas Eve, the titular song has the word “Christmas” in it, and they put a Christmas tree on stage, but beyond that there is NOTHING Christmas-related in this movie, Nothing! The closest is that Bing Crosby lets his crew take a week vacation as a “Christmas present.”
14. The Holiday
Wintertime. Two women switch houses during the Christmas break and fall in love with some dudes or whatever. There is snow and hot chocolate in one of the places. One of them goes to a company Christmas party early on, and the other one cuts an action movie that hits theatres on Christmas. And that’s about it. A frankly super disappointing, boring, stupid movie given the amazing cast, and decidedly NOT a Christmas movie.
15.+ ARBITRARY CHRISTMAS DEADLINES:
A Christmas Prince, A California Christmas
These are favorites of the TV Rom-Com Christmas genre. We crammed down 2 of these suckers this year, but there are many, many, MANY more out there. Something has to happen BY CHRISTMAS! Then two people fall in love. In A Christmas Prince, a prince needs to take the throne BY CHRISTMAS. Our fumbling American journalist pretends to be a tutor, the prince falls for her, he becomes king on Christmas. In A California Christmas, a real estate heir needs to close a land deal BY CHRISTMAS so he pretends to be a ranch hand, the property owner fall for him, and they save a farm on Christmas. I can’t even… I just… NO. No, no, no, no, no. Not Christmas movies by ANY stretch of the imagination. gah!!!!! And yet, there are MULTIPLE ENTIRE CHANNELS on tv dedicated to these movies.
First, I’m frankly shocked that managed to get through this many movies without running into more of the “you can’t be single on Christmas!” trope. Huzzah!
More importantly, as I was contemplating the Christymasyness of these movies, only one of which was about the freakin’ nativity, I had to wonder: What DOES could as Christmas, if not the nativity? At least, what do moviemakers and audiences think it’s about? I kept coming back to the same themes over and over again, in some form or another, in every single movie.
If you ask Hollywood, apparently, Christmas is about family stress, and it’s about grappling with expectations. It’s about finding our own family traditions, and balancing them against existing traditions. It’s about loving and respecting others. It’s about finding the goodness within ourselves, and sharing this goodness with others. That’s what EVERY SINGLE ONE of these movies was about.
How close are these themes to the themes of the nativity? Well, I dunno, they seem pretty spot-on to me. Family stress? Mary and Joseph’s road trip is the EPITOME of family stress. Can’t find a room, super pregnant, elephant in the room with this whole virgin birth thing, etc. Tell me that “And WHY is the carpet all WET, TODD?!?!” and “And WHY am I giving birth to our son IN A MANGER, JOSEPH?!?!” weren’t asked in the exact same tone. But this stress also gives way to the establishment of a loving new family, however untraditional it may be (virgin birth!!!), and this show of family love and identity is at the heart of most of these movies. Finally, in all these movies, our characters use the sanctity of the holiday, whether they mention Jesus or not, to do good in the world. Accoring to pretty much every Christmas Eve sermon I’ve ever listened to, that’s the whole point of celebrating Christmas. We’ve brought a new light into the world, a sweet innocent child, and through this, we can learn to be good and loving, too. We can thus be the greatest gift of all.
So Yippee-ki-yay and Merry Christmas to you all.