From Rankin/Bass Christmas specials to Dickens adaptations and every sappy Hallmark flick in between, the seasonal movies we hold dear invoke the Holiday Spirit with festivity tantamount to only the jolliest of Bing Crosby jingles. Like the audiovisual equivalents of hot cocoa and a warm blanket, these films comfort the year-weary viewer with their familiarity, satisfying plot resolutions, and heavy-handed doses of the True Meaning of Christmas. Both renowned and unsung, here are some of our collection’s best holiday pictures with which to start your December.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas 1954
This Christmas musical is the Bing Crosby aficionado’s lullaby through a holiday season scored by all too much modern commercialist tuneage; instead, it supplies heaps of 1950’s commercialist tuneage. A postwar celebration of the comfort that the holiday season brought to American forces overseas, this film drills the croons of Bing Crosby and Danny Kayne into the ears of viewer without mercy. Featuring the eponymous song not once, but twice, it seems as if selling the soundtrack was the primary motivation of its Paramount producers. Nevertheless, its crisp Technicolor cinematography and reverberant orchestration will be a prized throwback for your Boomer relatives.
A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
In response to the Golden Age of TV’s tie-tightening traditionalism that pervades 1950s Christmas ephemera, the 1960s spawned Charlie Brown. Where Paramount plastered the trim and mirthful visage of Bing Crosby, a decade later, The Coca-Cola Company made a comic strip rugrat and his oddball gaggle into the mascots of the ’65 Christmas season. A Charlie Brown Christmas is strikingly melancholy and contemplative, probing depths which even modern holiday entertainment seldom reaches, with pacing so tranquil that you’d have no idea it was carefully crafted for its 25-minute broadcast timeslot. Even though the special rather overtly includes Christian messaging (Linus quotes the Bible), it lacks the dogmatism that can alienate viewers from productions like VeggieTales or Hallmark Channel offal. From its serene jazz soundtrack to its confrontation of holiday malaise by unseasonably wise elementary schoolers, there’s little that isn’t perfect about A Charlie Brown Christmas. For the generations that grew up watching it, this special isn’t just a Christmas movie, it’s the Christmas movie.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 1966
Though certainly not the only film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Christmas curmudgeon, it’s arguably the only one worth acknowledging. How The Grinch Stole Christmas! fills the same beloved niche as A Charlie Brown Christmas: a 25 minute CBS special of which the broadcast practically served as the starting shot for drafting wish-lists. The year prior, Charlie Brown had addressed holiday blues and the search for meaning, so the Grinch pivoted to moralize on themes of gratefulness, forgiveness, and community. Adhering closely to the original book in both plot and artistic style, this rendition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is the standard from which subsequent adaptations (the 2000 and 2018 features) deviate, invariably missing the mark. For the Seuss lovers and honorary Whovillians, look no further than 1966.
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker
For many, attending a performance of The Nutcracker is an annual tradition. An 1892 ballet based on an 1816 short story, The Nutcracker‘s timeless score and iconic story have been a touchstone of Christmas narrative since the 1950s after broaching decades of obscurity and skyrocketing to international acclaim. There have been hundreds of different stage performances and dozens of film adaptations in years since, varying in just about every way possible. If you aren’t able to make it to the theater this year, here are a couple of performances available for streaming that we think are worth the watch.
Nutcracker and the Mouse King 2011
Unlike the original, this Dutch 107 minute production isn’t set on Christmas Eve, but rather on St. Nicholas Day. Described as “more dynamic and exciting, and less sweet than usual,” the producers sprinkle bits of Dutch culture into the performance, but not so much as to feel unfamiliar to the average American viewer.
Stream this performance here.
The Nutcracker: A Christmas Story 1991
This German performance combines the ballet of The Nutcracker with the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, managing to squeeze in both classics in under an hour. If you’re short on time, need a dose of the Christmas Ghosts, and don’t mind subpar video resolution, then this performance is for you.
Stream this performance here.
An American Tail 1986
An Art Spiegelman-esque Disney musical about a Russian-Jewish emigrant named Fievel Mousekewitz, An American Tail celebrates Hanukkah by way of a mouse who struggles to integrate into a species-diverse 1880s New York City. Facing the existential threat of feline predation, Fievel burrows his way into the heart of the viewer more tactfully than Stuart Little. Though marketed as a children’s movie, An American Tail doesn’t shy away from heavy subject matter: Ukrainian pogroms, separation of immigrant families, alcoholism, and gang warfare are just a few of the themes that critics took problem with on the film’s initial release. While it may not embrace holiday festivities as much as some of the other movies on this list, it’s an excellent celebration of Jewish-American culture that remains politically relevant while entertaining its younger viewers.
Die Hard 1988
No holiday movie list would be complete without the quintessential question: is Die Hard a Christmas movie, or merely an action movie set on Christmas Eve? This useless question has consumed cinephile forums and family gatherings alike, with advocates upstaging naysayers by repeatedly topping Die Hard out on “best-ever Christmas movie” lists. A terrorist-centric action flick (also topping out best-ever action movie lists) doesn’t initially sound like a perfect accompaniment to fire-roasted chestnuts, and indeed, is it really a Christmas movie if you can watch it at any time of year? Regardless, Die Hard is an undisputed 80’s classic with hints of Christmas that only sweeten a December viewing.
William S. Burroughs’ The Junky’s Christmas 1993
If you thought that there wasn’t enough William S. Burroughs media with which to dourly celebrate every holiday of the year, you’d be wrong. The Junky’s Christmas is a 20-minute Claymation film adapted from a 1989 short story of the same name and produced by the benevolent pocket of Francis Ford Coppola. It’s the tale of a heroin addict who, after a day in the depths of withdrawal, receives for a good deed any junky’s Christmas miracle: the “immaculate fix.” This short is essentially a Christmasized depiction of the dark underbelly of drug addiction with which Burroughs is nearly synonymous.
If you prefer avant-grunge to what reads like Requiem for a Dream à la Wallace & Gromit, Burroughs partnered with Kurt Cobain the same year to create The ‘Priest’ They Called Him, a spoken-word performance of the story scored by steel guitar screeches resembling America the Beautiful.
Mixed Nuts 1994
Mixed Nuts is most frequently described as a “critical and commercial failure.” Objectively, that is true. Its studded ensemble cast–Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Juliette Lewis, Madeline Kahn, with cameos from Jon Stewart and Steven Wright–compete for the punchline, riffing on the (now debunked) statistic that suicide rates surge during the holiday season. Steve Martin’s character operates a failing crisis hotline nonprofit that, over the span of the film, hurts more people than it helps. For a Christmas comedy, it’s exceptionally dark, effusing a barrage of “inexhaustible comic invention” that nearly made Roger Ebert throw in his hat. Though messy, Mixed Nuts is a unique black comedy that’s perfect for shaking up the status quo roster of obligatory Christmas watches.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas 1993
More mainstream, more fantastical, and slightly less dark than The Junky’s Christmas, is perhaps Tim Burton’s most iconic stop-motion: The Nightmare Before Christmas. A production of enormous and elaborate proportions, this movie is best remembered by the fact that it looks like no other (well, maybe Coraline). Bridging the gaps between thriller and musical, Halloween and Christmas, and adults and their children, this widely-appealing Disney picture has spawned a uniquely spirited fanbase. For that reason, the protagonist and mascot–Jack Skellington–is just as much a movie character as he is a merchandise motif: even thirty years later, Nightmare Before Christmas features prominently in the Disney product catalog. In contrast, its bigger-budgeted successor James and the Giant Peach (1996)–also a Tim Burton & Henry Selick stop-motion–leaves no material trace. So, if you’re a fan of immersive world building and have always wondered about that hoodie-adorning pinstriped skeleton, then give Nightmare Before Christmas a chance (and follow it up with James and the Giant Peach).
Bender’s Big Score: A Futurama Feature 2007
A millennium in the future, Christmas is called Xmas, and Santa Claus isn’t a magnanimous gift-giving old man, he’s a murderous Neptunian robot with every Earthly mortal on his naughty list. This feature-length production from the sci-fi sitcom Futurama is similar to Die Hard, where
Christmas Xmas isn’t the core plot element, but still relevant. After the entire planet is cheated out of their belongings by a gang of data-“sprunging” scammers, the Planet Express delivery company’s crew is out on the street for Xmas Eve. The festivities get multicultural when Robot Santa enterprises with Kwanzaabot (voiced by Coolio) and Chanukah Zombie (Mark Hamill) to expedite the production rate of his arms factory. In addition to not one, but two, holiday musical numbers, Bender’s Big Score gives us one of the most touching moments in the show-spanning romance between the characters Fry and Leela.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s A Very Sunny Christmas 2010
This two-part episodic Christmas special from season six of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia does not allay its characteristic dark humor when celebrating a family-friendly holiday. “The gang” are a twisted group of friends who operate a seedy bar in South Philadelphia, and in this special, they reflect on the grim realities of their childhood Christmases. Featuring a bloody dream-sequence parody of the classic Rankin/Bass Christmas specials and an all-too-real mutilation of a hapless mall Santa, this direct-to-DVD makes use of its medium by pushing the envelope of edginess (for IASIP, that’s saying something). While perhaps not a compassionate introduction for new viewers, this special is a classic for Sunny fans and worthy of annual Christmas replays.
Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas 2017
Many of the most prolific composers of American Christmas music–the aforementioned Irving Berlin, Johnny Marks, Gloria Shayne Baker–were actually Jewish. This 2017 documentary, set in a Chinese restaurant as a remark on the cultural diversity of the holiday’s traditions, examines the 20th-century shift from hymnal Christmas music that prioritized worship into a less-religious genre characterized by themes of peace, love, and winter coziness. Interviews with musicians, industry players, comedians, and Alan Dershowitz are divvied by performances of all the classic Christmas numbers. Whether you’re a Chinese food-loving Christian or a Christmas-loving Jew, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is a worthy and edifying watch.
Honorable Mention: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire 1989
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (S1E01 of The Simpsons) started it all: the longest-running animated series, the longest-running sitcom, and at one point, the funniest show on television. Despite the unrefined animation and the irking differences in character voices, the first episode and definitive Christmas spectacular of The Simpsons covered ground that its subsequent 757 episodes have mostly just retreaded. Not only did it introduce the country’s most iconic yellow family, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire ushered in a new sitcom paradigm. Television’s most popular pre-1989 depictions of the American family (e.g. Lassie, Bonanza, The Waltons) were morally upright and affectionate. The Simpsons were a dysfunctional, subversive satire of their predecessors rife with pop culture references and political commentary. They started strong, portraying Christmas as a time of strapped budgets, greyhound racing, and expensive tattoo removals. But, in keeping with the expected Christmas narrative, the episode concludes with a heartfelt happy ending; the original ember of the still-burning Simpsons fire.
Season 1 of The Simpsons is available for DVD checkout: the episode of interest is on Disc 1.