What Defines a Christmas Movie? Discuss

Photofest
From left: 'The Santa Clause,' 'It's a Wonderful Life,' 'Die Hard,' 'Home Alone'

If comedies, musicals, romantic fantasies and films with only tangential Yuletide elements can qualify, then an action-thriller like 'Die Hard' can deck the halls, too.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

Every year the question arises, and every year people dig in on one side or the other, at once loving and bemoaning the argument. The debate has become as entrenched a yuletide tradition as Christmas movies themselves. But at its core, the issue is not so much over Die Hard (1988) as it is over the definition of "Christmas movie."

What, then, makes a movie a Christmas movie?

Is it a matter of release date? No, because that would eliminate Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945), two classic Christmas films released in summer, as well as many other favorites that opened prior to Halloween, such as The Shop Around the Corner (January, 1940), Holiday Inn (September, 1942) and White Christmas (October, 1954).

Is it a matter of marketing? No. Miracle on 34th Street, among others, had no hint of Christmastime in its one-sheet.

Is it a matter of setting? Partially. A Christmas movie certainly must have some degree of holiday setting, but the setting itself is not enough to warrant the label — or we’d be up to our ears in "Christmas movies" that contain fleeting Christmas scenes. That said, duration doesn’t seem to matter much either: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) devotes only about a quarter of its running time to Christmas yet is an established seasonal favorite.

Is it a matter of genre? This is more debatable. For some purists, Christmas movies must center predominantly on the joy, love and nostalgia that define the season. But the season is actually "defined" by much more. It also amplifies loneliness, cynicism and family dysfunction, for instance. As a result, there has long been room for all these themes and more to be explored across a wide swath of genres.

We accept Christmas-movie comedies (Home Alone, 1990), musicals (White Christmas) and romantic fantasies (The Bishop’s Wife, 1947), so why not also historical costume dramas (The Lion in Winter, 1968), Westerns (3 Godfathers, 1948) and action-thrillers like Die Hard?

In fact, all six of those titles are consistently lighter in tone than two of the most quintessential Christmas classics: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which has long sections of gut-wrenching trauma inflicted upon James Stewart, Thomas Mitchell and the audience; and A Christmas Carol (1951), which practically turns into a horror film when Scrooge visits his possible future. Of course, both films end with sequences that are among the most joyful in all of cinema — the sequences we tend to remember the most.

But the most important element of those six titles — and of every other film mentioned in this article so far — is the meaningful use of Christmas in their storytelling. In a full-fledged Christmas movie, some aspect of the season informs our experience of the story in a significant way. Since Christmas can instantly lend meaning to so many points on the emotional spectrum, a Christmas movie's overall tone can be romantic or playful, poignant or satirical. The despair that Jack Lemmon exudes while drinking alone at a bar in The Apartment (1960) is given as much added meaning by its Christmas Eve setting as James Stewart's joy at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Would Die Hard "work" if it were set on a night other than Christmas Eve? The story would work: John McClane could still fly to Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife, and terrorists could still take over a building to pull off a heist. But it would be a vastly different experience for the audience.

Christmas strongly enhances our reaction to the McClanes' marital problems because family dysfunction during the season is so relatable. Christmas also does much to lighten the terrorists' story: The film treats their successful vault break-in as if they were opening the world's greatest Christmas present after laboring mightily — and entertainingly — to "unwrap" it. The moment is accompanied by Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" blasting on the soundtrack, a work orchestrated throughout the score. Die Hard is inextricably built around Christmas thanks to its family plot thread, dialogue, music, sound effects and frequent visual references to tropes of the season. It adds up to an overriding tone of cheer and joyousness — even through the story's grand action and suspense.

In the end, no matter how passionately anyone argues his or her case, the Die Hard debate is unlikely to die because Christmas movies are not a distinct "genre." The label is subject to personal definition. If someone considers a Christmas film to be any picture with even a glimpse of the holiday, then that's what it is, to them.

On the flip side, there's yet another way to define "Christmas movie": a film that we love to revisit with friends and family at Christmastime not for any holiday content but simply for its pure, escapist entertainment value — a Marx Brothers comedy, perhaps, or a Gene Kelly musical, or a James Bond film. In fact, there's even a Bond film that significantly incorporates Christmas: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).

Ernst Stavro Blofeld plans to destroy the global economy by means of dastardly devices wrapped as Christmas presents, and 007 falls in love with Tracy di Vicenzo as the holiday season approaches, leading to one of Bond's most romantic screen moments: He proposes marriage late at night in a country barn on a snowy Christmas Eve. These are integral aspects of the story, meaningfully heightened by the holiday setting.

There's just one problem — the story does not have a happy ending, arguably a big Christmas-movie no-no. And that begs a new question: Is On Her Majesty's Secret Service truly a Christmas movie? Let the debates begin!

Jeremy Arnold is the author of TCM’s Christmas in the Movies: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, published by Running Press and Turner Classic Movies.