“Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening?”
“I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.”
“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy: ‘Do you hear what I hear?’”
I cannot stomach Christmas music. As such, I have been called a grouch more times than I can count. But that’s hardly fair. It isn’t Christmas I find troublesome—it’s how the season is scored that bothers me. But what does get me into the Christmas spirit are the annual films and television specials that are as etched into my memory as my family’s plastic Christmas tree.
Film and television have had a long love affair with the Christmas season, with varying degrees of success. Some are crude (Bad Santa), some are chilling for all the wrong reasons (The Polar Express), and still others continue to mystify (Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause). Here are seven of the best.
7) White Christmas
The title doesn’t lie: There is scarcely a person of color to be found in this 1954 film about two soldiers who join forces with a sister act to save a Vermont inn. But White Christmas still ranks as a favorite among fans.
Dated? To be sure. But its message is timeless—and melodic. White Christmas is a candy-cane-colored look at the importance of community and tradition, framed by song and dance. And with the vocal prowess of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney crooning about Christmases that are “merry and bright,” it’s hard not to melt into your couch as you watch it.
6) Miracle on 34th Street
A lawyer defends an institutionalized gentleman who claims to be the real Santa Claus.
Perhaps no other Christmas film does a better job of toggling between fantasy and reason, but that’s half the fun! And this 1947 classic wouldn’t work without Edmund Gwenn’s Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle, who stood in for a generation of baby boomers as the best film representation of Santa.
But a closer look uncovers a deeper meaning. The film is a quiet study of faith and how it sustains us, culminating in the scene where Maureen O’Hara tells her young daughter, played by Natalie Wood, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Amen.
5) How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Author Anna Quindlen once opined that Dr. Seuss will be remembered “for the murder of Dick and Jane, which was a mercy killing of the highest order.” That proved true in 1966 with How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, about a creature of undetermined origin who schemes to rob the Whos of Whoville on Christmas Eve.
Animation may have been birthed by the French and perfected by Walt Disney, but Dr. Seuss made it edgy, less literal. Combine his laser wit with a story of a frozen heart warmed by the grace of a little girl named Cindy Lou Who, and what you have is a beautiful tale that binds Gen Xers everywhere. With effortless rhyme, The Grinch speaks to a season that casts light in even the darkest corners of our souls, illustrated with this line: “Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we.”
4) It’s a Wonderful Life
To earn his wings, an angel helps a suicidal family man (Jimmy Stewart) by showing him what life would be like if he had never existed. Director Frank Capra’s 1946 classic might be too saccharine for contemporary film fans, but cynics should give it another go. Deceptively dark, the film tackles suicide, emotional desolation, and the resiliency of the human spirit, themes rarely explored this thoughtfully in postwar American cinema. As Stewart’s George Bailey rediscovers the beauty of life and the importance of Christmas, his emergence from a cocoon of despair is pure movie magic.
3) A Christmas Story
A Midwestern boy goes to exhausting lengths to get what he wants for Christmas: an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle.
Forget for a moment that the young protagonist, so memorably played by Peter Billingsley, spends the entire film with gun lust, and think of how beautifully this story balances adolescent angst and post-Depression Christmas glee. Jam-packed with classic lines (“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”), A Christmas Story works best not as a tale of holiday avarice, but as a funny look at a flawed family navigating the choppy Christmas waters together. Set in the 40s, released in the 80s, but ever timeless, it reminds us that, on December 25, we’re all children at heart. It also shows what can happen when we stick our tongues to poles in midwinter. Thank you, Flick.
2) A Charlie Brown Christmas
Our titular hero feels that Christmas has become too commercial: how some things never change! With the help of friends Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and Schroeder, the gang puts on a Christmas pageant.
Nothing about this 1965 television landmark should work. It is crudely animated. It is voiced by untrained child actors. It has a jazz score! But if you assemble the many imperfections of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” perennial, what you’re left with is nothing short of perfection. As Linus, blanket in hand, recites Luke 2:8–14 on that dusty auditorium stage, he commands the attention not only of the children present, but of the audience as well. That seamless weaving of biblical storytelling into pop culture wouldn’t fly on today’s mainstream television landscape.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, the greatest animated special of all time, preaches without being preachy.
1) A Christmas Carol
A crusty miser in Victorian England learns the meaning of Christmas from three cantankerous spirits.
Any interpretation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel is time well spent—even the Muppets got it right. But for this movie lover, George C. Scott’s towering 1984 interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge is still the one to beat.
Redemption is a tricky theme in film. In the hands of lesser writers, too often it is inauthentically rendered. But Scrooge’s rebirth as a person of integrity never seems forced or false. As viewers, we endure his evolution—his reawakening as an instrument of good.
And as the old man hoists a once-sickly Tiny Tim atop his shoulders at the end of the film, the closing lines can warm even the chilliest hearts toward Christmas: “God bless us, everyone.”