Christmas films share an interesting symbiotic relationship with the holiday season. These films have stayed a major presence on the silver screen over the decades as the Christmas season sparks joy and gift giving across the world. At the same time, Christmas films reinforce traditions and spark a love for the season that may not have happened without these constant reminders of what is now the standard seasonal celebration.
Everyone has his or her own favorite Christmas movies. Whether they are well-loved classics, fun little oddities, love letters to the holiday, or strange subversions of the season, every Christmas movie sparks something in the hearts of viewers.
Christmas movies have slowly shifted over the years, taking on different expressions and making their own statements on what the holiday means. From the earnest 1940s to the ironic 1990s, these Christmas tales take on a life of their own and say something about the holiday as well as the decade itself. They may not all be good, but they certainly leave an impression.
1940s – It’s a Wonderful Life
George Bailey hits a lifetime low on Christmas and contemplates suicide. But Angel 2ndClass Clarence is sent to intervene? His solution, to show George a world where he was never born and the terrible results in this reality. It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic, thanks in part to its reairings on television over the decades. Today, it’s still a beloved entry and represents many of the values and ideas of America in the 1940s, becoming a nostalgic story instead of the contemporary piece that it was at the time.
What Does It Say About Christmas? Cherishing what you have in life is far more valuable than gifts or what others have. A timely message for America after World War II.
Runner-Up: Miracle on 34thStreet
1950s – White Christmas
Two formers WWII soldiers (played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) become hit Broadway performers and fall for two musical sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). But when they’re booked to perform for the holidays in Vermont, an unseasonably warm season threatens to ruin Christmas. It’s a fun story, but the true joy of White Christmas comes from the countless musical numbers throughout. The many classic songs include “White Christmas,” “Sisters,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” While the film is still celebrated, the songs are best loved.
What Does It Say About Christmas? Christmas is always better when you’re in love. And when you can sing. And when it’s snowing.
1960s – Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
A contender for worst movie ever made, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is stunning in its terribleness. When Martian children are distraught from learning that Earth has Christmas and they do not, the rulers of Mars abduct Santa Claus. But kindly Santa decides to try and help the Martian kids, despite repeated assassination attempts. Filled with horrible production values, terrible dialogue, and a general overall rotten premise, this is just one of the many classically terrible films from the ‘60s.
What Does It Say About Christmas? Everybody needs the magic of Santa Claus and Christmas, even those dirty, stinking, no good Martians. Aliens were everywhere in the 1960s.
1970s – Black Christmas
Also known as the evil more cumbersome Silent Night, Evil Night and the strangely ambiguous Stranger in the House, this Christmas slasher film basically follows the exact horror template that any other horror film of the decade used. A mad man stalks a sorority house during a Christmas party, using all manner of winter and holiday paraphernalia to kill his victims. It’s another one of those low budget horror films that has only endured due to its central hook. It may not be the worst Christmas horror movie (there are lots), but it’s not necessarily good.
What Does It Say About Christmas? When all the other holidays have already been covered by other horror movies, the psychos will eventually take over Christmas. This was far from the last.
Runner-Up: Silent Night, Deadly Night
1980s – A Christmas Story
A now-adult Ralphie reflects on Christmas when he was nine years old in the 1960s and all he wanted as a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. It’s obvious that Ralphie’s family was a mess, with a strict mother, a tightly-wound father, and a constantly complaining brother. His fights with the school bully end in a profanity-laced beatdown that lets out his pent-up rage, his family is constantly fighting, and when he gets his air rifle, it results in him almost losing an eye. But in the end, there’s a sense of nostalgia that undercuts all the turmoil, leaving a sense of longing for the old times.
What Does It Say About Christmas? Your Christmases as a child were not as perfect as you may have remembered. But the faults of your family can still be balanced out by love.
Runner-Ups: Scrooged, Trading Places, Gremlins
1990s – The Nightmare Before Christmas
Jack Skellington, The Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, discovers a portal to Christmas Town, where he becomes enraptured with the idea of Christmas and Santa Claus. But his presentation of Christmas to the residents of Halloween Town becomes twisted, which threatens to destroy the holiday. It’s a dark and vivid stop motion animation exploration of these worlds that are dedicated to the idea of a single holiday, working just as well as a Halloween movie as a Christmas movie. It reflects producer Tim Burton’s dark aesthetic and the far darker and more twisted take on Christmas and the holidays in general that were taken on by the end of the century.
What Does It Say About Christmas? Christmastime is special for everyone, no matter where they come from. But the spirit of Christmas is best left in the hands of those who know what they’re doing.
Runner-Ups: Batman Returns, Jack Frost, Jingle All the Way, The Muppet Christmas Carol
2000s – Elf
An instant holiday classic, Elf follows the story of Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), a human raised as an elf who journeys to New York City as an adult to discover the family he never knew he had. Elf is easily one of the funniest Christmas movies of all time, while still unironically embracing the idea of the holiday and expressing a genuine love for it, unlike many films of the ‘90s and 2000s. While the story may take a cliché turn about saving Christmas at the end, the real fun comes from the journey, filled with Buddy’s effervescent joy and misadventures.
What Does It Say About Christmas? The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! Plus, candy makes every meal way better.
Runner-Ups: Bad Santa, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Love Actually
2010s – Iron Man 3
While Iron Man 3 may be more superhero movie than Christmas film, it still earns a place on the list because of its Christmas setting and even some of its themes. While Tony Stark deals with post-traumatic stress disorder from The Battle of New York in The Avengers, he must survive an attack by the terrorist known as The Mandarin. Writer/Director Shane Black loves the Christmas season, setting the majority of his movies during the holiday, and this one is no exception. Here, the idea of The Christmas Carol comes into play subtly, with the ghosts of past, present, and future informing some of Iron Man’s enemies and allies.
What Does It Say About Christmas? Being lonely at Christmas is the worst, even if you’re surrounded by your super sweet armors and are a billionaire playboy philanthropist.
Runner-Up: Rare Exports