What is a Christmas film?

What’s your favourite Christmas film? Is Die Hard a Christmas film? What Christmas films will you be watching this December? These questions are often repeated from year to year as December rolls around but nobody actually
stops to think – what actually is meant by the term ‘Christmas film’?

Over the past 35 years Christmas films have come at us thick and fast from family films like Elf and Home Alone to romantic comedies such as Love Actually and Last Christmas via action fare such as Die Hard and multiple interpretations of Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ to name but a few. These all come under the term ‘Christmas film’ as if that has now become a sub-genre in its own right.

Now we don’t want to pour over the tedious debate as to whether Die Hard is a Christmas film or not, but the fact that that debate even exists is quite telling. Whilst being set on Christmas eve, it was first released in July and whilst you draw parallels between the story of a man rescuing a woman from a tower and fairy tales that are told in pantomime form in December, interpretation is not evidence.

And back in the 1980’s, ‘Christmas films’ weren’t really prevalent. Maybe when Die Hard was released it wasn’t a Christmas film but it is now? A list of Christmas films on Wikipedia details 127 titles with 76 of these being released since 1990. Of course there were what we now deem to be Christmas films were about in the past in the guise of, amongst others, White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. The latter of these was actually released in June of 1947, arguably demonstrating how back then, watching films at Christmas was not part of popular culture. Can you imagine watching Elf in the middle of summer?

(Left to right) Actors John Payne, Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and young Natalie Wood stand before a Christmas tree in a still from director George Seaton’s film, Miracle on 34th Street.

Nowadays, streaming and home entertainment has made films much more readily available (and there are even T.V. channels dedicated solely to showing ‘Christmas films’) but this wasn’t the case before 1990. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. was seemingly standard Christmas day viewing on terrestrial television – a family film that may draw parallels to the story of Christ but would be better suited to Easter.

The Sound of Music is another that was utilised brilliantly by Sky Cinema a few years back as they showed a family watching the film in December from year to year with the closing advertising line ‘Nothing brings a family together like a film at Christmas’. Escaping from the Nazis hardly screams season of good cheer although you could argue that the Von Trapp’s flight from the Nazi’s and a murderous regime is similar to Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing Bethlehem to escape King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, but again, interpretation does not equate to evidence.

The Sound of Music and E.T. (alongside The Wizard of Oz) may come under the remit of family films
and that can ultimately be a key component of what we consider when we discuss what makes a
‘Christmas’ film and to that end, we can add more recent family fayre such as Harry Potter and Toy Story to name but two franchises.

At the other end of the spectrum we find horror-inflected films that can be considered ‘Christmas films’. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, Krampus and Silent Night, Deadly Night are but three examples whilst The Nightmare before Christmas brilliantly highlights the juxtaposition of Halloween and Christmas. As Halloween has become more commercial over the years, it has become a key release spot for horror films with both the Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises releasing regular versions in October. Traditionally, the Victorians would tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve and as a result, horror films would be shown on television before we had the glut of ‘christmas’ films that we have today. The BBC even broadcast ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ late into the December 24th night throughout the seventies and the BFI have just released volume one of the series on Blu-Ray.

Nowadays, we tend not to associate horror films or ghost stories with Christmas and as a result December has become more a place where the genre of the Christmas film could thrive over the past thirty years. Yet while ghosts may no longer appear to be part of the Christmas film, they do still haunt them…

For ultimately, underpinning the majority of Christmas films is a story came about alongside many other Christmas traditions that we enjoy today – A Christmas Carol. Perhaps the second best known Christmas story, Charles Dicken’s tale of a miser who is redeemed come Christmas morning is a story arc that we find in the vast majority of Christmas films. From the many versions of Scrooge himself to Kevin McAllister in Home Alone, George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, The Grinch and less obvious examples like Walter Hobbs in Elf and Willie in Bad Santa and, yes, even John McLaine in Die Hard, redemption of some sort seems to be a key theme of the ‘Christmas’ film.

Part of the brilliance of Dickens source novel is just how adaptable it is. It can be a comedy, a musical, a horror, a drama or even a postmodern take on itself as with Scrooged or Spirited with spiritual and supernatural themes and overtones. And perhaps that melting pot is the key component of the genre that is the Christmas film.

Genre is fluid, such is the kaleidoscopic nature of film and whilst the crucial component of a Christmas film just might be that moral redemptive arc the genre itself, as relatively new as it might be, is as diverse and open to interpretation as film itself.

Words: Phil Slatter

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