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What Makes A Christmas Movie A Christmas Movie?

The holidays bring around a yearly debate: if Die Hard, the 1988 Bruce Willis action movie, is a Christmas movie or not.

Classifying films as “a Christmas movie” is not as straightforward as it may seem. While classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Christmas Prince scream Christmas (it’s literally in the name and the defining genre of the films), other movies are subject to debate. Movies like Die Hard, Love Actually, and even Mean Girls are arguably Christmas movies, as they deal at least in part with Christmas, but Christmas isn’t their most defining feature. The easiest way to classify these films is define them as “Christmas adjacent” or “incidentally Christmas.”

Christmas adjacent movies are films that engage with Christmas in multiple ways. Normally, they’re set during Christmas, show a great deal of Christmas iconography (Christmas trees, Santa, etc), play at least one Christmas song, and implement at least one Christmas movie trope–usually dysfunctional families or returning home for Christmas. A few of the most-debated movies in this category are Die Hard (as the title suggests), Love Actually, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Gremlins.

Arguably, some of these are Christmas movies based on tradition. It’s a Wonderful Life is often referenced as a Christmas movie, and showing scenes from it (particularly the ending) is its own trope (this is done in The Family Stone and Gremlins to name a few). Love Actually is in a similar boat, as many argue that it’s not a Christmas movie–the antithesis to arguing that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. While It’s a Wonderful Life is generally considered a Christmas movie, I’d argue that it’s Christmas adjacent. Most of the movie isn’t set during Christmas or references Christmas. Instead, it’s mostly a drama about altruism and egoism. It’s not until the end of the film where Clarence shows George Bailey the world without him in a reverse A Christmas Carol-style journey that the themes of Christmas are really explored.

Love Actually is in a similar situation as It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is often shown around Christmas, but it’s arguably more of a romance than a Christmas movie. However, Christmas is more than just a plot device. Christmas themes and iconography are present throughout the film, and Christmas miracles are a large part of what moves the plot along. Though there’s no Santa or reindeer, the characters all find the true meaning of Christmas. More than other movies that are classified as Christmas adjacent, I’d argue that Love Actually is actually a full-on Christmas movie.

Though they don’t seem to have much in common other than being 80’s movies, Gremlins and Die Hard are both representative of Christmas adjacent movies. They both take place during Christmas, but they wouldn’t be out-of-place playing any other time of year. Gremlins has plenty of Christmas iconography and some Christmas tropes, but its focus is on the horror of the Mogwai rather than Billy learning a lesson about Christmas. Die Hard is in the same boat, it can certainly be enjoyed around or on Christmas, but the film is an action thriller rather than a Christmas lesson. This is foreshadowed in the opening sequence at the airport. John McClane carries a stuffed bear with a big red bow for his daughter. However, rather than being a cartoonish, Christmas bear, the bear is far more anatomical–a signal to the audience that this film will be graphic rather than cute.

For the films that are incidentally Christmas, Christmas usually just shows the passage of time or is an excuse for a hallmark of the season: giving a gift, dressing up as Santa, etc. In Edward Scissorhands, this shows the passage of time and gives Edward a reason to cut through ice instead of hair or shrubbery. Though the story of how snow came to the city frames the rest of the movie, the focus is definitely not Christmas or the holiday season. In Mean Girls, the Christmas show gives Cady a chance to be bold, but it would have been fitting for any sort of talent show. Even the Candy Canegrams could have just as easily been flowers for Valentine’s Day or Sweetest Day. Candy canes are decidedly less romantic than the other two, which is likely why they were picked, but the movie doesn’t dwell on the Christmas season more than any other holiday or event. In Lady and the Tramp, Christmas is shown simply as a reason to give a gift (Lady) and to show how much time has passed. Unlike Love Actually, getting back to Christmas isn’t the ultimate goal in the Disney film. It’s simply just something that occurs.

These films are a good match for someone who doesn’t like to be too Christmassy. Though the answer to the question “is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” is “probably not,” ultimately, most movies are designed to be watched all year. And, for viewers who aren’t a fan of the Christmas-movie genre, there are films that scratch the itch for Christmas movie lovers while still offering more than just a story about the holiday. And isn’t coming together really what the holiday is all about?

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet, was also a writer for Trinity Continuum: Aberrant 2e, and has been published in books and magazines. She is an editor for the pop culture and media website GeekGals.co. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile, produces and performs on Fables Around the Table, and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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