What Exactly is a Christmas Movie?
Well, that’s a strange, difficult, and messily defined question, because “Christmas” isn’t specifically a genre. There are ten or so different genres (depending on how they are defined, the list can span to twenty) in filmmaking, and “Christmas” is not one of them. Here’s the list:
Action, Adventure, Comedy, Crime/Gangster, Drama, Epics/Historical, Horror, Dance/Musicals, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, War, Westerns.
Of course, you can combine some of them and make a fusion of the different genres. Mel Brooks would be considered a master of adding comedy to the elements of Horror (Young Frankenstein), Westerns (Blazing Saddles), Epic/Historical (A History of the World: Part 1, Robin Hood: Men in Tights). Sometimes you can combine three, and have horror, romance, and comedy and end up with Shaun of the Dead, which I refer to as a ZomRomCom (Zombie Romantic Comedy). The one thing that remains constant is that the way the genre is decided is by what the plot entails. What I mean is that just because a film has a specific element of one genre that does not mean that it can be considered such, like a character wearing a cowboy hat or riding a horse does not make that film a Western.
You don’t have to agree with my reasoning, but I am going to present, as logically as I can, my thoughts on how to determine if a film is indeed a “Christmas” film, or indeed a part of any other genre using a few key criteria:
- Does the plot revolve around Christmas elements, or are they incidental?
- Did the film’s marketing heavily feature Christmas elements?
- “Ode to Joy” does not count.
- Did the film’s release coincide with the holiday season?
Let’s start with the most controversial film, Die Hard. This one always seems to be the one that is the most divisive, and causes the most arguments and the most friction between friends and family. There are arguments on both sides that seem valid, but in reality there are specific things that make a movie a specific genre, and very rarely can you find a film that has enough elements of two or more genres that has equal validity. Alien comes to mind – is it horror or sci-fi? Either one could be correct, and neither is wrong because it has enough of each genre to fit into either category.
Here are (some of) the arguments that Die Hard is a Christmas movie:
- Takes place on or around Christmas.
- Christmas party is the main setting.
- “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.”
- The reunion of family at the end is more heartfelt because if the Christmas setting.
- The thieves “unwrapping” their present metaphorically by opening the vault.
Is this enough? Maybe, maybe not. There is a term, “Christmas-adjacent”, which refers to a film that has elements of Christmas but Christmas is not essential to the plot. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists Die Hard under the headings of Action and Thriller.
I personally feel that this movie certainly fits in the Christmas-adjacent category because Christmas is not the driving force of the plot. I, and others, have made the argument that this could have taken place at another holiday, Fourth of July for example. The key elements of this film was that John McClane was there to take on the terrorists who were attempting to steal from Takagi. They needed an excuse to have all of the employees gathered together in one place to make it easy to control them. A Christmas party was a great way to achieve this, but it could have been a party for a particularly profitable quarter, or Takagi’s birthday where attendance was compulsory. That would not change the plot in any way. John would still follow the exact same path. The guard that Al Powell speaks to wouldn’t have been watching football, but he could have been watching basketball or baseball. There was no snow or ice that affected the plot, so that doesn’t matter either.
“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.” – Project Derailed
In this case, I would say that Die Hard, for these reasons can be considered a Christmas-adjacent film. Not just for the fact that it isn’t integral to the plot, but also in the marketing. The film premiered on July 15, 1988. There’s nothing on the poster or in the tagline of the film either.
What about Home Alone? Can we apply the same logic to this movie? Let’s try it out.
Can the movie take place at another time of year? As long as it was cold and snowy, I think that would work. Maybe Thanksgiving, but folks don’t congregate just to travel elsewhere, but it isn’t unheard of. Let’s consider another big plot point – a lot of the hijinks are contingent on the rest of the neighborhood being away visiting family for the holiday. Most of it hinges on the Wet Bandits’ plundering of the neighborhood while all the residents are away. It also hinges upon the ice and snow and harsh wintery weather knocking out the phone lines and electricity. Now, this could also be accomplished with a summer storm like a hurricane, but the damage had to be balanced; severe enough to knock out phones and electricity, but mild enough to not cause catastrophic damage to the homes and prevent travel.
This film definitely falls into the category of a “Christmas” movie. The poster has Christmas lights on it and snow in the background. It also hit theaters on November 16, 1990, clearly aimed for holiday audiences. So much of the plot centers around Christmas, like the Church scene, Kevin hiding in the Nativity scene, and using the backdrop of busy airports to add a comedic element to the film and some tension with Kevin’s mother trying to return home to her missing child after the initial confusion led to the seating on the plane adding to the ease of losing track of him as none of the children were seated together on the plane, and they rushed through the airport as well.
This should put to rest the argument about what makes a movie a Christmas movie or a Christmas-adjacent movie.
Now, of course, there will be people who do not agree with my assessments. Maybe you think that all it takes for a film to be a Christmas movie is that you have a tradition of watching it at Christmas. Maybe it has some elements but was also released at Christmas. Owing to the fact that there is no definitive genre that encapsulates all of these movies and gives clear guidance on what is and what isn’t a “Christmas” movie, this debate may never be settled. There will always be folks who come down firmly on one side of the argument or the other and cannot be persuaded otherwise.
- Home Alone
- Home Alone 2
- Jingle All the Way
- Miracle of 34th Street
- Christman With the Kranks
- The Santa Clause
- Die Hard
- Die Hard 2
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- Batman Returns
- Lethal Weapon
I’ll end with this – I’m not trying to take the enjoyment of anything away from anyone. If you want to consider Die Hard (or antyhing else for that matter) a Christmas movie, simply because it takes place at Christmas, then go for it. I’ve said repeatedly that there is no set criteria because there is no actual genre, so I guess it’s up to the viewer to decide. I’ve given you my reasoning for how I think about these films, and I’m sure you have your own opinion. Neither of us is wrong, at least until someone comes along and makes Christmas a definitive category with specific rules.
Just enjoy what you enjoy, when you enjoy it.