The meaning of Christmas (movies)

It’s almost Christmas, and you all know what that means. Time to grab a blanket, make some hot chocolate, and pull out the old A Charlie Brown Christmas DVD. That’s right folks- it’s holiday film season!

But what really defines a ‘Christmas movie’? Is it simply the time of year, or does the genre go deeper than that? When it comes to seasonal films, the list of possible options goes on and on. There are endless warm-hearted family flicks, Christmas comedies, winter romances, and even a few festive horror movies.

That being said, the majority of Christmas movies revolve around the same themes of love, family, and goodwill towards mankind — traditional Christmas time values. We watch Christmas movies precisely for these themes, in fact, to bolster our own sense of holiday spirit. No one is surprised when, at the end of a Hallmark rom-com special, the hard-edged city father finally realises that being with his family is more important than meeting the big deadline and arrives home just as the first snowfall of the year begins. That’s precisely what we came to see.

Even before the Hollywood age, storytellers saw Christmas as an opportunity to remind people about the more spiritual joys of life. Just ask Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Perhaps in a holiday so strongly imbued with materialism, from the presents we buy to the decorations we drape on our houses, reminders about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas feel more necessary. The wonderful thing about movies is that, by watching them, we can deliberately invoke a desired emotion. Christmas movies, therefore, seem to serve as an emotional antidote to the holiday stress, reminding us why we celebrate in the first place.

Even the cheesiest Christmas movies occasionally expose a dark underbelly…

In my household, ‘Christmas movies’ were almost exclusively animated — Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Polar Express, and the old school, 1966 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A special exception was made for Elf (2003), yet to this day I’ve never seen Home Alone, or any of the sequels. My best friend, on the other hand, only thinks of Love, Actually when asked about holiday films. She and her mother watch it at least once a week during December. Yet another friend loves the horror/comedy/sci-fi film Gremlins, the plot of which revolves around a murderous Christmas ‘pet’.

Gremlins is not the only unconventional Christmas movie. On their list of the 50 Best Christmas Movies of All Time, Rotten Tomatoes named Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, a dark superhero movie that turns typical holiday symbols on their heads. Elsewhere, the list cites Die Hard and holiday horror film Better Watch Out.

When it comes to these darker, less sentimental films, it can be difficult to understand what makes these movies ‘Christmas’ movies, besides the fact that they all take place around the 25th of December. Certainly Krampus and Die Hard don’t have the same warm, fuzzy holiday feels that we’re used to seeing from their cornier counterparts. Nevertheless, they all fall into the ‘Christmas movie’ categorization.

Even the cheesiest Christmas movies occasionally expose a dark underbelly. Two of the ‘love stories’ in Love, Actually feature adultery, George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life contemplates suicide, and Home Alone is literally about an eight-year old boy who has to defend his home against two violent burglars.

The obvious explanation, of course, is that the more cynical Christmas movies are made for the more cynical celebrators among us. People who, at the end of the day, feel more at home watching a slasher flick than an animated children’s movie. And that could be the end of it. Alternatively, movies lacking the traditional seasonal spirit could be gimmicks, one-offs, or studio attempts to capitalize off one of the biggest holidays of the year. Probably all of these things are true.

I, however, am a great believer that holidays are about the traditions you create with it, and Christmas is no different. Whether you watch The Muppet Christmas Carol or Bad Santa, the important thing is that they’re both embedded into the holiday. We watch Christmas movies for the same reason we listen to Christmas music, buy Christmas trees, and bake star-printed mince pies — all of the little traditions build together to make ‘Christmas’ what it is.