When it comes to the holiday season, each person and family has their own unique set of traditions: driving around and looking at the Christmas lights, opening one present on Christmas Eve, drinking hot chocolate Christmas morning, or watching Christmas movies. Some of our traditional Christmas films are It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A Christmas Story (1983), Home Alone (1990), and Elf (2003), and beyond just our family they have cemented themselves as ‘Christmas classics,’ though they have not always been recognized as such. These films have earned their reputation through years of rewatches around Christmas, and all share some intangible characteristics that distinguish them from other works attempting to grab the same renown. Christmas films are still coming out every year, but none have been able to secure their spot in the seasonal canon—the last one to do so was Elf almost 20 years ago. More than just taking place during the holidays, these films encapsulate the spirit of the season, the simple optimism that people are good and can come together at least once a year to take care of one another. Films today try to capture these feelings as well, but for a variety of social and technical reasons, have been unable to do so.
The process by which Christmas classics earn that moniker seems complicated since more films have not gained such a title, but in actuality it can be reduced to a few specific elements. These films fit a combination of typical Christmas criteria such as: being set during the holiday season, featuring Christmas iconography and rituals like Santa and gift-giving, and centering on themes of family, generosity, and hope. Many films meet this formula, but one of the main reasons why they have failed every season is because they have not been platformed as such. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is now one of the quintessential holiday films that gets picked up off of the shelf every year, but it struggled to break even at the box office upon its release. Its initial financial failure can be largely attributed to its release strategy. Having premiered in 1947, the first Christmas after WWII, the film did not offer the undemanding optimist cinema-goers were yearning for. Republic Pictures had owned the forgotten film for a few decades, but after they failed to renew the rights in 1974, the film became public domain leading to many television channels broadcasting the film around the holidays for free. This, along with the actors’ talented performances and heartfelt message, is what made it a Christmas classic. Even with the majority of the film not actually taking place on Christmas, the film still holds that legitimacy as it is the story of a man’s life framed by a pivotal moment where he loses sight of what Christmas can mean for him and the world he helped shape around him. The Christmas themes are present all throughout, and in the many years since the film was first released and dismissed by audiences, these themes still ring true with audiences today.
Films becoming recognized as Christmas classics years after they were first released is not unique to It’s a Wonderful Life though. The same process can also be seen in holiday films like A Christmas Story. The film would see its biggest successes when it was picked up by Turner Broadcasting and would begin to be shown on multiple TV stations multiple times every year. In 1997, TNT even began airing a 24-hour marathon of the film, called the “24 Hours of A Christmas Story.” The film was not released as a Christmas classic, but instead it became one after TV broadcasters presented it over-and-over and viewers could not imagine the holiday season without it anymore. At the same time though, there is something about these films that it is hard to imagine other films truly taking their place, even if they were broadcast in the same way.
This can be seen in the way that Home Alone is able to sit apart from any of its sequels or re-imaginings like the new Home Sweet Home Alone (2021), and that is not entirely because one is broadcast more than its counterparts. Specifically for the Home Alone series and series in general, people prefer the classics, the originals, and any attempts by later films to capitalize on this established relationship are not viewed fondly. Expanding the scope and comparing the classic Christmas films to newer Christmas films, this nostalgia still has great influence. The older films are able to evoke a greater sense of nostalgia, and we look at them through rose-tinted glasses whereas the newer films that are shinier and glossier, we view more critically. The holidays are a time of nostalgia not only because we are watching these older films that we remember from our childhood, but also because they are a time where we actually get to sit and reminisce. We don’t want to sit around at Christmas with friends and family and try to find the next best Christmas film, we want to sit with the classics that we remember and are familiar with, the films that transcend the medium. The holidays are a time where we get together with others and discuss fond shared memories throughout the years, and these films can feel less like films and more like memories the more that we watch them.
Creating A Christmas Classic
In our world today many films, including Christmas films, feel the need to reflect our reality and our anxieties about the future, when for so many people the holidays are a time of escapism for them. Christmas films are meant to embrace the belief that everyone has the potential for good within them, but these modern films frame this within our deeply cynical world. The holidays are one of the most special times for some, while for others it can be the loneliest, and while a more cynical film could be more truthful, it is not what audiences want to watch every year, it is not what people want to make part of their tradition. Elf drew such praise because it reflects this pessimistic world and the character of Buddy the elf is still able to embrace the holiday spirit and sway everyone in the film to see the wonderful things that he can. Alternatively, films like Deck the Halls (2006) and Fred Claus (2007) may end with happy reunifications of families embracing the holiday spirit, charity, and benevolence, but they are still grounded in a deeply unhappy, competitive, and untrusting world. These films do not construct the same holiday mood that its counterparts do. Rather, they are disconcerting, and push viewers to stay away from the holidays, conflicting with the nostalgic embrace that the classics provide.
The classics were chosen by distributors and broadcast over and over again, and, in the streaming age, the user has much more agency in choosing what to watch, meaning that new filmmakers have to work so much harder to get their films seen by audiences. Newer films face the additional challenge of finding a way to bridge the gap between being a new film and capturing the sense of nostalgia that is imbued in many Christmas films. The final and most important challenge is that a new Christmas film has to both embrace the genre and find a way to subvert it in a manner that gives it staying power in the unpredictable future. To make a Christmas classic, a filmmaker does not need to make a film that works for 2021, they need to make a film that audiences can easily insert into the Christmas lineup that will be impossible to remove years down the line. They need to make a film that can evoke viewers’ sense of nostalgia without pandering to them, and it needs to be It is a daunting task, and I am excited to see what is in store for the future of Christmas movies.