Are Christmas Movies in the Eye of the Beholder?

There are certain things you can count on for the internet to deliver on a regular basis. The “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” conversation has become a permanent fixture of online life, an annual tradition as consistent as “what time is the super bowl” articles in February and “why do we even do daylight savings time” rants every March and November. 

But what strikes me as odd about the entire conversation is that, while people weigh in on the Die Hard conversation—or, ever more common, express annoyance or irritation with people who discuss Die Hard during this season—there doesn’t seem to be any conversation around what it means for something to be a Christmas movie. What do we talk about when we talk about Christmas movies? What are they? What does it mean for something to be a Christmas movie or not a Christmas movie? 

Some of the questions people ask about Die Hard and Christmas movies.

Zack Handlen coined the concept of a “Christmas-adjacent movie” in an article for The A.V. Club. It’s a fun concept but isn’t particularly helpful, as it doesn’t explain much of a delineation between Christmas movie and Christmas adjacent movie. It seems, instead of “Christmas-adjacent movie” being a useful concept, the issue is more that “Christmas movie” is being too narrowly defined in the perspective of the author. (I should note that, while I disagree with that concept, the article itself is still thoughtful and worth reading.) 

Here is the most simple definition I can think of for what makes something a Christmas movie: 

A Christmas movie is a movie you want to watch during the Christmas season—and not watch during the rest of the year, unless you are feeling nostalgic for Christmas. 

That’s why I have come up with what I call the “But Is It a Christmas Movie?” Christmas Movie Test.

I have broken this down into 14 objective questions and 3 subjective ones. Each question is given a certain point value. In order to qualify as a Christmas movie, a film should have at least 100 points in its favor. (Please note that a film cannot have a yes answer for both questions 1 and 2.) 

Objective Questions:

  1. Is Christmas literally in the title? (80 points)
  2. Does the title not include Christmas, but there is a direct allusion to Christmas in the title (i.e. Jingle All the Way) (60 points) 
  3. Does the plot synopsis mention Christmas? (30 points)
  4. Does the theme or plot of the film revolve around Christmas? (20)
  5. It has at least one scene relevant to Christmas itself. (20)
  6. Is there more than one scene set at Christmas? (10)
  7. Does at least 50% of the film take place during the Christmas season? (10)
  8. Does at least 90% of the film take place during the Christmas season (10)
  9. Was the film originally released during the Christmas season? (10)
  10. Does the film have a history of being played on television networks—or heavily promoted on streaming—during the Christmas season, thus cementing its association with Christmas? (15)
  11. Is there Christmas music on the soundtrack? (20)
  12. Does the film have various classic Christmas motifs in more than once scene, i.e. poinsettias, Christmas trees, and mistletoe? (20)
  13. Is the narrative family friendly? (5)
  14. Is there a redemption narrative? (5)

Subjective Questions:

  • Does it seem weird to watch it during other parts of the year? (30)
  • Do you feel a sense of obligation to watch it every Christmas season? (20)
  • If you’re going to watch only one movie this Christmas, do you feel comfortable choosing this one? (20)

Now, it’s important to test out the test itself. We can begin with something that is inarguably a Christmas movie: The Muppets Christmas Carol. I won’t take you line by line through the questions and answers, but let’s suffice it to say that The Muppets Christmas Carol scores well over 200 points. 

Now, for the points breakdown:

  • Less than 60: Not a Christmas Movie Unless You’re Really Trying to Prove Some Kind of Point About Something
  • 60-109 Points: Arguably a Christmas Movie
  • 110-174 Points: Definitely A Christmas Movie
  • 175+ Points: Entirely a Christmas Movie, to the Point Where It’s Weird to Watch it in During Other Parts of the Year

Is The Sound of Music a Christmas Movie?

Now, let us consider The Sound of Music. It scores a measly 25 points in the objective section—unless you qualify that “My Favorite Things” song as a Christmas song, which bumps it up to 45 points. 

No, this scene does not take place at a Christmas party.

But The Sound of Music could be argued to qualify as a yes in #2 and #3 of the subjective section, adding another 40 points to it and bringing it up to 65-85 points, making it arguably a Christmas movie, at best, due only to its longstanding association with Christmas. 

So, this test result suggests The Sound of Music is, arguably, a Christmas music. So… how should one argue? Is The Sound of Music a Christmas movie?

I’m going to take the stance that one should argue against The Sound of Music being a Christmas movie for two main reason: this movie has qualities that merit it being watched year-round, while having zero Christmas scenes or references. By shelving it with Christmas, it limits it unnecessarily and results in the confusing experience of watching an ostensible Christmas movie with zero Christmas scenes. 

Die Hard and Die Hard 2

I’m almost reluctant to weigh in on these, but I’ll say that Die Hard and Die Hard 2 both score a 125 in the objective section—with another 80 points ready to be won in the subjective section. Both of these films have also likely shifted into the territory of Completely a Christmas Movie, to the Point Where It’s Weird to Watch it During the Rest of the Year, because of their heavy promotion and discussion during the Christmas season. 

Please note that, while this Google-generated plot synopsis includes mention of Christmas, it also gets the gender wrong of one of the McClane children. Do better, Google.

The good news is that, if you’re seeking a Die Hard film that isn’t weird to watch in the spring or summer, Die Hard: With a Vengeance has Jeremy Irons as the villain, Samuel L. Jackson as the sidekick, and takes place during a New York City summer. Not even remotely a Christmas movie, aside from its association with the first two installments. 

Is About a Boy a Christmas movie?

In our family, we have long considered About a Boy to be a Christmas movie. But I wanted to see if it passes this test. While the film only has a handful of scenes set during the Christmas itself, the protagonist is the son of a songwriter whose hit, “Santa’s Super Sleigh”, funds his entire lifestyle. While most of the scenes are not set at Christmas, the film has two significant Christmas scenes which, when compared to one another, demonstrate the character development of the protagonist, Will (Hugh Grant).

Not a Christmas scene. But a great scene.

So, let’s put this one to the test:

Objective Questions:

  • Is Christmas literally in the title? (80 points) No.
  • Does the title not include Christmas, but there is a direct allusion to Christmas in the title (i.e. Jingle All the Way) (60 points) No. 
  • Does the plot synopsis mention Christmas? (30 points) No. (The long-form plot synopsis on Wikipedia mentions Christmas, but this is not enough to qualify.) 
  • Does the theme or plot of the film revolve around Christmas? (20) Yes—because of “Santa’s Super Sleigh”. 
  • It has at least one scene relevant to Christmas itself. (10) Yes
  • Is there more than one scene set at Christmas? (10) Yes
  • Does at least 50% of the film take place during the Christmas season? (10) No
  • Does at least 90% of the film take place during the Christmas season (10) No. 
  • Was the film originally released during the Christmas season? (30) No. 
  • Does the film have a history of being played on television networks—or heavily promoted on streaming—during the Christmas season, thus cementing its association with Christmas? (15) No. 
  • Is there Christmas music on the soundtrack? (20) Yes—and I’m inclined, but resisting, offering it extra points for inventing a Christmas song. 
  • Does the film have various classic Christmas motifs in more than once scene, i.e. poinsettias, Christmas trees, and mistletoe? (10) No.
  • Is the narrative family friendly? (5) Arguably, yes.
  • Is there a redemption narrative? (5) Definitely. 

Subjective Questions:

  • Does it seem weird to watch it during other parts of the year. (40) Not really. It was released in the springtime and one can watch it over the summer without thinking “why am I watching a Christmas movie?”
  • You feel a sense of obligation to watch it every Christmas season. (20) In my case, yes. 
  • You want it to be the one movie you watch on Christmas itself. (20) I think you can watch this movie on Christmas and be perfectly satisfied with your choice, whether you’ve seen it before or not. So, yes. 

About a Boy is right on the edge. 70 points in the subjective section—but with another 40 points ready to be earned, depending on how you answer the subjective sections. It’s objectively “Arguably a Christmas Movie” according to my test, with the subjective section bumping it into Definitely a Christmas Movie territory. 

So, is About a Boy a Christmas movie? Arguably. Or definitely, depending on your own personal opinions and Christmas traditions. 

Is Eyes Wide Shut a Christmas Movie?

I think I’ve made my point—whatever exactly my point is—but I’m going to test this out on one more film: Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, his final film, which stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. 

Not Christmas trees in this scene, but a very 2020 vibe of plenty of masks.

Objective Questions:

  • Is Christmas literally in the title? (80 points) No.
  • Does the title not include Christmas, but there is a direct allusion to Christmas in the title (i.e. Jingle All the Way) (60 points) No.
  • Does the plot synopsis mention Christmas? (30 points) No. 
  • Does the theme or plot of the film revolve around Christmas? (20) Yes. Well, kinda. The central plot is a man’s descent into darkness and some sex cult intrigue when he learns his wife considered being unfaithful, but it can be viewed as an intentional subversion and exploration of Christmas.
  • It has at least one scene relevant to Christmas itself. (20) Yes
  • Is there more than one scene set at Christmas? (10) Yes
  • Does at least 50% of the film take place during the Christmas season? (10) Yes
  • Does at least 90% of the film take place during the Christmas season (10) Yes
  • Was the film originally released during the Christmas season? (10) No
  • Does the film have a history of being played on television networks—or heavily promoted on streaming—during the Christmas season, thus cementing its association with Christmas? (15) No
  • Is there Christmas music on the soundtrack? (20) Yes—both “Jingle Bells” and “I Want a Boy for Christmas” 
  • Does the film have various classic Christmas motifs in more than one scene, i.e. poinsettias, Christmas trees, and mistletoe? (10) Oh yeah. There’s a Christmas tree in almost every scene. 
  • Is the narrative family friendly? (5) Nope. 
  • Is there a redemption narrative? (5) Meh. 

Subjective Questions:

  • Does it seem weird to watch it during other parts of the year? (30) No. It’s Kubrick’s final film. To limit this to Christmas is unfair to Kubrick, his craft, and his legacy. 
  • Do you feel a sense of obligation to watch it every Christmas season? (20) I can see one feeling this obligation, creating this tradition. I don’t but I can see it happening. 
  • If you’re going to watch only one movie this Christmas, do you feel comfortable choosing this one? (20) Unlikely.

So, is Eyes Wide Shut a Christmas movie?

Eyes Wide Shut is distinctly in the category of Arguably a Christmas Movie, no matter how you cut it.

It earns 80 points in the objective section, and I’m having a hard time seeing it get more than 20 in the subjective section. That puts it firmly in Arguably a Christmas Movie, even with the inflation provided by the Subjective questions.

So what else is or isn’t a Christmas movie?

Eyes Wide Shut and other films of its ilk can be lumped in with “In the Bleak Midwinter” or T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”, being a work of art rooted in Christmas themes but with a cultural legacy that eclipses Christmas and a significance that requires, or at least allows for, year-round appreciation. This is the question I keep coming back to: is it weird to watch it in the “off season”? 

There are various other films I’d like to take through this test: Reindeer Games, Gremlins, Gremlins 2, The Godfather

Again, here’s my definition: A Christmas movie is a movie you want to watch during the Christmas season—and not watch during the rest of the year, unless you are feeling nostalgic for Christmas.

A Christmas movie at its purest is like Christmas music or milk chocolate Santas—it belongs to the time between Thanksgiving and New Years, and it’s odd to consume it during other times.

Enjoy this? Check out this explanation of why Die Hard 2 is a better Christmas movie than Die Hard.

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