As the Peanuts gang likes to sing, Christmas Time is Here. And with Christmas time comes loads of Christmas movies, specials and episodes. Everyone has their favorites; these are mine. These are my twenty-seven essential Christmas “things to watch” that will keep me and my family busy for the month of December. If you love Christmas as much as I do but you don’t know what to watch, feel free to follow along and make this holiday a well-organized, TV-watching machine. Because nothing says Christmas like overly-organized, obsessive-compulsively-created lists of things!
DECEMBER 1st – HOLIDAY INN
It’s a perfect kickoff film. Even though a good portion of the movie takes place away from the Christmas season, the film bookends with Christmas Eve. The Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire musical deserves its place for that, and of course for the fact that it introduced the world to the most essential Christmas song of all time, White Christmas.
DECEMBER 2nd – ELF
Upon release, the Will Ferrell picture was hailed as an instant holiday perennial. Its finely tuned sense of charm and fun combine just enough traditional Christmas sweetness with the kind of irreverent humor you’d expect from an SNL alum. Together the ingredients make a movie that is great to enjoy whether you’re at a holiday party amongst peers or snuggled under blankets with your family.
DECEMBER 3rd – THE GRINCH
The Ron Howard-helmed take on Dr. Seuss’ classic Christmas tale is a polarizing film, with fans praising Carrey’s manic take on the famous villain and critics knocking the movie for the amount of padding and filler that was injected to bring it up to a feature-length runtime. It is a little flabby but Carrey’s performance keeps things entertaining and the final half-hour, which basically recreates the book is worth sitting through the first hour.
DECEMBER 4th – PRANCER
This is probably not a Christmas movie most think of when they sit down next to a crackling fire and decide to watch something seasonally appropriate. It makes the list because (A) the list is twenty-seven entries long, and (B) it’s one of my wife’s favorite Christmas movies. There is fun to be had, especially at the expense of the very-1980’s aesthetic, a great gruff performance by the inimitable Sam Elliott and a great supporting role by the always creepy (and I mean that in the best way) Cloris Leachman.
DECEMBER 5th – DIE HARD
Can there be a Christmas that goes by without watching this movie? Granted, it’s not a conventional holiday film, but ask yourself, what is it you really need from a “Christmas movie?” All you really need is that it is set in late December, has a good selection of Christmas songs, and an inoffensive plot. Most Christmas movies your mother watches on the Hallmark Channel feature some blue collar guy just trying to get back to his wife, while some snob in a suit serves as the villain. Along the way there’s drama and comedy and nothing to make you think too hard. Shoot, that’s Die Hard. Only instead of romcom cliches, you get tank tops, bloody feet, and guns duct taped to backs. It’s delightful.
DECEMBER 6th – WHITE CHRISTMAS
Holiday Inn may have introduced us to White Christmas, but by the time this movie was released (twelve years later, in 1954), the song had become bigger than the movie. Originally, this film was to reunite Crosby and Astaire, but the latter declined because the script wasn’t interesting enough. He wasn’t wrong, of course; the script is flimsy, but for a musical it does its job of getting the primary actors and actresses to the right spots to sing and dance. And when the singing and dancing starts the movie earns its place in your holiday movie rolodex. The title song is really the only holiday number, but “Sisters” (as performed by Crosby and Kaye) is too much dumb fun not to enjoy.
DECEMBER 7th – BATMAN RETURNS
While not a movie you can expect to see on ABC Family’s (now “the Freeform Channel” whatever that means) 25 Days of Christmas, the second Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman flick is an annual tradition for me and my sons around this time of year. Critically it was a weaker film than its predecessor, and it pales in comparison to the kind of comic book movies that are being made today, but if you’re like me and you grew up watching Michael Keaton awkwardly turn around and punch people in a leather batsuit, then you can’t help but love the movie. It’s weird, it’s macabre, it’s wholly unlike anything a Batman film should be, but it’s still a Batman movie set during a time of the year few Batman stories are.
DECEMBER 8th – HOME ALONE
Let’s get one thing clear: Kevin’s mother is a horrible parent. She lets her other children and even her own siblings (and siblings-in-law) walk all over him, insult him, berate him and, when he finally fights back, has the audacity to discipline him but no one else. Having taken all he could, Kevin declares that he’d rather spend Christmas alone. Instead of recognizing a hurting child, his mother basically eggs his wish on, goading him into officially asking for it for Christmas. Yes the hijinks that ensue, as Kevin fights off burglars Harry and Marv, is great fun and the movie is dripping with Christmas music and visuals (courtesy of John Hughes’ beloved Chicago), but I can’t help but watch the movie and loathe that terrible mother.
DECEMBER 9th – MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
First of all, the 1947 original is the only version worth watching over and over again. The remake is so sterile and dated it’s an offense to the black and while oldie, which had a perfect cast, a wholesome charm, lots of gags that go right over kids heads, and a story about the simple power of childlike faith. I love that the movie is so grounded in reality, where everyone—friend and foe alike—agrees that the bearded old man can’t possibly be the real Santa, because obviously there is no such man, but the clever lawyer uses enough legal tricks and loop holes to at least get the government to officially concede that he is the “real” thing. And then, just when you think that’s the twist, the movie ends with him being the real and true magical Santa, turning the movie from a simple courtroom comedy to a wonderful fantasy movie.
DECEMBER 10th – THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL
There are countless adaptations of Dickens’ quintessential Christmas fairy tale, from George C. Scott’s 1984 take to the Patrick Stewart 1999 version. Robert Zemeckis and Jim Carrey did a computer-animated movie that gets some airplay in our house, but the definitive version for us and the one that many consider their favorite, is one co-starring The Muppets. Kermit plays Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy plays his wife Emily, Statler and Waldorf double-up as Marley and Gonzo narrates the proceedings as Charles Dickens. But the star of the picture, as it should always be with a production of A Christmas Carol, is Ebenezer Scrooge, played here by Michael Caine. The Englishmen lends his acting muscle and mesmerizing voice to the role, playing off the often-zany Muppets as though he was reading lines with Christian Bale and Sir Anthony Hopkins. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
DECEMBER 11th – X-FILES: HOW THE GHOSTS STOLE CHRISTMAS
On the TV front, there are many Christmas-themed episodes that fans adore. The Simpsons’ many holiday specials never disappoint, Bob’s Burgers and New Girl are more modern hits that do the special right, I Love Lucy, Cheers and Fraiser all have great ones too. The one I go back to every year, however, is a ghost story from The X-Files’ sixth season. Mulder and Skully investigate a haunted house, meet a haunting married couple (Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) who play mind games with the agents, leading them to believe one intends to kill the other. There’s blood, there’s screams, there’s terror and horror. So much of it would be right at home for a Halloween Special, but the Christmas backdrop and the fact that The X-Files is exactly the kind of show that would do a haunted house story on Christmas, makes it work and work well.
DECEMBER 12th – THE SANTA CLAUSE
This movie seems to live on the fence in between “annual holiday classic” and “corny 90’s movie best left forgotten.” The two sequels it spawned certainly are best ignored, but the original is the “Elf” of its generation. Tim Allen’s blue collar comedy shtick married perfectly to the character of a put-out, holiday-cynical, divorced dad forced into the role of the eternally jolly gift giver of the season. Some of the special effects are laughably dated, which only add to the charm, as do the 1990’s hair-styles (and sweater-styles). It’s almost embarrassing, but it never actually gets there; it remains too much fun to discount.
DECEMBER 13th – DISNEY CHRISTMAS-THEMED SHORTS
A simple youtube search can reveal a treasure trove of Disney’s Silly Symphonies based around Christmas and the winter season. There’s one where Santa makes toys in his workshop (featuring a slightly-disturbing laugh from the big guy). There’s a simple retelling of Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas that features the same Santa. Mickey and Pluto contend with a pair of chipmunk stowaways in their Christmas tree, and—my personal favorite—Donald and his nephews get into a snowball fight for the ages. There are many more but just those four offer a good half-hour of fun for the whole family.
DECEMBER 14th – CHRISTMAS WITH THE JOKER
Speaking of good Christmas half-hours, here’s perhaps the best Christmas-themed Batman story thus far produced. Naturally it comes from Bruce Timm’s groundbreaking animated series. The plot is a classic Batman and Robin vs Joker story, where the Clown Prince of Crime breaks out of Arkham, converts a toy warehouse into a boobytrap-laden nightmare for the heroes and holds some important people hostage. It’s by the book; you’re not watching it to be blown away by the plot intricacies. Watch it because it’s a great Christmas-themed superhero romp with Mark Hamil’s Joker hamming it up as usual. From the moment he belts out “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells…” you know you’re in for a treat.
DECEMBER 15th – HOME ALONE 2
While not as tight and original as the first, Home Alone 2 is still a lot of fun. It has a few pacing problems, and takes a little too long to get to the good stuff, but when it gets funny it can be side-splitting. Having said that, some of the damage Kevin inflicts on the criminals is so outlandish it becomes unbelievable. In the original they step bare-footed on glass ornaments, slip on micro machines and get pelted with paint cans. That’s believable. In this one Marv eats not one, but four bricks to the face (dropped from three stories up) and lives to tell the tale. As a child I didn’t even think about it, watching it now I just sit there and wonder how he wasn’t literally murdered. Oh and as with the first, Kevin’s mom is still the ultimate villain here, as she shrugs off Buzz’ bullying and mockery and treats Kevin’s retaliation as though he started it all. Boo that woman.
DECEMBER 16th – GREMLINS
This movie deserves a place on any Christmas movie countdown simply for this scene alone:
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DECEMBER 17th – CHRISTMAS VACATION
This movie is my jam. The opening scene, where Clark and family drive to the forest to cut down a tree and then make it back only to be mocked by their uppity neighbors (“bend over and I’ll show you”), is guaranteed to make me laugh, non-stop, for the duration. It is perfect. The music, the script, the subtle things all of the characters do in between lines, all of it. If I only had ten minutes to watch something Christmas-related, that opening would be it. From there, the laughs continue at a steady clip: getting trapped in the attic, the lights, cousin Eddie’s surprise appearance, saying “grace”, the star-spangled ending. All of it is just…it’s my favorite Christmas comedy, bar none.
DECEMBER 18th – RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER
Now we come to the TV specials that many of us grew up enjoying and now enjoy passing down to our kids. We start with Rudolph, the story of a child born with a mild disability that is psychologically abused by every authority figure around him, to the point where he runs away from home, and only returns in order to help a loved one. Upon returning he is immediately drafted by the totalitarian dictator who runs the North Pole, who exploits Rudolph’s disability for his own ends. Good film, though. Cool animation.
DECEMBER 19th – FROSTY THE SNOWMAN
Which came first, the song or the TV special? In our house it’s the song, as we start playing Christmas music on November 1st (I actually start spinning some of my favorite Christmas records while I’m handing out Halloween candy, but I digress), and the CBS special doesn’t get watched until closer to Christmas time. So by the time we actually watch the half-hour exploits of the most famous snowman ever, my family and I have sung about him at least seventy-two times. A few years ago CBS remastered the animation, giving it a fresh coat of paint while keeping the voice and art style in tact. That’s better than trying to remake it, though I don’t put it past Hollywood to eventually run out of ideas and produce a live action version starring Jack Black as Frosty. I probably shouldn’t have typed that. Now it’ll be my fault.
DECEMBER 20th – HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS
Forget the Jim Carrey remake, the original animated film is where it’s at. Directed by Chuck Jones (and if you don’t know who Chuck Jones is, he’s the guy responsible for at least 75% of all the Looney Tunes shorts you love) and narrated by the wonderful Boris Karloff, the 1966 special brought to life Dr. Seuss’ words better than any adaptation before or since.
DECEMBER 21st – A MUPPET FAMILY CHRISTMAS
Countless TV holiday specials have come and gone over the years; some of them have endured to become annual favorites and others disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Of them all, my favorite features The Muppets. In this 1987 special, the gang heads to the farm where Fozzie’s “ma” lives. Little do they know she was planning on skipping Christmas and vacationing in Barbados. Instead, she plays host to the whole Muppet’s troupe as well as the man who was expecting to house sit for her. Comedy ensues exactly as you would expect from a glorified episode of the 1970’s “The Muppet Show.” There’s none of the cynicism or edge that the Muppets have today (such as on their terrible ABC show). Instead, Jim Henson’s gentle fun and safe humor makes for a pleasant hour long diversion from the modern world. The show isn’t aired on television anymore, and to my knowledge can’t be purchased on home video disc (or streamed on any of the typical services). But you can find it online, and if you’re interested, you can even watch it with some of the original commercials that aired in the late-80’s.
DECEMBER 22nd – A GARFIELD CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
The lazy housecat was featured previously on the Halloween TV Viewing article, but not to be outdone, he returns here with one of my favorite Christmas specials. As with the Muppet’s special, this one first aired in 1987 (so maybe it’s featured because I was born a few years before and thus grew up watching reruns of it every year) and focuses on Garfield, Odie and owner Jon visiting the family at the farm. Original, Christmas-themed songs are peppered throughout, as well as the very particular Garfield-style sarcasm that made the cat a Sunday paper favorite and a Saturday morning favorite too.
DECEMBER 23rd – A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
This is probably the special that will top most people’s list of holiday favorites, and with good reason: Charles Shulz’ desire for the special was that it would bring back the “feeling of old” that he thought was slipping away from the holiday. That was back in 1965! Perhaps the most enduring part of its legacy is that it killed the “Aluminum Christmas Tree” market that had been booming in post-war America. Charlie Brown’s crusade against “fake” Christmas trees was really part of the special’s larger point: Christmas is too commercialized, and is no longer about family, friends and faith. The special embraces those three points with such sincerity and earnestness that it has endured despite the fact that Christmas is even more commercialized now than it was then.
DECEMBER 24th – MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL
While the Muppets may have delivered this list’s favorite feature-length version, this 25 minute production takes the prize as the best animated adaptation done to the story. It was originally attached to the theatrical re-release of The Rescuers (in the US) and The Jungle Book (in the UK). It was considered a “short” and, despite being four times the typical length, was nominated for an Academy Award for Short Film in 1983 (the first Mickey short to be nominated since the 1940’s). Rightly so, too: the animation is immaculate (remember that it came about during a time of financial unrest and budget-cutting for the company) and the tone of the picture hits all the right notes. It’s funny where it wants to be and haunting where it needs to be. It’s an absolute classic.
DECEMBER 24th – THE POLAR EXPRESS
It is a tradition in our family to watch The Polar Express before the kids go to bed on Christmas Eve. The story behind the tradition is simple: This is the movie that has been in our family from the beginning of our family. When Lauren and I first started dating, in the fall of 2003, we went to the movies and saw a trailer advertising a movie—The Polar Express—due out the next Christmas. Confident that I had found the girl of my dreams, I boldly asked her out on a date to see it that next year. She agreed. Sure enough, the next year (by then we were engaged) we saw the movie. Was it perfect? No. The uber-realisitic CGI-visuals were not quite there yet (and still aren’t) which made it a little off-putting, but our own personal story made it a movie we became attached to. By the next Christmas we were married and juuuust about to find out were were pregnant with our first son. We bought the movie on DVD and enjoyed it that Christmas Eve. By the next year we had Jack and the movie was, from then on, a staple in our house on the night before Christmas. Since then we’ve had Caleb and Joshua, we’ve moved from Memphis back to Arkansas and changed jobs two times along the way. A lot has changed for us, but that movie being our Christmas Eve tradition has not. Hopefully it never will.
DECEMBER 24th – IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
After the kids go to bed, my wife and I begin the process of loading the stockings with goodies, placing the “Santa” presents under the tree (the presents from us will already be under there), and then putting on this 1946 Christmas classic. Without fail, as a result of the long hours awake, the swelling of emotions that always come with Christmas, and just the fact that it’s such a great movie, I always cry. Like a baby. It always comes right around the time George is running through the streets screaming “Merry Christmas.” I’m getting misty right now just thinking about it.
DECEMBER 25th – A CHRISTMAS STORY
It’s easy to dismiss this movie simply because TBS airs it nonstop from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, but no one is forcing you to watch it a dozen times. Watch it once, say, on Christmas day while you’re in that in between time after breakfast and before lunch. Sit back in your jammies with a cup of cocoa and watch the tireless mission of young Ralphie to secure his prized BB gun for Christmas. Of course, that’s only one of many inter-connected plots that weave in and out of the narrative: Meeting Santa at the mall (and finding out he’s a jerk), dealing with dismissive teachers, bullies at school, annoying siblings, post-war dads, etc. A Christmas Story is less a movie than it is a series of skits based around the holiday, as seen through the eyes of a frustrated pre-teen.
You may have your list; this is just mine. Maybe you don’t have a list at all, and you just sort of watch whatever seasonally-appropriate show is on at the time. If that’s the case then let me encourage you to take a look at the list (check it twice!) and pick a movie or special that tickles your fancy. Then snuggle up with a blanket, some hot chocolate, and maybe a loved one, and enjoy the holiday. There’s so much negativity and uncertainty in our world today. Escape from it to the fantasies afforded to you in the shows listed above.
More than anything, have a Happy Holiday, a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful end of year!