It’s an age-old debate: what really makes up a good Christmas movie? Does it just have to be set at Christmas or does it also need to have themes relating to the spirit of the season? To remain impartial I’ve avoided particular points of contention (like Die Hard) and have explored the tropes and themes which appear within our traditionally festive favourites.
The theme of love is central to any Christmas movie and it’s a love that can come in many different forms. Love Actually (2003), personally my favourite but unarguably one of the most popular films of the season, sums up the universality of the theme from the outset.
This film is the most varied depiction of love, taking on several forms in each of its interweaving stories
With a voiceover that describes how the ‘love’ in question is between couples and families alike even in the most desperate of times, this film is the most varied depiction of love, taking on several forms in each of its interweaving stories. Juliet’s (Kiera Knightly) story is that of a love triangle, Daniel’s (Liam Neeson) is finding a loving bond with his step-son, and Karen’s (Emma Thompson) is about surviving the breakdown of love.
A typically romantic depiction of love at Christmas time is also told in the trans-Atlantic story of The Holiday (2006). Iris’s (Kate Winslet) home is perhaps the most ideal Christmas setting, a remote cottage with a roaring fire surrounded by snow. Yet she finds a different kind of Christmas love across the Atlantic in a snow-less Hollywood mansion, with the company of an elderly ex-screenwriter to help her find her way. All the while, Cameron Diaz’s Amanda is finding love with Jude Law’s Graham for which she eventually decides staying with him and the idyllic cottage is what she really wants (what a difficult decision to make).
Family is an often-used theme that reflects how most of us seek to reunite, regardless of circumstance, around Christmas time. Some take on this theme with humour, as the likes of Home Alone (1990) and Elf (2003) focus on the comedy of their character’s situations with the thread of bringing family together throughout. Some are more sentimental in their depictions of family with The Family Stone (2005) presenting the difficulties of trying to fit in with a new family and their traditions.
And some take on an even darker tone as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) tells the story of George Bailey, who is ready to take his own life, but gives him the chance to see what life for his family and town would have been like without his good deeds. All of these redeem any dark undertones or side-story with the uniting of families, with a snowy backdrop, or sat around a dinner table, or opening presents round the Christmas tree to remind us that it is Christmas that has brought these families together.
Family is an often-used theme that reflects how most of us seek to reunite, regardless of circumstance, around Christmas time
Once all the love-fest and family celebrations are done, there’s time left for redemption of those who don’t associate themselves with the traditional Christmas spirit. This appears in more classic forms with the many renditions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But also very atypically with How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) which has the unique feature of being a Halloween film as well (and I would argue can be acceptably watched any time between Halloween and Christmas).
Whatever rendition of A Christmas Carol you might watch, whether it’s the musical take of The Muppet’s Christmas Carol (1992), or the non-traditional modern retelling with Scrooged (1988), all these stories contain the central character of Scrooge and his eventual realisation of the true meaning of Christmas: family, giving, and kindness to others. This theme of redemption is reflective of that end-of-the-year new opportunities feeling, that is around at this time, and helps in believing that Christmas has the ability to solve, or at least distract us from, all of life’s problems.
Personally, I feel a Christmas would not be the same without hearing Tiny Tim declare: “God bless us, everyone!”
Altogether, it seems theming is vital to any Christmas movie, with characters and story which embody the emotions and values we have come to associate with a traditional Christmas. Equally though, it wouldn’t quite be a Christmas movie if there wasn’t at least a bit of snow or hint of a Christmas tree or the sounds of bells and gentle music in the background. It seems no coincidence that none of these favourites are set somewhere where there is never snow, in order to get that money-shot of a couple kissing in a snow storm, or the pan out from a house glowing with light to show silhouettes of the people inside, surrounded by fairy lights and snow.
These are all tropes we are very familiar with and that, perhaps, is what’s so comforting about a Christmas film; they consistently deliver the sights and sounds we love year after year. Personally, I feel a Christmas would not be the same without hearing Tiny Tim declare: “God bless us, everyone!”
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