The Holiday movie has long been a family tradition; your nearest and dearest gathering together to enjoy a seasonal classic is as much a part of the festivities for many people as the opening of presents or grandpa falling asleep on the sofa shortly after finishing Christmas dinner.
In the years before on-demand services, Blu-Rays or DVDs, watching a Christmas movie was more of a communal experience, a time when a whole nation was beholden to the whims of the programmers working at the major broadcasters who decided what we watched and when. In the UK that meant re-runs of the Wizard of Oz every year, but no matter where you lived the choice was inherently limited.
That situation has now changed dramatically. Firstly, with the invention of VHS recorders, where you could shift the time when you gathered to watch a film to suit your timetable. Then with the growth of film ownership thanks to the popularity of DVD; you could buy a copy of your favourite family film and watch it year after year, creating your own traditions in the process.
And now thanks to video-on-demand streaming services the choice of Holiday viewing is virtually unlimited – just as long as you are willing and able to pay for the services that have the films you want to watch. This is obviously great news, but not one without issues; with all that choice comes great responsibility: how do you decide what festive films to watch!
We decided to ask that question around the Bowers & Wilkins offices, and we list our Holiday favourites here. But that got us thinking: what are the key elements required to make a great Christmas film….
The ten rules of Christmas films
Nostalgia is a key factor in Holiday movies. We seem to love the Christmas movies of our youth, and you often find that someone’s favourite movies are the ones they remember from when they were children – which is perhaps why the Bowers & Wilkins list of favourite holiday films involved so many magical moments from the 1980s.
But nostalgia is often a key theme within the movies themselves. Lots of the best Christmas movies involve children as the key protagonist, see Home Alone and The Polar Express as two of the more obvious examples. So, maybe it’s not only the age the viewer watched the film that’s important in people’s choices, but also nostalgia for youth itself that appeals.
Closely connected to the concept of nostalgia is that of family, a topic that lies at the very heart of so many classic Holiday movies. Whether it’s the search for your real father in Elf, learning to be happy with your family life in It’s A Wonderful Life, or of course Home Alone where the absence of family drives the narrative, loving those closest to you is an important festive theme. Even Die Hard has family at heart – with Die Hard 3 bringing the family spirit to life in an unexpected way, but no spoilers.
Romantic movies aren’t everyone’s cup of mulled wine, but Hollywood seems to think we all want a little bit of love at Christmas. Festive films such as Love Actually and The Holiday throw romance and festivities together in a highly obvious way, but other films do it more subtly. Trading Places for example has a great romantic subplot, although it’s not so much a Christmas film as a film set at Christmas, as we shall see later.
This is a fairly obvious one, because we all want to have a laugh at Christmas. Yes, the level of humour varies – from the small moments that add light to the shade of It’s a Wonderful Life to the full-bore laugh-fest of Elf – but a film can’t really be a Holiday favourite if it doesn’t make you laugh at least once or twice.
Magic is a vital ingredient of a Christmas film, and there’s a little bit of magic in every Holiday film you can think of. There are the literal magical universes of films such as Edward Scissorhands, The Snowman and The Polar Express, where the magic of Christmas plays a vital role in each of the stories. But it is also present in the magical thinking of John McClane in Die Hard – for example when he offers up a little prayer before leaping off the side of Nakatomi Plaza with just a fire hose to break his fall. There’s no doubt his survival is a full-scale Christmas miracle.
The trappings of Christmas
Another popular theme are the trappings of Christmas, including footage of Norway Spruces so heavily laden with decorations that in real life your floorboards would creak under the weight, piles of perfectly wrapped presents, and carol singers who can actually sing. Lots of these things can be dismissed as cliches – and in some films they are deliberately played as such – but they appear in one form or another in every Holiday film worthy of the name.
Connected to this is the love of snow – carol singers always look best when surrounded by the white stuff! Think of the twin-location love swap of festive rom-com The Holiday. The sun scorched vistas of LA are contrasted with the snowy hills of Surrey – where the ‘real’ Christmas is to be found. And of course, in the excellent The Snowman where snow is what literally makes the main character what he is.
Another thing that makes The Snowman a Christmas classic is a standout song. In this case the lyrics to Walking In The Air are the only words in the whole film, and are even more powerful for that reason. Other festive favourites have more songs in them, such as the musical Nightmare Before Christmas and of course that old-school Christmas favourite The Sound of Music. You don’t need a song to make a successful Christmas movie, but it certainly doesn’t hurt!
The last two elements that to our mind make a great festive movie are in many ways connected. Firstly, hope is vital, and we can’t think of a Holiday film that doesn’t have an element of it at its very heart. This includes Die Hard, where our hero hopes he can turn things around with his estranged wife, or Home Alone, where Kevin’s mother manages against all the odds to successfully undertake a seemingly hopeless journey across entire continents to get home in time for Christmas. It’s the season of hope, and you can’t really have a festive film without it.
Connected to this is the idea of redemption, and in Holiday films even the worst characters come out the other end better than when they went in (the fact the scheming brothers in Trading Places don’t rather suggests that it is a film set at Christmas rather than a Christmas film).
A Christmas Carol is the classic festive story of redemption, and of course It’s A Wonderful Life builds on Dickens’ idea to moving effect. And looking at some more of our favourite Christmas films, we’re pretty sure we aren’t giving anything away in saying that the narrative arc of the likes of Home Alone (where Kevin wished his family didn’t exist) or The Nightmare Before Christmas are ones that end with the redemption of the protagonist.
To our mind a Christmas film needs most of these elements to qualify, but not all of them – they don’t need a song, for example. All of our favourites contain most of them, but who knows, maybe next year there will be a new Holiday classic that re-writes these rules.