We’re currently marching our way through the month of December, and as with years past, I’m trying to maintain a festive air around the blog by including a fair number of Christmas movies in my reviews. But just what makes a movie a Christmas movie? Surely Christmas Vacation is a Christmas movie, but is Lethal Weapon? How much Christmas does a movie have to contain to be a Christmas movie?
This question was on my mind the other night as I attempted to dig up some Christmas movies to schedule for the next few weeks — it’s harder than one might think, at least if one wants to avoid the Hallmark/ABC Family schlock. I see little point in watching something called A Girlfriend For Christmas when I know it’s just going to be terrible. But back to the main topic, when I got to looking at IMDb’s “Christmas” tag and Wikipedia’s list of movies with Christmas elements, I saw that there was often a very broad interpretation at work. So I thought I might say a few words about the differences as I see them.
Before I go on, let me shoot down one common argument in favor of some questionable films being Christmas movies. A lot of times in these questions, the argument is made that “We watch this every year at Christmas, so it’s a Christmas movie.” One’s personal traditions, while certainly worthy of respect, do not alter a film. You could watch Independence Day every December 25th, but it’s never going to be a Christmas movie. To me, the question is purely a matter of content.
A Christmas movie is a movie about Christmas. Redundant, perhaps, but the fact that the question is asked means there’s a small lack of clarity in the eyes of the public at large. A movie is about Christmas if the themes and events of Christmas are central to the plot — not mere set dressing. A film about the birth of Christ would be a Christmas movie. A film about Santa Claus or his helpers would be a Christmas movie. A film about trying to arrange a Christmas celebration is a Christmas movie. If taking Christmas out of the story would make it so the story doesn’t make any sense, it’s a Christmas movie. If you can’t picture watching the film any time but Christmas, it’s probably a Christmas movie. These are the main films I’m looking for when I’m looking for entries for my Christmas Cinema category.
A film that is set around Christmas, but has a non-Christmas plot, is not a Christmas movie; it is a movie with a Christmas setting. Lethal Weapon and Die Hard both feature Christmas decorations and are set in the days leading up to Christmas, but Christmas is not a key component to either movie. One’s a buddy cop film, the other’s about terrorism (sort of). They could just as easily have been set on June 13, a date of no particular significance. The same could be said of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Iron Man 3, or a few other films by Shane Black. It seems to be a thing with him. While a Christmas movie generally only makes sense to watch at Christmastime, a movie with a Christmas setting is often still enjoyable at other times of the year — consider Iron Man 3‘s box office success in May. To me, films with a Christmas setting are a decent way to provide some variety in Christmastime movie marathons, but they are not themselves Christmas films. They are my secondary choices for the Christmas Cinema category, but if I were to make a Top X list of Christmas movies, they would not be eligible. Why? Because they’re not about Christmas; it’s just being used as decoration.
A film with a single Christmas scene is just a film. There’s a step in between “films with a Christmas setting” and “films that don’t involve Christmas at all”, and that’s a film where Christmas shows up for a single scene. Often this happens in films where a lot of time passes during the course of the movie. Annie Hall, for example, features a Christmas party in one scene. It’s not a Christmas movie. It doesn’t even have a Christmas setting aside from that one scene. It doesn’t count at all for Christmas movie discussions, in my opinion; it wouldn’t go into my Christmas Cinema category because there’s just not enough to count there. To be a film with a Christmas setting, it would have to take primarily around the days leading up to and following Christmas. One scene doesn’t suffice. Maybe if a movie started on one Christmas and ended on another, it would count, but if Christmas is just a pit stop in the story, it’s just another movie.
That’s my opinion, any way. Christmas movies are about Christmas. Christmas-setting movies are ones that take place around Christmas. Everything else is just a movie. And while I do have some non-Christmas movies slated in for this month — partly due to another significant date taking place but mostly due to wanting to get a few more 2013 films in before the year ends — for the most part I’ll be looking for Christmas movies and Christmas-setting movies.