Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s a decent chance you love Christmas movies. Whether it’s Hallmark Channel offerings playing in the background or ceremonial viewings of family favorites, these films are as much a part of the season as mistletoe and carols. For this year’s 12 Days of Christmas, treat yourself to a dozen movies that’ll leave you merrier than a partridge in a pear tree.
On the First Day… A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
It’s been a tough year, so start the season with this security blanket of a TV special. An instant classic since it premiered on CBS a full 55 years ago, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first special based on Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts; just 15 years old at that time, the comic strip was already a worldwide sensation. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving followed in 1966 and 1973, respectively, making for a trifecta of holiday wholesomeness. Apple TV+ now owns the rights and will make it available to watch for free from December 11 – 13, and they’ve also agreed to air the special on PBS on December 13.
On the Second Day… Die Hard (1988)
If you’ve ever met a Die Hard superfan, you’re no doubt aware that many consider the Bruce Willis action flick a Christmas movie. They’re not wrong: It takes place on Christmas Eve, features Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” on the soundtrack, and is ultimately about the importance of reuniting with family. (There's even a Christmas-themed children’s book based on the R-rated flick.) Whichever side of that annual debate you fall on, there’s little arguing that Die Hard is seasonally appropriate viewing no matter when you watch it.
On the Third Day… Christmas, Again (2014)
If you’re looking for something less well known, consider this independent drama an unexpected gift beneath your tree. A quiet movie about a forlorn Christmas-tree salesman named Noel (Kentucker Audley), whose spirits begin to perk up after helping a young woman he finds asleep on a park bench, the minor-key drama might be thought of as a Festivus for the rest of us — a reminder that not everyone enjoys the holidays, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even so, there’s a degree of warmth and solace to be found in the company of others as the snow begins to fall and trees are lit up for the season.
On the Fourth Day… White Christmas (1954)
Even if you’ve never seen White Christmas, you’ve no doubt heard the song it made famous — it’s literally the best-selling single of all time. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star as soldiers returning home from World War II in Michael Curtiz's all-timer of a musical, which has the comforting effect of hot cocoa on a cold December night. The leading men, who play a song-and-dance duo when they’re not on the front, are joined by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as sisters who likewise perform together; now a quartet, they endeavor to rescue a Vermont inn on the verge of going under through (what else?) the power of song.
On the Fifth Day… Home Alone (1990)
Thirty years after its release, it can be easy to forget what a cultural phenomenon Home Alone was, but a rewatch is all it takes to remember. With $476 million in worldwide box-office receipts, several sequels, and just as many iconic moments, the movie that made Macaulay Culkin a household name still retains its appeal. That’s thanks largely to the heart behind the laughs, as all the hijinks (some of which may be more violent than you remember) are in service of a story about the pain of being apart from family as Christmas approaches — and the joy of seeing them again just in time for the big day.
On the Sixth Day… Krampus (2015)
Christmas horror isn’t the most well known of genres, but movies like Black Christmas (2019), Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1972) have long provided valuable counterprogramming for the grinches among us. Krampus continues that trend by putting its title character — a horned figure from Austro-Bavarian folklore who’s essentially the anti-Santa — front and center, as he and his evil underlings terrorize a snowbound family (headed up by Adam Scott and Toni Collette) that was having a bad time before they started getting picked off one by one by demonic toys and gingerbread men. Lest that description dissuade the horror-averse from giving Krampus a try, know that this dark comedy provides laughs and thrills in equal measure.
On the Seventh Day… A Christmas Tale (2008)
If you’re a Francophile, all you really need to know about A Christmas Tale is that it was directed by Arnaud Desplechin and stars the singular Catherine Deneuve as a dysfunctional family’s tough-as-nails matriarch. The kind of family that makes you grateful for your own, the Vuillards have a fraught history; their halfhearted attempt at a yuletide détente goes about as well as you’d expect — which is to say, not well at all. Even so, the film (original title: Un conte de Noël) never descends into misery or melancholia. Rather, it’s bittersweet in the way that a great many holiday gatherings are.
On the Eighth Day… Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
More power to you if you prefer the genuinely good 1994 remake, but the original is a classic for a reason. An all-ages favorite about a department-store Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) who claims to be the real deal, it’s an ode to the power of belief and childlike wonderment that, unlike St. Nick himself, loses none of its magic as you get older.
On the Ninth Day… Tangerine (2015)
Christmas in Hollywood is a curious affair, especially as told by Sean Baker. Nestled between the filmmaker’s equally moving Starlet and The Florida Project, Tangerine was shot entirely on three iPhones — a budgetary necessity that only adds to its lived-in authenticity. It follows one Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker just released from a month in prison and now on the hunt for her pimp/boyfriend; rumor has it that he’s been unfaithful, and so it’s up to Sin-Dee's bestie to both aid her on this quest and keep her reined in. If that doesn’t sound like the setup for a touching Christmas story, that’s part of Tangerine’s appeal: Like its protagonist, the film itself is a pleasant surprise.
On the 10th Day… The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The most famous Tim Burton movie that wasn’t actually directed by Tim Burton (he served as a writer and producer), this animated classic will remain en vogue from Halloween through Christmas, thanks to an ever-expanding supply of teenagers shopping at Hot Topic. Don't hold that against it, though, as this dark musical really is great fun — with memorable characters like Jack Skellington and Danny Elfman’s evocative score, The Nightmare Before Christmas is much more pleasant than its title suggests.
On the 11th Day… National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Christmas comedies can be divided into two categories: Christmas Vacation and everything else. (Sorry, Elf.) Arguably the best entry in the long-running National Lampoon franchise starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo (plus a young Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki), this seasonal gem finds the Griswolds at their merriest as their extended family descends upon their suburban abode for a holiday full of sledding, eggnog, and one very large tree. It’s silly and over the top, of course, but its heart is in the right place — something that counts for a lot this time of year.
On the 12th Day… Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
There’s only one way to truly “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and it’s by watching Judy Garland’s timeless rendition of that yuletide standard in Meet Me in St. Louis. Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor musical would still be a best-of-all-time contender if that were its only memorable scene, but it’s just one of many in this year in the life of a family whose story concludes at the 1904 World’s Fair. And while you don't have to love musical numbers to love the movie itself, its versions of “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” complete the trifecta and make for a happy holiday indeed.
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