We have an ongoing argument among some of my friends about this question: “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”
I say no. It isn’t. Nor is L.A. Confidential or Three Days Of The Condor or Gremlins or, for that matter, Lethal Weapon. I argue that a movie that has Christmas as a backdrop is not the same as a Christmas film, just as a movie set in England is not necessarily an English film.
Then comes the question: what’s the difference? It’s A Wonderful Life, arguably one of the best Christmas movies ever made, gives only a third of its total screen time to Christmas. What makes that a Christmas movie while Die Hard, which is set entirely during Christmas, isn’t?
What makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie?
I’d like to suggest, with all humility, that what makes a movie a Christmas movie has to do with the ingredients that makes it inherently Christmas.
Let’s start with the obvious. A Christmas movie needs to be set at Christmas – but not merely at Christmas as an incidental backdrop, but as a vital part of the plot itself. Die Hard, for example, could have been set at any time of the year. Christmas was not a vital part of the plot.
Another ingredient is the heightened emotional reality of Christmas itself. Most of us appreciate that Christmas, more than any other time of year, is an emotional magnifying glass. Joy is intensified and becomes more joyful. Stress, anxiety and loneliness also become more extreme. Expectations are lifted. So is disappointment.
Think of a story about a man who wants money to buy toys for his children but can’t. Set in August, the tension of that scenario doesn’t seem as great as it does at Christmas. What is difficult in August seems catastrophic at Christmas. To the point: George Bailey’s problems are emotionally heightened by Christmas, more so because the audience spent the first two-thirds of It’s A Wonderful Life hoping that George will find happiness. Surely he will at Christmas. He must. But it all goes wrong and there he is, standing on a bridge, looking at the ice-laden water.…
Christmas not only heightens our emotions, but also our sense of humanity. Dickens himself captured this view in A Christmas Carol when Nephew Fred proclaims to Scrooge that Christmas is a “kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Ultimately, then, Christmas stories show us the fullness of our humanity, both its beauty and pain. George Bailey’s story is a very human one, filled with love and hope and disappointment and friendship and adversaries and setbacks and thwarted dreams.
Against Scrooge’s greed, we see generosity. His coldness is met by warm hearts. His austerity is matched by festivity, even in the face of poverty. His disappointments are countered by hope. His hellish destination is undone by redemption.
The best Christmas stories tap into a collective sense of tradition and memory. Some might call it nostalgia for a time or people gone by, or perhaps wishful thinking for a time or people that never existed, but Christmas brings it all to the forefront. Whether it’s Dickensian London, Bedford Falls, the church and priests in Going My Way and Bells of St. Mary’s, a small Indiana town in the 1940’s A Christmas Story, the English home in The Snowman, the reunion at the Inn in White Christmas… a chord is struck, a distant memory is recalled, a fireplace is lit, a face looks familiar. It may not be our past, but it is a past we recognize and feel something about.
Christmas evokes that kind of yearning, as if we hope to reclaim something that was lost from our personal experience or possibly just our imaginations.
Christmas stories create a sense of wonder, because that’s what Christmas does. Dickens understood that when he wrote A Christmas Carol. The appearance of spirits seems possible, even likely, at Christmas time. We can accept that a guardian angel shows up to help George because angels are expected at Christmas. Reindeer can fly, a snowman can come to life, Santa will slide down a chimney, toys will mysteriously appear, all because it’s Christmas.
Less supernatural ‘miracles’ happen, too. Hardened hearts are broken, compassion is shown, love appears in unlikely places, peace happens in the middle of wartime. When else can we expect Lucy to concede that Charlie Brown really isn’t so bad after all?
And why not? If an angel can appear to a Virgin to announce her pregnancy, if heavenly hosts can sing to shepherds, if a divine king can be born in a stable, then anything can happen. Christmas is full of those kinds of possibilities. And so are real Christmas stories.
The final ingredient is the final result. When the film has faded to the closing credits, what are you left with? Were you touched by a sense of the “Christmas Spirit” or were you merely entertained? For all of the tinsel that ultimately got blown to smithereens, I’ve never met anyone who reached the end of Die Hard and said, “Now that was Christmas!”