When you ask people to name their favorite holiday films and shows, few cite recent releases. Instead, more than any other time of year, Christmas inspires movie fans to gravitate toward the classics that they first saw as children.
“It’s like people eating their favorite foods—they’re looking for a particular satisfaction, or some kind of feeling,” says Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times. “When they want that feeling, they go to that same film again.”
And in the modern world, as the holidays grow increasingly commercial and chaotic, it can be a relief to bask in the simpler times portrayed in Hollywood’s perennial favorites.
“These kinds of traditions are especially important now, when time moves so quickly,” says Joel Siegel, entertainment editor for ABC’s Good Morning America. “It’s nice to step back.” While you’ll undoubtedly revisit your favorite movies and TV specials this holiday season, you may find a gem you’ve overlooked in our roundup of classic Christmas films—and begin a new tradition!
It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s hard to imagine a time when this perennial Christmas favorite by Frank Capra wasn’t an American classic. Though it failed miserably when released to theaters in 1946, the movie starring Jimmy Stewart found new life in the 1960s when shown on television. During a season steeped in family, customs and memories, the graceful, sentimental tale of a man who learns his life is far more valuable than he thought offers an especially moving message. “The notion that we’re not appreciating our life is a very powerful one,” Turan says. “And it’s one that people seem to really want to take to heart.”
Miracle on 34th Street
Twentieth Century Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck felt this 1947 story set in Macy’s department store at Christmastime was far too corny, and insisted on a summer release to avoid losing too much money. Instead, audiences fell in love with the film starring Maureen O’Hara and an adorable 8-year-old Natalie Wood as a mother and daughter who learn the importance of faith. The film played packed theaters through Christmas. “I think people really want to believe in Santa Claus,” Siegel says. “And what movie does it better?”
The Bishop’s Wife
“Cary Grant is the angel of the piece and has never appeared to greater advantage,” wrote Variety upon the release of this 1947 film based on Robert Nathan’s novel. Grant provides much of the magic of the movie, a story about a bishop and his wife, played by David Niven and Loretta Young, whose plans to build a new cathedral are altered by divine intervention. Like many holiday favorites, the story demonstrates how easy it is to become consumed by the tangible, when it’s the intangibles that truly count.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
When director Chuck Jones brought Dr. Seuss’ beloved story to TV in 1966, he already had revolutionized Looney Tunes during his tenure as director of animation at Warner Bros. But the Grinch, voiced by Boris Karloff, is one of his most enduring characters. “The way Jones’ characters were drawn, it was almost as if they were aware of the drama,” says film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “There is a psychological depth to the Grinch that very few live action characters have.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas
When network executives heard the concept of the first Peanuts holiday special, they feared it was too contemplative, and lobbied for more laughs and less religion. But author Charles Schulz persisted, creating the film’s most unforgettable scene: As the Peanuts’ Christmas play comes to a close, Linus recites the Bible verse Luke 2: 8-14. “It complements It’s a Wonderful Life in that Charlie Brown also feels like he doesn’t belong,” says Seitz, whose essay on the TV special was reprinted in a book celebrating its 35th anniversary. “It’s really about the conflict between the temporary and the eternal—the temporary being the things you own and the eternal being much larger. Essentially, Charles Schulz made a film that said Christmas is about more than selling products.”
A Christmas Story
This 1983 film also performed poorly in theaters, but now rivals It’s a Wonderful Life for most popular holiday movie. Based on a book by Canadian humorist Jean Shepherd, the offbeat comedy details a young boy’s all-consuming desire for a BB gun, undeterred by adults who repeatedly warn that he’ll shoot his eye out. Using creative camera techniques—which often make adults seem like giants who speak a secret language—director Bob Clark tells the story through the eyes of his young lead character, Ralphie Parker. “It’s an adult remembering what it was like to be a child at Christmas; it’s really Christmas seen from the inside out,” says Seitz. “And every kid can sympathize with wanting that one particular toy!”
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Frosty the Snowman
Animation has evolved significantly in the past few decades, yet this pair of TV specials, produced in the 1960s by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., continues to capture viewers’ hearts. Frosty, a 1969 animated short film, features familiar voices such as Jimmy Durante and June Foray (best known as Rocky from “Rocky and Bullwinkle”), while 1964’s Rudolph features the kind of hand-manipulated, stop-motion animation rarely seen in the age of computer-generated imagery. “You can’t beat work that was made by human hands,” Seitz says. “So much animation being done today wants to look real, and those specials are more like a children’s storybook.”
“That song was unstoppable,” Siegel says. Written for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was such a smash hit that it inspired this 1954 musical about a song-and-dance duo who set out to save a failing Vermont inn run by their former U.S. Army general. Patriotism, nostalgia, romance and top-notch musical numbers from Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen make it an exuberant holiday favorite.
Bells of St. Mary’s
Conventional wisdom says sequels are never as good as the original. But this 1945 follow-up to Going My Way, which also starred Bing Crosby as the affable Father O’Malley, proves otherwise, earning the first-ever Oscar nomination for a sequel. The film, which also stars Ingrid Bergman as a nun trying to save a struggling Catholic school, has only a handful of Christmas scenes, but its touching message about the joy of giving makes it ideally suited to the time of year.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ tale of a gruff miser who gets a Christmas Eve wake-up call has been re-created countless times, owing to its universal story and vivid characters. The definitive version is the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, but a version made for CBS in 1984 featuring George C. Scott is loved by many critics. Luckily for parents, there are also several ways to expose kids to the story’s important lesson about charity, from 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol to the animated Mickey’s Christmas Carol from 1983. “Mickey’s Christmas Carol is very sweet, and it’s not afraid to be sentimental,” Siegel says. “That’s something that makes a great Christmas movie—it’s not afraid to go right for the heart.”