Arts and Entertainment

Holiday Movies: What Are They?

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Issue 8, Volume 112

By Sayantan Saha 

It’s Christmas Eve. You’re sitting with your family beside the electric fire, lights dimmed, scrolling through movies to decide which would best set the mood for the following day. There’s no end to your options of course—Netflix isn’t picky when defining its genres. So the question remains: what is a “holiday movie?”

What about this specific genre stands out from any other movie? It’s a given that the holidays need to make an appearance, but just how much? Is it fair to slap a Christmas Eve setting on what is otherwise an action thriller and call it a holiday film?

To make headway on this quest, let’s take a look at potentially the most controversial “holiday film” to date— “Die Hard” (1988). Immediately, the film presents a Christmas Eve setting and holiday-esque music to sell itself as a season special. As such, one would expect the plot to do the same. However, when taking a deeper look, main character John (Bruce Willis) has goals that center around a need to reconcile with family, a theme almost intrinsic to holiday ideals. Of course, this sentimentality is undercut by John’s kill count of 73 and the story’s general focus on a terrorist takeover of a building, but if we squint, in no way does that distract from the holiday spirit, right?

Maybe an answer can be found if we address another film under this term“Home Alone” (1990). This movie is undoubtedly a beloved classic and, as our first contender, also contains the holiday starter pack: setting, music, and a loose incorporation of Christmas ideals. Though these elements seem to be the only overt similarities between these movies, it feels cheap to call them the defining traits of the “holiday genre.” Beyond them, the two movies hardly share commonality. In contrast to “Die Hard’s” action-packed intensity, “Home Alone” is foremost a comedy, and a cheesy one at that. The childish violence can offer some easy laughs and a comfortable family viewing, but not much more. That being said, the movie doesn’t strive for anything greater; it serves its purpose well and is timeless for good reason. But for what it is, is it a “holiday movie?”

What if we considered another sub-genre altogether, perhaps something within the realm of drama, something like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). First, there’s no better way to classify this film other than a “feel-good” movie. Despite its dark beginnings—a man broken by the hardships of life chooses Christmas Day to end it all—this seasonal classic has earned its title for good reason. Bringing to light the importance of kindness, community, and the little actions that can have profound effects on others’ lives, makes for a powerful message over the holidays. People are well aware, considering just how many households watch this film every Christmas. But for all the praise, it’s undeniable that the movie is similar to what is perhaps the first installment in this genre, “A Christmas Carol” (1938). This raises the question: are all “holiday movies,” by definition, cookie-cutter copies of one another?

The first full-length feature film of Dickens’s Christmas tale is “A Christmas Carol.” Since then, it has been recreated countless times in various mediums to cash in on the sentimental value it has for so many. Even after all this time, the movie is still touted as the premier holiday staple. Despite this, Scrooge’s tale did little to define the genre that sprouted from it. Naturally, it is no stranger to the holiday starter pack, but it can hardly be argued that subsequent movies include these elements just to fit a definition. A “holiday movie,” whatever the form it comes in, should gravitate to these elements by nature. The lines which define this genre are still incredibly blurred, but perhaps it's not so complex.

Having scrutinized all these movies for their various underlying holiday elements, it is clear that there are precious few similarities beyond the basics. But one overlooked trait of all these “holiday movies” exists outside of their fictional worlds yet is perhaps the most important connection of all. As you sit with your family, enveloped in that warm embrace of Christmas Eve, the movie that you pick barely matters. No movie truly defines the holidays: any film, whether it’s a cheesy rom-com, a violent action flick, or a slapstick comedy, will serve the purpose for this night. What’s essential is you’re together to watch it, and that’s all you need to answer the age-old philosophical question“what makes a holiday movie?”