Wondering what Christmas movies to watch over the holiday break? Here are our expert picks of the all-time best holiday movies for kids and adults
Christmas is all about traditions, nostalgia and childhood memories (among other things), and for some (especially those of us who grew up as only children) that meant watching lots and lots of Christmas movies. Most are completely forgettable, but a few have risen above to become totally timeless classics. Whether you’re looking to introduce a new tradition to your little one, or want a good laugh after the kids have gone to bed, here are my all-time top 10 Christmas movies (plus some honorable mentions), expertly handpicked after many, many hours in front of the TV. Happy viewing!
There’s so much to love about this nostalgic classic: the jolly narration from Fred Astaire, the retro Claymation look, snappy musical numbers, and all-time awesome Christmas movie villain THE BURGERMEISTER. There’s even backstory on how Santa and Mrs. Claus met and fell in love! To this day I still assume Santa was a slender redhead in his youth.
Kids will love Chevy Chase’s trademark slapstick comedy (and all the ridiculous Christmas lights), while mamas will nod along to the stress of hosting relatives, the suspense of the ever-elusive Christmas bonus, and the odyssey that can be picking out a Christmas tree. My husband and I always identified with the villainous yuppie neighbours, until we had a child of our own.
Somewhat to my surprise, this 1960s claymation classic is my 5-year-old’s favorite, most-requested Christmas movie. She doesn’t mind the grainy resolution or the sometimes-hokey dialogue. She takes Hermey the Elf’s desire to be a dentist at face value, and truly feels for Rudolph when he’s left out of the Reindeer Games, or disappoints his parents. A recent op-ed in The New York Times (and the hundreds of comments in reply) shed light on the various subtexts of this movie and really spoke to me; at its heart, it really is about celebrating our differences, and admitting our mistakes when we are wrong (even Santa does it!).
P.S. A nice companion piece is Jack Johnson’s updated rendition of Rudolph, which includes an additional verse that calls out the other reindeer for giving Rudolph a hard time. Maggie loves hearing them apologize!
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Caine can make anything classy, even if he’s interacting with a bunch of rat puppets! With original musical numbers and star turns from Muppet faves like Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, alongside Caine as the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge, this high-quality production actually stays quite close to the plot of Charles Dickens’s paradigmatic Christmas tale.
Worth watching if only for Bing Crosby’s amazing rendition of the timeless song in the big finale, though with its gorgeous costumes, elaborate song-and-dance numbers, and 1940’s leading ladies Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, this movie evokes Hollywood’s Golden Age. The only downside is I’m always epically disappointed when it doesn’t snow on Christmas.
“Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” “Smiling’s my favorite!” “You did it! Congratulations! World’s best cup of coffee! Great job, everybody!”
I could go on, but suffice to say this hilarious Will Ferrell vehicle is filled to the brim with quotable lines. Ferrell’s sweetly naïve and happy elf will charm little ones, while the stellar and cynical supporting cast will keep parents cracking up.
Based on Dr. Seuss’ classic Christmas book, The Grinch features great songs, adorably hapless sidekick Max the dog disguised as a reindeer, and the always-wonderful lesson that “maybe Christmas…means a little bit more” than just presents under the tree. Bonus points for the brilliant casting of horror actor Boris Karloff in the title role. Just to be clear, I will always stan for the original 1966 version (as opposed to the 2000 live-action version with Jim Carrey or the 2018 cartoon).
This black-and-white standard bearer is best remembered for the line “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings” and the sight of Jimmy Stewart running through the streets of his hometown like a mad man wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. It’s a lovely reminder that we don’t need presents and things, but rather friends and loved ones, to feel truly rich.
Home Alone features yet another stellar cast (Joe Pesci! John Candy! Catherine O’Hara!) in a film filled with great lines and legendary slapstick. For me, Home Alone perfectly captures what Christmas is like in the American suburbs. And while the sequel is definitely a drop in quality, it’s actually held up well over the years, because there’s nothing like Christmas in New York. Plus Home Alone 2‘s prestige factor rises a notch with a cameo from a certain (gag) future president.
There’s a reason they show this 1983 movie on 24-hour repeat each Christmas Eve in America. Author Jean Shepherd narrates the film version of his own short story, recalling one particular Christmas in the 1940s when all he really wanted was a Red Rider B.B. Gun. Throw in wacky parents, school bullies, nostalgic department store Santas, and a refrain of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” and it somehow all comes together to create the perfect Christmas movie. A little bit sweet, a little bit sarcastic, and still so funny after hundreds and hundreds of viewings.
If you ever wondered what happened to your favorite childhood TV stars (Mark Paul Gosselaar, Lacey Chabert, Joey Lawrence, Urkel, and especially Melissa Joan Hart), chances are they wound up with other C-listers in one of these interchangable rom-com balls of corn. Plots would be forgettable if they weren’t so laughably inane and complex (which is precisely why I LOVE them!); check out this excellent primer on the sub-genre for the uninitiated.
Many of these flicks from years past are also available on Netflix and Hulu. Netflix has even started their own cottage industry of Christmas movies with a slightly higher production value. The Knight Before Christmas (still super silly) and the Norwegian series Home for Christmas (pictured above) are my two top picks for 2019. With six episodes Home for Christmas is a fantastic binge watch and much smarter than your standard Christmas fare; it is also hygge AF what with the ubiquitous snow, cosy coats, twinkling lights and occasional reindeer (!).
Image by Stefan Borup / Netflix
A Charlie Brown Christmas: A close read that I recently came across perfectly summed up this movie’s “suffocating consumerist melancholy.” Nonetheless that purity of spirit and oh-so pathetic little Christmas tree set it apart from pretty much any other kids’ movie; there’s nothing wrong with a little self-reflection this time of year.
Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus: I’m not sure if this cartoon can be found anywhere besides YouTube (yes, I’m old enough to have grown up with the 1970s version), but it made such an impression on me as little girl – and was inspired by such a wonderful real-life story – that I just had to include it. Perfect for your little primary schooler who’s beginning to wonder if Santa Claus really exists.
Die Hard (and Die Hard 2): These are indubitably two of the greatest action movies ever made; my husband insists that they are also great Christmas movies. True, the first one is an office holiday party gone awry; the second is set in an airport during a snowstorm. I suppose they’re both about holiday stress writ large, just don’t expect to feel jolly and magnanimous afterwards.
Love, Actually: This sprawling, British-star-laden tale of interconnectedness isn’t nearly as funny as the other comedies on the list, nor is its romance the 100% cheese I prefer (see below), but my low opinion seems to place me in the minority amongst women (Jezebel is right there with me, though). It is beautifully shot, and does have a pretty great cast (RIP, Alan Rickman).
Miracle on 34th Street: Like Yes, Virginia, this old-school classic is perfect for kiddos grappling with their belief in Santa Claus. It’s got just the right amount of magic to be totally believable. The black-and-white format and poor sound quality of the original make it a bit of a tedious watch, though.
Klaus: This new animated Netflix film is voiced by a stellar cast and brought tears to my eyes at multiple points without being schmaltzy (and maintained a sharp wit throughout). My 5-year-old enjoyed it, too, though some of the jokes went over her head. Time will tell if this one gets added to the list of all-time Christmas movies, but it’s a nice update on the Santa origin story trope.