20 ‘Christmas Movies’ That Aren’t Actually Christmas Movies At All
There are some movies that are completely synonymous with Christmas, but have you ever stopped to think about whether your favourite Christmas movie is even a Christmas movie at all?
Granted, there are some movies that are as festive as Christmas itself. Ones such as Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), that are not only set around the date itself, but also have stories that feature Santa Claus, elves, presents, or other Yuletide-centered plot-lines.
But then there are the movies that, despite jumping into our minds every single time we get to December, and despite appearing in every Christmas TV Guide that has ever been created, really aren’t Christmas movies at all. So unbuckle your sleigh’s seatbelt, take off your Santa hat, and join us as we take a walk through these films that really can’t be called Christmassy.
20. Die Hard
Yep, we went there – and for the very first point on the list! Don’t get us wrong, Die Hard (1988) is one of the most important action films ever made, almost singlehandedly spawning a slew of films featuring an everyday hero fighting against overwhelming odds.
But much as it might have been revolutionary, and still a brilliant watch today, is it really a Christmas movie? Let’s settle this once and for all.
It’s certainly set at Christmas. John McClane barges in on the office Christmas do, ends up filling a bad guy with lead and dressing him as Santa, and the whole thing ends with Let It Snow.
But where’s Santa Claus himself? No, Reginald VelJohnson doesn’t count. And, more importantly, what about the spirit of Christmas? The festive season is a time to put your grievances aside and come together with your family. Maybe we’ve missed it in the small print, but launching a terrorist off a skyscraper doesn’t seem very Christmassy to us.
Die Hard is simply a brilliant action movie, but there’s nothing Christmassy about it. They couldn’t even find space for a manger!
19. The Railway Children
The Railway Children (1970) is a film about some posh children slumming it up in Yorkshire whose petticoats help stop a train crash. Of course, it’s also full of nostalgia: who doesn’t love a bit of Bernard Cribbins? He’s truly a national treasure.
But let’s be honest: the only reason The Railway Children is ever included in lists of Christmas films is that it’s so often screened during the holiday season.
Exactly why the film graces our screens every December isn’t quite clear, but we’re going to narrow it down to two (potentially symbiotic) theories. The first is that it’s a quintessential family film, with no more drama or violence than a train almost hitting someone. Jenny Agutter doesn’t rip out Bernard Cribbin’s spine like it’s Mortal Kombat.
Secondly, trains just feel festive. They’re so Christmassy, in fact, that they made an entire film about a Christmas train: The Polar Express (2004).
Is that enough to make The Railway Children a Christmas film? Absolutely not. We can’t exactly deny other films’ Christmas status and then give it to The Railway Children – which mentions the holiday not once – just because it’s on the telly. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love it all the same.
18. Trading Places
Often called a modern take on Mark Twain’s classic 19th-century novel The Prince and the Pauper, the plot of Trading Places (1983) involves an upper-class commodities broker (Dan Aykroyd) and a homeless street hustler (Eddie Murphy) crossing paths and unknowingly being made part of an elaborate bet.
Much like Die Hard, this is a film that’s definitively set at Christmas, and even has integral scenes at the firm’s Christmas party. But stop to think for a moment, and you’ll realise that trading futures and commodities really has very little to do with the festive season.
In defence of the film, its broader themes do align with what sticklers like us would call Christmassy: a focus on homelessness and poverty, and the alleviation of these evils, has been a focus of Christmas stories going all the way back to Dickens, and Valentine and Winthorpe do take on a couple of Scrooges in the Duke brothers.
But the lack of typical Christmas fare does come back to the bite the film, and it seems that Trading Places is just another film made Christmassy by its regular appearances on TV over the holidays. This is especially the case in Italy, where it has been shown on TV every single Christmas since 1997!
In all fairness, Trading Places is probably about as close as you can get to being a Christmas film – the only trouble is, it isn’t one.
17. Batman Returns
Would it really be Christmas without enacting vigilante justice on the ne’er-do-wells of a corrupted city brought to its knees by drugs and crime? Yes. Yes it would.
Batman Returns (1992) is of course the follow-up to Tim Burton’s acclaimed revival of the Dark Knight, and sees Michael Keaton’s Bat come face to deformed face with Danny DeVito’s exuberant Penguin. With its dystopian set design and star turn from Christopher Walken, what’s not to like?
The film has a better claim to Christmas-dom than most, with its uproarious decorations and moody scenes of snow in dark alleyways. It even features a pageant queen called The Ice Princess and a few quippy lines about the reason for the season, especially when Batman and Catwoman end up under the mistletoe.
Unfortunately for Tim Burton’s sophomore Bat-flick, all of that Christmassy work is undone by the story, which sees the Penguin plot to kill all of Gotham’s firstborn children in revenge for being abandoned by his parents.
Now, you might argue that the Penguin’s scheme mirrors Herod’s execution of children after Jesus’ birth. And what we say is: yes, after Jesus’ birth, so that’s probably more of a New Year plot device than anything else!
16. Lady and the Tramp
What could be more adorable than dogs eating spaghetti? Well, what about reindeer eating spaghetti? Ever think of that? Still, Lady and the Tramp (1955) is a classic animated film that we more recently saw remade for Disney+ in glorious live action… animation.
Following the touching romance between a posh dog and a dog that isn’t posh, many of you will undoubtedly have fond memories of sitting down to watch the film at Christmastime – but, unfortunately, that alone doesn’t make it a Christmas film.
Before you think about urinating on the carpet in protest, we haven’t forgotten that Christmas does figure in the film – in fact, the story takes place over exactly a year, between two celebrations of the festive season.
It’s true, also, that Christmassy themes (about those with much helping those with little) come to the fore, but that doesn’t change one hugely important fact that should disqualify this film from any Christmas list.
Since the majority of the action takes place at a time when it isn’t Christmas, how could you possibly call this a Christmas film? In fact, simply by virtue of most of the film taking place on every day that isn’t Christmas, Lady and the Tramp might secretly be the least Christmassy film of all.
15. The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music (1965) is a film about a nun who doesn’t quite fit in, who falls in love with a naval officer while working as a governess. We can hear those sleigh bells already!
It may not be all that Christmassy, but the film is certainly a worldwide phenomenon, and somehow manages to have both a scene about yodelling puppets and a scene about being pursued by Nazis without the entire movie collapsing in on itself.
That’s not to say that Christmas goes completely unmentioned: Julie Andrews chirping about warm woollen mittens and sleigh bells does rustle up a certain festive hygge.
There’s something to say about escapism at Christmas, especially when we’re normally on a break from work, much as Maria is on a break from the strictures of the nunnery – and who doesn’t love a good old Christmas sing-song?
But as much as we love the film, there’s no way of sugar-coating it: The Sound of Music has nothing to do with Christmas, and frankly doesn’t belong on our screens in December.
14. The Lord of the Rings
There’s nothing more escapist than high fantasy, and there’s not a Christmas that goes by without catching at least some of Peter Jackson’s incomparable adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Do note: it’s been proven scientifically impossible to watch all three films over Christmas, what with all the food and alcohol leading you to doze off just after Isengard.
Regrettably, besides being plastered on television over the holidays, The Lord of the Rings contains – count them – zero mentions of Christmas in any of its films.
Granted, this might be because the story takes place in a completely separate dimension which has no use for petty Earthly customs, but even The Chronicles of Narnia managed to squeeze in Santa Claus! Peter Jackson really must try harder.
You can, however, see why The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) in particular evokes the feel of wintertime. Courtesy of Saruman, the party is beset by snow in the mountains.
Gandalf is an old man with a beard, and he even could have had those enormous eagles pull a sleigh. Truly a missed opportunity.
13. The Great Escape
Against all odds, The Great Escape (1963) marks the second instance on this list of running away from Nazis. It’s not exactly Frosty the Snowman, is it?
The Great Escape is of course the landmark prisoner of war film from John Sturges, a film that has – perhaps unhealthily – become cemented in the national consciousness, owed in part to its frequent screenings on Christmas Day.
In fact, in 2006 the film came third in a poll of viewer’s preferred Christmas Day films, finishing a hair behind It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and The Wizard of Oz (1939), both of which are equally non-Christmassy (read on!).
Unfortunately, beyond prolific viewing during Yuletide, there’s not much Christmassy about The Great Escape. True, the prisoners do sing The 12 Days of Christmas to mask some deft slat thievery, but that’s about it.
Even worse, the film’s sombre ending – in which, spoiler alert, most of the prisoners are executed – falls short of the kind of heartwarming Christmas morals we’ve come to expect. There’s certainly room for improvement on the Clausometer.
12. Home Alone
Let’s get really controversial. Many list Home Alone (1990) as their top festive film, but it actually has a lot less to do with Christmas than you might think.
Home Alone sees delinquent Kevin McCallister left behind by his family while they jet off on a Christmas vacation to Paris. Home alone, Kevin must face off against a pair of mean burglars with nothing more than his wits and various household objects to defend himself.
First of all, let’s be clear: there’s a fair amount of Christmas in this film. From the period in which the action takes place, to the scene in which Kevin listens to carols at a church, it’s not like you could watch this film and think it’s a summer flick. Kevin even meets Santa Claus – just not the real one.
At the same time, the main thrust of the film leaves a lot to be desired in terms of Christmassy feelings. The most memorable and marketable moment of Home Alone is Kevin applying cologne to his face, and the other famous scenes involve Joe Pesci getting totalled by Micro Machines and buckets of paint.
Now, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992) – that’s an honest-to-goodness Christmas film, and sees the Wet Bandits attempt to rob a Christmassy toy store on Christmas. But Macaulay Culkin’s first outing? Not so much.
Gremlins (1984) is another film typically seen as a Christmas classic, but unfortunately we’re about to unmask your fluffy festive memories as the scaly monsters they really are. Gremlins isn’t a Christmas film.
One of the films that led to the creation of a PG-13 rating, Gremlins sees a struggling inventor give his son a present, a mysterious Mogwai, but all hell breaks loose once the Mogwai reproduces and transforms into a horrifying lizard-like creature.
Much of the film’s Christmas credentials hinge on the fact that Gizmo the Mogwai is given as a Christmas present, and there’s a scene in which Kate describes how her father died and rotted in a chimney while dressed as Santa Claus. But apart from these points, Christmas is largely irrelevant. As for an excuse for Gizmo to be given as a present, it might as well be a birthday.
It’s worth remembering that the film wasn’t even intended as a Christmas flick: Gremlins was released in the summer of 1984, and became embroiled in controversy for its violence, heightened by the fact that the film had partially been marketed as a follow-up to Spielberg’s family-friendly ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982).
After the controversy subsided, the film was released again in 1985 – in summer. So, even when distributors had a chance to more firmly plant Gremlins’ flag as a Christmas film, they declined to do so. That says it all!
Christmas is a time for board games, but we’re talking about old school family favourites like Monopoly and Cluedo, rather than one that sucks you into a dangerous jungle. Still, Jumanji (1995) has become a classic festive film for many due to its winning combination of thrills, spills, and a real-life Santa Claus in star Robin Williams.
Transported to a mysterious, deadly jungle by an old board game, two children must finish the game that Alan Parrish (Williams) started, so he can be released from its dimensional clutches after 26 years.
So far, so not Christmassy. But apart from the festive themes inherent to a family adventure, it’s worth remembering that the film actually ends at a Christmas party once Alan has been restored to the real world.
Alan reunites with the children who saved him, and in turn manages to save their parents from death by offering them a job. All’s well that ends well! But then we see the Jumanji box poking out of a beach, ready to ensnare more board game enthusiasts.
As much as we love the film, there just isn’t enough here to call it a Christmas movie, but we certainly wouldn’t say no to rewatching it whatever time of year.
Rent (2005) ends up being a blend of a few other films on this list, combining the sing-song fun of The Sound of Music and the timeline of Lady and the Tramp – namely, that the plot of Rent takes place between Christmas Eve 1989 and Christmas Eve 1990. A year or, famously, 525,600 minutes.
There’s no question that there are some memorable winter moments in the film, which sees a group of misfits living their bohemian lifestyle and struggling with the AIDS crisis.
There’s also something to be said for the storyline of togetherness and battling against the odds: these are certainly Christmassy themes, but watching vibrant characters succumb to a degenerative disease doesn’t make for a holly jolly Christmas.
What’s worth noting is the iconic number performed by drag queen Angel in full Santa get-up, but given Angel’s fate it’s hard to have fuzzy festive memories of their screen-time.
Ultimately, Rent is another good example of a film set between two Christmases that fails to live up to the jollity of the season. That’s not to say it should abandon its weighty themes, but it definitely sacrifices a festive joie de vivre!
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas
This is a complicated one. For one thing, according to its Wikipedia page at the time of writing, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) is a “stop-motion animated musical Halloween-Christmas dark fantasy film.” So there’s a lot to unpack there.
Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween, stumbles into Christmas Town and hatches a dastardly plan to take over the festivities himself, since he’s so bored of the macabre. From its Danny Elfman score to its unique visual style, the film is an absolute classic.
As for its status as a Christmas film, or a Halloween film, that’s been subject to debate since the film released. Why not ask a work colleague what they think and watch the sparks fly? There are great arguments on both sides: there’s a whole sequence in Christmas Town, Jack dresses up as Santa Claus – and of course the real Santa Claus features.
At the same time, we do spend most of the film watching all sorts of gruesome creatures make gruesome presents, and who can forget the finale in which Oogie Boogie is unzipped, revealing a writhing mass of red-nosed reindeer… just kidding, he’s full of horrible bugs.
So, overall, the film is far more concerned with the aesthetics and gothic horror of Halloween; if we had to pick a side, and this article insists we do, then The Nightmare Before Christmas is more of a Halloween film than a Christmas one.
7. Iron Man 3
You tend not to hear people going around saying Iron Man 3 (2013) is their favourite Christmas film. In fact, there aren’t many who’d say it’s even their favourite Iron Man film. Still, it does tend to crop up in conversations about lesser-known Christmas films, so let’s put to rest the insulting suggestion that this should be in the leagues of festive classics.
The conclusion to Marvel’s Iron Man trilogy sees Tony Stark battle against the devious Mandarin and his attempt to assassinate the president. Except the Mandarin turns out to be not as he seems.
Director Shane Black has commented on the film’s technical status as a Christmas film, saying that “I think it’s a sense of if you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience.”
“There’s something at Christmas that unites everybody and it already sets a stage within the stage,” Black continues, “that wherever you are, you’re experiencing this world together.”
Much as the film might be set at Christmas, its plot really doesn’t match with anything Christmassy. For one thing, it’s about people being filled with goo that makes them super strong and fast. When we fill ourselves with mince pies, we get a lot slower!
6. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
There’s little to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t already been said. It’s a series of books and films that has affected people so profoundly that die-hard fans are just as die-hard today.
But what about the films’ status as Christmas films? From the winter wonderland of Hogsmeade to the cosy firesides of Hogwarts itself, there are certainly strong arguments to be made.
In fact, one of the most memorable moments from the first film is the castle’s transformation into a Christmas extravaganza and Ron receiving a monogrammed jumper. Oh, and Harry receiving a uniquely powerful magical artefact, the privileged so-and-so.
But even though Christmas really does happen in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), you’d be hard-pressed to argue it’s a Christmas film overall. Not only is the franchise its own beast, but there are far more memorable moments than the Christmassy parts.
After all, who could forget the troll – the troll! – in the dungeon! The first Harry Potter film just can’t be called a Christmas film – we thought you ought to know.
5. It’s A Wonderful Life
Are you incandescent with rage? True, maybe it’s ambitious to disqualify what many see as the greatest Christmas film of all time from the festive rankings – but hear us out on this one.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a bonafide Frank Capra classic, and follows George Bailey – played by the ineffable Jimmy Stewart – whose near-suicide summons his guardian angel. Proving that Bailey has in fact made the world a much better place, the angel gains his wings and the credits roll.
It’s a heartwarming story of how each human life has value, even if sometimes imperceptibly. The trouble is, it doesn’t have much to do with Christmas
Sure, George Bailey contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve, and the idea of an angel coming down from heaven fits with the classic nativity story, but otherwise the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life is far more concerned with the life of one man and the fate of a local building society. You wouldn’t go see Darren at Nationwide and tell him he’s God’s gift to Christmas.
We have to admit that the world isn’t really on our side with this one. Even Frank Capra himself revealed that he screened the film for his family every Christmas, and his opinion is probably worth more than ours.
4. Mean Girls
Mean Girls (2004) isn’t a film you’d immediately associate with Christmas – but, given that the high school clique comedy has legions of adoring fans, there is a sizeable number insisting it counts as a Christmas film. And we’re here to tell them that they’re wrong.
The film sees Cady Heron, played by Lindsey Lohan, transfer to a toxic high school with several competing social factions. It covers the full school year – which, naturally, includes Christmas.
Mean Girls does feature Damian dressing up as Santa Claus, and a relatively risqué rendition of Jingle Bell Rock, which form the cornerstone of arguing that this is a Christmas film. But, beware, as not all is as it seems.
It’s been argued – in the Metro, no less – that Mean Girls is the perfect film for fooling others into thinking that it’s Christmassy. “The aim is to trick your loved ones into watching a movie that has Christmas in it but is not too Christmassy at all,” says the article. “But when they start giving you a side-eye during the 30-minute mark you can shrug and say ‘but they are wearing Santa-girl outfits. Can’t you see!?’”
The audacity of this argument is really something else: their supporting argument is that Christmas is listed as a genre on the official soundtrack. Stop trying to make a Mean Girls Christmas happen!
3. Eyes Wide Shut
As Stanley Kubrick films go, we still think the most Christmassy film is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Just kidding! In fact, the only Kubrick film to feature Christmas in any prominent way is his final work, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Focusing on the marital discord of a couple, played by then-couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, the film involves the infiltration of a secret society for a masked orgy. ‘Tis the season!
Importantly, the film is set at Christmastime, and this was a deliberate decision by Kubrick: the short story on which the film is based takes place during Mardi Gras, presumably due to its connotations of hedonism and excess. Instead, it’s thought Kubrick chose Christmas because of its sense of rejuvenation.
So if the film is set at Christmas, and it’s far from coincidental, and actually fits with the themes of the film, doesn’t that make it a Christmas film? Well, not quite.
The Christmas setting is included as a foil. Compared to the purity of Christmas – its innocence joy, the virgin birth, and so on – the events of Eyes Wide Shut are positively Satanic. It would be like setting fire to your local nativity scene and flipping off any low-flying aircraft, then claiming you were just celebrating Christmas.
2. Edward Scissorhands
Yet another collaboration between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman to make the list, Edward Scissorhands (1990) is a favourite of both the director and the composer. But for those insisting that this is a Christmas film: cut it out.
Johnny Depp stars as the eponymous artificial man, an unfinished creation who’s adopted scissors for hands. It’s quite a simple conceit, but there’s a lot of heart and classic Burton weirdness in a story about how the townspeople fear, reject, and love Edward.
The basis for Edward Scissorhands being considered a Christmas film is mostly down to Edward’s creation of an ice sculpture modelled on Winona Ryder’s Kim Boggs. With each snip of his scissors, he casts some ice into the air, and it begins to snow.
In an otherwise snowless town, the falling ice becomes a symbol of Edward’s presence, as recounted by the older Kim at the end of the film.
But, come on now, you can’t say that’s something’s a Christmas film just because there’s snow! You wouldn’t call Snowpiercer (2013) a Christmas film, would you? Please don’t.
1. Jaws: The Revenge
The fourth Jaws film, The Revenge (1987) is the most notorious of the big shark films, probably most famous nowadays for the (slightly edited) Michael Caine quote: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
Completed in only nine months, Jaws: The Revenge sees a widowed Ellen Brody face off against, you guessed it, a rather large shark.
And, since it’s the film that keeps on giving, you could argue that it’s a Christmas film: in the opening scene, Sean Brody is slowly killed by a shark – and he might have been saved had his pleas for help not been drowned out by accursed carolling!
A generous viewer might note that the Christmas setting does serve a purpose: Ellen is convinced the shark killed her son as revenge for the shark’s children being killed. And Christmas, after all, is the marquee time of family togetherness.
But you’d have to be an utter contrarian to genuinely argue that this is a Christmas film. Put the shark in a Santa hat, though, and we might have a rethink.