In my younger and more artistically snobby days, I had a strict formula for whether something constituted a Christmas movie or not – Christmas must be integral to the plot. If one can remove anything related to Christmas from the movie, or if nothing existed in the first place, then it is not a Christmas movie.
I have since refined my position and determined that, yes, it is a Christmas movie. There are simply multiple categories of Christmas movie out there!
Christmas Movie about Christmas
The first should be obvious: it’s a movie about Christmas. This would be your Miracle on 34th Streets, your A Christmas Carols, A Christmas Story, Rudolph, Charlie Brown, Frosty, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. These are films set in Christmas that deal directly with the matter of Christmas while delivering countless Christmas things. This is the narrowest definition of “Christmas movie” imaginable.
The Not-Christmas Movie Where Christmas is Critical
My old definition extended to include this category as well, and, yes, it does include Die Hard. It does not include Die Hard 2, and I find it amusing that the sequel never seems to come up in the annual debate about the original. The reason why I argue Die Hard is a Christmas movie is that Christmas is integral to the plot. The “terrorists” (led by the incomparable Alan Rickman) specifically use Christmas as a way to limit the number of people in the building while ensuring Takagi would be present. Sure, the film has little to do with Christmas spirit aside from the odd decoration or occasional Christmas tune, but without Christmas Die Hard does not happen.
The Christmas Movie Where Christmas is Incidental
The counter to this is the movie where Christmas makes an explicit appearance but has little or nothing to do with the story. This would be Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, Gremlins, Rocky IV, Batman Returns, and the early Harry Potter movies.
Yes, it even includes perennial classic It’s a Wonderful Life, which only takes place at Christmas at the end of the film to take advantage of the sentimentality. Most of that movie takes place away from Christmas, and there’s no particular reason the ending had to occur there. The story takes place at Christmas because that is when George decides to end his life and Clarence is sent to intervene. It might have happened any time of the year (when his Uncle lost the deposit and Potter stole it just as his war hero brother was about to return home).
Christmas is still part of the movie though, so of course people want to enjoy them this time of year. Does that not a Christmas movie make?
The Film That Has Nothing to Do with Christmas…Whatsoever
One will also find this time of year rife with movies that make zero sense. Jurassic Park is for some a Christmas movie because it often airs this time of year. Plenty of musicals are popular, as are several family-friendly fare (Disney has long been a November box office giant). While it no longer seems in fashion, I remember The Wizard of Oz airing annually on Thanksgiving as a kickoff to the Christmas season. We used to tape movies so we could watch them again (anyone remember VHS?), and Wizard of Oz was the capstone on a cassette that included Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch.
The Ironic Christmas
Just one last category that I think merits distinction from the one above. The previous category is about movies that are indifferent to Christmas. They make no comment about the holiday one way or the other. There is a category of film popular this time of year for deliberately eschewing the festive spirit of the holiday.
The (successful) Hellraiser movies, Scream, Scream 2, Cabin Fever, Christine, and even The Exorcist released right before Christmas in their respective years to box office success. It’s the film answer to the audience that wants to go 180 degrees from the traditional Christmas offering. Whether it’s because they are cynical about Christmas, simply do not care about the holidays, or love the juxtaposition that these films offer with the spirit of the season, there is a massive audience for people who want the most not Christmas movie possible at Christmastime.