We compiled our list from Stratton family favorites and suggestions from the Two Handed Warrior community. Did we miss your favorite?
If the stable teaches us anything it’s that you can’t always judge a Christmas classic by its humble beginning. The highest-rated Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, was known as Frank Capra’s greatest failure until countless TV reruns brought it back to life. CBS executives nearly killed the most-watched Christmas special of all time, A Charlie Brown Christmas, because they feared it was too ‘sacred.’ With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus (1979) “the most watched movie” of all time, yet most Americans have never heard of it. The most-watched opera in television history, Amahl and the Night Visitors, may never recover its audience after a tiff between composer Gian Carlo Menotti and NBC kept it off the air for over three decades.
So Sue and I put together our own list of favorites in hopes of inspiring your search for true greatness. Some are well-known. Some are secret treasures. We categorized the films/shows between those with a more-or-less ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), and ‘secular’ offerings (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.
We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.
Gary & Sue
GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas
Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) Gian Carlo Menotti’s most popular opera was originally written for NBC as a one-hour Christmas Eve TV broadcast. Find a local live performance if you can, but the hilarious and inspiring original is also available on DVD.
Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas. CBS feared it was ‘too sacred’ for prime time.
The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.
GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of a Larger Movie
Ben-Hur (1959) At least one wise man continues his search for Jesus as Charlton Heston’s title character strives to put his life back together after profound betrayal. Also, on the AMI list of best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face Christmas traffic.
Jesus (1979) A clear and compelling account of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. Our normally chatty group of friends didn’t speak for a full hour after watching it together.
The Gospel According to Matthew (1996) The Visual Bible‘s straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ from Matthew’s perspective. Watching Luke (Jesus, 1979) and Matthew’s narrative back-to-back creates a marvelous disequilibrium. Throw in the prologue from The Gospel of John (2003), with LOST’s Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus, to complete a remarkable Christmas trifecta.
GOOD Movies with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas
A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.” You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”
Scrooged (1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Okay, it’s cheating a bit, but there is a Christ figure, and a Christmas, and presents, and everything. Just don’t let the White Witch hear you talking about it.
Silver Bells (2013) When a scuffle with the ref at his son’s basketball game lands an ambitious television sportscaster in serious trouble he finally encounters the true meaning of Christmas. Act One graduate Andrea Gyertson Nasfell‘s third Christmas movie, after Christmas with a Capital C (2011) and Christmas Angel (2012), not to mention her 2014 hit Mom’s Night Out.
GREAT Films with a “Secular” View of Christmas
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise. Many remakes, none come close to the original.
White Christmas (1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.
A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie. A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1996) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) Both the television classic and Jim Carrey’s (over the top) psycho-drama-remake are well worth an evening. “I’m feeling!”
GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home in Connecticut.
Home Alone (1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how the strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.
Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.
The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.
GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid-friendly)
While You Were Sleeping (1995) A touching and laugh-out-loud funny tale for anyone who ever cherished a secret love (or faced a Christmas alone). Might be Sandra Bullock’s best role before The Blind Side.
Die Hard (1988) Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.
Family Man (2000) Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of (Madam Secretary) Tea Leoni and Nicholas Cage‘s and careers. Sue and I watch it every year and ponder our own “what if?”
Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war. A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)
Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece confronts us with a tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a stark retelling of the Christmas story.