Thirty Favorite Christmas Movies and TV Specials

We compiled our list from Stratton family favorites and suggestions from the Two Handed Warrior community. Did we miss your favorite?

by Gary & Sue Stratton

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.

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue


GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

A Christmas staple Menotti's 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' is worth finding in a local live performance or the original video
The most viewed opera in TV history, Menotti’s powerful ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ is well worth the search to find it

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, both the WGA  and AMI list it as one of the twenty best films ever made.

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 (1987)  This Hanna-Barbera Greatest Adventures of the Bible video is hard to find, but worth it for your kids. We found a couple of YouTube links, but, uh …they might be bootleg.

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

Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) makes a breathtaking Mary in Jesus of Nazareth

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.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Jean Negulesco directed this understated and haunting Nativity sequence.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV mini-series. Incredibly complex and textured. Get Episode 1 for the Nativity scene.

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

Bill Murray at his comedic best
Bill Murray at his comedic best

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

A Christmas Story ( ) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection
A Christmas Story (1983) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection

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!”

Elf (2003) Perhaps  Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story.  Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.


GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas

Tim Allen featured in Bill O'Reilly's new book, Killing Santa
Tim Allen to be featured in Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Santa?

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.

Christmas Vacation (1989) Didn’t get enough of Chevy Chase on Community? This is the movie for you. The Griswold family’s big Christmas turns out to be “nuts’?

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)

If you like Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you
If you love Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you

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.


See also:

It’s a Wonderful Life and the Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006): A Stark Retelling of the Christmas Story

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

Part of ongoing series: The Future of Faith in Film and Television

Clare Sera’s BLENDED and Andrea Nasfell’s MOM’S NIGHT OUT highlight the strange dichotomy between ‘Christian’ movies and the rest of Hollywood. The sense of legitimacy provided by Box Office Mojo’s new “Christian Movie” genre is nice, but is a separate category really a good thing for faith-based filmmaking?

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor


Box Office Mojo, Hollywood’s leading site for reporting movie attendance, has started posting results for ‘Christian’ movies “produced by Christians that promote or embody their religion” from 1980 to present.  The legitimacy and media attention are nice, but is this distinction a good thing for faith-based filmmaking?  While it’s encouraging to see Hollywood recognizing the economic viability of ‘Christian’ films, it is disheartening to see ‘Christian’ filmmaking reduced only to, uh, “less than subtle” explorations of faith.

While being labeled as a ‘Christian’ film might be a kiss of death for many films seeking a broader audience, a number of excellent faith-exploring films didn’t make Box Office Mojo’s list for any obvious reason. For instance, The Blind Side  ($255M) would be #3,  Madea Goes to Jail ($90M) #5, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose ($75M) #6, IF they had been included. In fact, Tyler Perry’s films would have dominated the top twenty-five if BOM had included them.  So why didn’t they?

What’s more, subtle and artistic faith explorations–such as the film’s of Alfonso Cuarón, Brit Marling, and the aforementioned Scott Derrickson–certainly aren’t on the BOM list (perhaps rightfully so), yet probably point the way for future faith-based filmmakers seeking true cultural impact more than a quick-buck from the faith community. I suspect that the great Christian filmmakers of Hollywood’s glory days–Frank CapraCecil B. DeMille, etc.–would roll over in their graves at the thought of a separate genre for ‘Christian’ films. Their films dominated THE Box Office (and Academy Awards) because they were truly outstanding works of art with broad popular appeal. (See, Shouldn’t a Great Film Impact DEEP Culture?)

A Tale of Two Writers

moms_night_out_xlgTwo current films by graduate’s of the Act One screenwriting program highlight this strange dichotomy for the modern Christian screenwriter.  Andrea Gyertson Nasfell‘s hilarious MOM’S NIGHT OUT is included on Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian’ movie list (currently #18 at $10M and rising), mostly because of the public faith pronouncements of some the film’s producers and stars. Clare Sera‘s equally hilarious BLENDED (currently at $36M and climbing) is NOT included on Box Office Mojo’s list, presumably because it is NOT produced by or starring any publicly vocal Christians.

Both Andrea and Clare are wonderful Christians whose faith deeply informs their writing. (They’ve been part of the same writing group since they sat beside each other in Act One’s inaugural cohort.) Both films portray a strong Judeo-Christian moral promise. Because of their premise, both movies were largely panned by Hollywood critics and adored by the viewing public. (BLENDED received a coveted A- Cinema Score and MOM’S NIGHT OUT an 88% like score on Rotten Tomatoes.)  Both are outstanding comedies. My somewhat cynical teenage daughter–not the target audience for either film–loved them both and kept breaking out in spontaneous laughter for days afterward as lines from each movie kept coming to mind.

What’s the diff?

So why does Box Office Mojo consider one a ‘Christian’ film while the other is not? The reasons may be obvious to their editors. But anyone who reads Two Handed Warriors regularly or, better yet, understands what Act One is attempting to do in training Christians to enter mainstream media knows that it is a false and perhaps even dangerous distinction. We need writers like Clare Sera and Andre Nasfell to write outstanding films that flow from their own authentic faith, no matter which side of BOM’s dichotomy they fall upon. And we need Christian moviegoers who choose movies to view based not upon what Box Office Mojo or any other genre assigning agency thinks is ‘Christian,’ but upon which films reflect moral premises and artistry consistent with the beauty and love of God.

So… should we care that Box Office Mojo now has a ‘Christian’ movie genre?  Should we celebrate? Should we weep?  I’m not sure. But we all should make sure to view BLENDED and MOM’S NIGHT OUT while they are still in the theater.

Read the complete Box Office Mojo list for yourself and let us know what you think.


See also:

Support Your Screenwriters of Faith: Go See POMPEII Tonight

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking

The Future of Faith in Film and Television

Thirty Favorite Christmas Movies for 2013


Rank Title (click to view) Studio Lifetime Gross /Theaters Opening /Theaters Date
1 The Passion of the Christ NM $370,782,930 3,408 $83,848,082 3,043 2/25/04
2 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe BV $291,710,957 3,853 $65,556,312 3,616 12/9/05
3 The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian BV $141,621,490 3,929 $55,034,805 3,929 5/16/08
4 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Fox $104,386,950 3,555 $24,005,069 3,555 12/10/10
5* Heaven is for Real TriS $88,412,645 3,048 $22,522,221 2,417 4/16/14
6* God’s Not Dead Free $59,872,680 1,860 $9,217,013 780 3/21/14
7 Son of God Fox $59,700,064 3,271 $25,601,865 3,260 2/28/14
8 Soul Surfer TriS $43,853,424 2,240 $10,601,862 2,214 4/8/11
9 The Nativity Story NL $37,629,831 3,083 $7,849,304 3,083 12/1/06
10 Courageous TriS $34,522,221 1,214 $9,112,839 1,161 9/30/11
11 Fireproof Gold. $33,456,317 905 $6,836,036 839 9/26/08
12 Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie Art. $25,581,229 1,625 $6,201,345 940 10/4/02
13 One Night with the King 8X $13,395,961 909 $4,120,497 909 10/13/06
14 The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything Uni. $12,981,269 1,340 $4,251,320 1,337 1/11/08
15 The Omega Code Prov. $12,614,346 450 $2,354,362 304 10/15/99
16 End of the Spear RM $11,967,000 1,163 $4,281,388 1,163 1/20/06
17 Facing the Giants IDP $10,178,331 441 $1,343,537 441 9/29/06
18* Moms’ Night Out TriS $9,758,646 1,046 $4,311,083 1,044 5/9/14
19 Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed RM $7,720,487 1,052 $2,970,848 1,052 4/18/08
20 Megiddo: The Omega Code II 8X $6,047,691 353 $1,573,454 314 9/21/01

* Currently in theaters.

See entire Box Office Mojo list