My love for all things Christmas-adjacent is intense, obsessive, and a little peculiar. From the first day of Fall to the last day of Winter, I mainline everything related to the Christmas season. I read books about the holiday’s history, watch documentaries about different winter celebrations, and make special notes on my personal calendar about holidays I cannot miss. So, for example, I first sat down to write this on Krampusnacht, the day when Krampus seeks to punish misbehaving children. I don’t have any kids, but I sure as hell will celebrate Krampusnacht every year for the rest of my life. So, I mean it with my whole heart when I say I try to watch all of the Christmas specials I can get my hands on. You have no idea the amount of cinematic trash I have consumed over the past decade to get my Christmas fix, and the advent of the Netflix Christmas Cinematic Universe has only strengthened my addiction.
Last week I wrote an article about 5 Inclusive Holidays Movies, and although I love some of the movies on that list, I thought it would be fun to create a second list of personal must-watch Christmas Movies and Specials. Of course, not all of these films are oscar winners, and you may already be familiar with one or two, but these are movies that I thought deserved a little extra love, and I certainly plan on watching them again this year.
Note: I tried to include where to stream these movies, but honestly, if you’re going to watch them over and over again, I would consider buying the DVD. I’m not sure if it’s cool to buy DVDs anymore, but I still do it.
Movie 1: Arthur Christmas (2011), available for rent for $2.99 on Amazon
I remember the first time I watched this movie. I was working at a tutoring company helping 7th graders with their homework. Only it was the holiday season, and none of them wanted to do homework, so as a treat, I let them pick a holiday movie for us all to watch.
My life changed on that day. I had no idea that “Arthur Christmas” was such a charming, creative, heartfelt movie. The plot is simple: after a busy Christmas Eve, Arthur, the younger son of Santa Claus, discovers that a child didn’t get their present. He, his grandfather, and an enthusiastic elf from the wrapping department then go on an epic adventure worldwide to make sure that a young girl can open her present on Christmas morning. Of course, everything that can go wrong does, but in the end, Arthur can achieve his goal and ensure that every child in the world receives their Christmas present.
I think I enjoy this film so much because of Arthur’s character. Arthur Christmas is a bit of a goofball, but he’s also genuine, loving, and considerate. The poor guy works in his family’s mailroom, yet he embarks on a worldwide trek simply because he can’t bear the thought of a child being disappointed.
Movie 2: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) (and Any Special from Rankin/Bass Productions), available to rent on Vudu for $3.99
I was not an athletic child, and the fastest mile I ever ran was 11 minutes (I was 10), but I had a song in handy to prevent myself from giving up: “Put One Foot in Front of the Other.” It’s the song Kris Kringle sings to the Winter Warlock to encourage him to change for good, and it’s a banger. I owe this strange quirk in my life to the 1970 stop-motion Christmas special “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”
Rankin/Bass Productions has put out a lot of hits over the years, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but my personal favorite is and always has been “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” It’s is a sweet, well-crafted musical about the origins of Christmas that packs quite a bit of story into its 50-minute run time.
Which version, you might ask? ALL OF THEM. “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens is one of my favorite books of all time. I think it perfectly encapsulates what Christmas should be about: wringing whatever money we can out of the filthy rich by scaring the shit of them.
Haha, I kid.
My love for a Christmas Carol goes beyond the holiday because of the story’s strength and the seamless weaving of fantasy into the dark, cold world of Victorian London. Charles Dicken wrote his story for many reasons, one of which criticized wealthy members of society whom he felt did not do their fair share in helping other people. I distinctly remember the first time I read this book and reached Scrooge’s passage about his old boss, Fezziwig. He spoke of how Fezziwig treated him with kindness and respect and how Fezziwig’s support was one reason Scrooge became so successful. At the time, I felt unappreciated at my job, and this passage made me feel seen and understood. It’s been over a hundred years, and A Christmas Carol remains a beautiful, relevant story about the power of kindness, generosity, and the ability to change. Thus, I love all versions of this story because it is a beautiful story that deserves to be retold.
Except for the bad ones, sometimes I don’t feel like losing 4+ hours of my life to needlessly “gritty” retellings. So just go watch “A Muppets Christmas Carol” after this, alright?
This is a weird movie, and I love it. “Rare Exports” is a 2010 Finnish horror-action-comedy in Lapland, the home of Joulupukki. It’s about a group of cash-strapped reindeer herdsmen who discover the Santa Claus. Except, this isn’t the jolly Santa Claus we know and love, the bringer of toys and Christmas magic. This Santa Claus is the relentless punisher of naughty, misbehaving children. And he is more than a match for our herdsmen.
Although this movie has some violence, I don’t think of it as a scary movie like “Friday the 13th.” What I find so appealing about this film is through the fantasy of “Evil Santa,” we’re able to glimpse into the lives and culture of people across the world. The first time I watched this movie, I was unaware of the cultural layers and nuances present within the legend of Santa Claus. “Santa Claus” wasn’t really a big deal in my household, and my parents had no interest in the many legends of Santa Claus beyond “let’s put this Christmas movie on so our kids shut up for 20 minutes.” So “Rare Exports” was one of the first films to open my eyes to the cultural complexities of Christmas beliefs, and I was hooked.
There is an undercurrent of darkness to the magic and wonder of Christmas that is not present in American celebrations. I think our unwillingness to embrace that darkness is our loss. That darkness is beautiful and untamed, the remnant of a different time when stories served as entertainment and warning. I think that through the darkness of Christmas, we can appreciate the light all the more. It’s like spending a cozy night drinking hot tea and reading a book – the only thing that would make it better is if there were a storm raging outside. While watching “Rare Exports,” I briefly feel like I’m a young child again, frightened of something I don’t quite understand but know is bigger and more powerful than me.
A significant chunk of this movie is set in a reindeer slaughterhouse, and there is some gore, so I’d think twice about letting your kids watch it. Also, there’s a scene in which herd old men run around naked, which is hilarious but much more frightening than Joulupukki.
Movie 5: While You Were Sleeping (1995), available to stream on Disney+
It is a sad truth of the world that most rom-coms are garbage. The typical rom-com features flat characters, awful plot contrivances, and usually a weird array of microaggressions that are supposed to be inferred as jokes. For those wondering, the same rule applies to most, if not all, Christmas rom-coms. If I had a dollar for every garbage Christmas rom-com I have submitted myself to, I would have enough money to fund my own terrible Christmas rom-com. (Which I am currently writing, and I will call it the “The 12 Dates of Christmas,” but that is neither here nor there)
While You Were Sleeping is something special. Our heroine, Lucy, is a kind but profoundly lonely young woman. She is lovely and wants love but is too shy and withdrawn to pursue it. Then a wacky series of events occur, and a loud, vibrant family mistake her for their comatose son’s fiance, turning her world upside down. Then she meets her “fiance’s” very cute brother and the story becomes even more complicated. Lucy feels like a normal person trapped in a romantic comedy, who realizes she’s in a romantic comedy, and then… goes with it. It’s ridiculous and glorious because, despite the wild shenanigans, the characters are so warm and loving that you actively root for their happiness. The first time I watched this movie, I dreaded the moment when Lucy had to tell everyone the truth because I didn’t want the spell to end! I wanted her to have her “fairytale” romance and big loving family, even if she gained that family in an unconventional way.
Spoiler alert: This movie ends happily and that makes me happy.
Special Mention: Mickey and Minnie’s Gift of the Magi (1999), available to stream on Disney+
I love O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s such a sweet story of love, generosity, and self-sacrifice with an element of ironic tragedy. Does it suck that Della and Jim technically can’t use each other’s gifts? Yeah, totally, except the love they have for each other is greater than that, and their true gift is each other. To have someone who would sacrifice their most treasured possession for you is priceless.
I feel like I should make some dumbass joke about Mickey and Minnie being a power couple or something, but really, the reason I like this movie so much is that I think it’s a nice adaption of O. Henry’s story. Mickey and Minnie both want to get each other something special for Christmas – he wants to get her a gold chain for her watch, and she wants to get him a nice case for his harmonica. At the last minute, they both trade their treasured possessions to get gifts for each other, only to discover their gifts are useless. And yet, they’re both happy! It’s about the love behind the gift, and there’s a lot of love between those two. I appreciate that Disney did not undercut their sacrifice by having Mickey magically regain his harmonica and Minnie her watch. Even though the ending is “imperfect,” that’s what makes it so wonderful. Mickey and Minnie are good people (Mice? Vermin? Whatever) and deserve to keep their precious heirlooms, but they don’t, and that’s a good thing.
I hope to see additional adaptations of O. Henry’s story, but, for the time being, I think Disney told this version well. This is one of the few times in my life I can honestly say “Good job, Disney.”
I think I’ve gotten the big ones. I love a wide range of Christmas specials, from anything with Evil Robot Santa Claus to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re all wonderful to me. Obviously, Last Holiday starring Queen Latifah is a part of my must-watch list. I praised it last week, but I know I’ll want to discuss it more in a future article. In fact, how about we meet here next year and have another chat about must-watch Christmas movies?
I’ll make sure to find a few ones for you.
Extra note: I’d be remiss if I failed to mention one of my new favorite musicals/holidays traditions, which is trekking to the city to catch a performance of “Scrooge in Love!” Set a year after Scrooge’s fateful experience with the Christmas spirits, once again, Scrooge must contend with his past, present, and future and try to re-win the hand of his long-lost love, Belle. It’s so freaking cute, and I am devastated that there are no productions near me.