Christmas and the holidays are, for me at least, about familiarity and tradition. Visiting the same relatives who have the same major questions about what, exactly, you’re doing with your life, eating the same calorie-laden food and feeling disappointed in yourself for having a third slice of pie, and, most importantly, starting a lot of sentences with, “You know, back when I was a kid, Christmas was…”
Part of that familiarity is always watching the same batch of movies (and a couple of TV shows) every single year. Why do we come back to the same movies every December? What is it about them that draws us back in and makes the holidays feel complete? I think it comes down to two emotions that our holiday selves are particularly responsive to: nostalgia and joy.
This may just be the most beloved American movie of all time. Each one of you has probably seen it many times and it just isn’t Christmas until you’ve watched it. Director Frank Capra was born in a small town in Sicily, the youngest of seven children. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was five and they settled on the edge of Los Angeles in a gritty Italian neighborhood. He grew up selling newspapers on street corners, and eventually—remarkably—made it into the California Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. Except nobody would hire him. In the ensuing years, Capra struggled with unemployment, depression, and a variety of medical issues. At 25, nearly broke and at his wit’s end working as a salesman in San Francisco, he went to a new movie studio looking for work and ended up writing on Our Gang (1922). After three successful short features, he got his chance to direct a major feature starring Claudette Colbert (For the Love of Mike - 1927). It promptly bombed. It was a bumpy beginning to the career of one of America’s greatest film directors.
Capra was intimately familiar with failure, humiliation, and disappointment, which is mirrored in It’s a Wonderful Life. The enduring appeal of this film can be put squarely on the central character, George Bailey, a man whose life just never seems to quite work out the way he wants. This tale expertly shows the value of discovering the impact your life has on the people you meet and coming to understand the real value of your life. And I suspect that the reason this resonates is because all of us have known failure, all of us have struggled, and many of us have spent dark moments wondering whether it is worth going on. The answer from Frank Capra, former failure, is: yes, it is worth going on. Why? Because each of us living decent but seemingly unremarkable lives are, in our own way, “the richest man in town.”
This Natalie Wood classic is the ultimate example of Christmas nostalgia. It brings us back to the old-time Christmas feeling that comes with velvet pea coats and black and white film. It brings us back to the magic of childhood, the belief in something pure and good, and the innocence of allowing ourselves to experience magic, joy, and connection in a universe that constantly tells us we can’t sit back and enjoy the magic anymore. It’s other claim to fame? Best Santa Claus movie ever. Bar none. It also is a paean to two American institutions that have fallen out of favor with the public: department stores and the US Postal Service. And as an added bonus—a lawyer saves the day! Go ahead, rent it again.
Jean Shepherd was a storyteller and a radio personality. Not a lot of those around anymore. Here, he tells the story of one Christmas based on his own childhood. All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder air rifle, something neither his mother, nor the department store Santa Claus, nor his teacher wants him to have. (‘You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”) So…does he get his wish? Well, you’re just going to have to watch and find out on your own, aren’t you? This movie pulls us in every year because we see our younger selves in Ralphie, with childhood expectations of the perfect Christmas if only we could get that one coveted toy. In fact, everyone in Ralphie’s family has expectations for a perfect Christmas (and turkey), but when they dissolve into comedic disasters—which we can all relate to—it’s still a happy holiday because they’re together as a family.
This is a fairly flawed movie, but I always fall for it. The problems? Let’s start with the creepy stalking story featuring Keira Knightley. Eeew. Hugh Grant as Prime Minister? Seriously? And the bathetic widowed Liam Neeson story is wincingly bad. And yet…I’m on board from the opening title credit sequence at Heathrow Airport to the final closing credit sequence at Heathrow Airport. It also features one of the finest acting moments on film. I’m talking about the scene in the master bedroom when Emma Thompson’s character realizes her husband has been cheating on her as she listens to “Both Sides Now.” Gasp! Yes, the movie is a bit corny. But it’s Christmas. Relax. Go along for the ride. This movie is one of the top-rented Christmas movies. Why? DVD Netflix Director of Marketing Vanessa Fiske reflects on why Love Actually is one of her favorites: “Connection is at the core of what we seek out as human beings” and honestly, this film shoves down our throat the theme that “love actually is all around.” Sink into the episodic quality of its 10 storylines and huge A-list cast, and enjoy the mixture of Christmas antics and romantic comedy happy endings. For those who can’t stand it, here’s my list of What to Watch When Your Wife is Watching Love Actually.
Will Ferrell has made a lot of bad movies. This, however, isn’t one of them. It’s a Christmas classic. When it first came out, I took my then-12-year-old older son to see it three days in a row because he insisted that’s what he wanted to do on Christmas break. I didn’t really object and enjoyed it every time. And every time I’ve seen it since then. It’s just wonderful. The allure of this one? I think it’s simply the joyful mix of ridiculousness, over-the-top Christmasy spirit, and maple syrup. It's a fish-out-of-water story, and ultimately speaks to the contagiousness of positive thinking and being passionate.
Back in the mid-1960s, CBS commissioned and aired these two Christmas cartoon classics. They are perfect. My advice to you is to rent both of them and have them on hand during Christmas break. You probably discovered them when your parents raved about them, and now you can pass them on to your children. Pay close attention this time to Vince Guaraldi’s brilliant jazz-infused score for A Charlie Brown Christmas. And God bless whatever genius came up with the idea of pairing Dr. Seuss’s writing with Chuck Jones’ animation and Boris Karloff’s narration in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Both of these deserve a yearly watch because they remind us that great cartoons aren’t just about the technology of the animation; they’re about the joy and the story behind them.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.