Christmas in the Movies

30 Classics to Celebrate the Season


By Jeremy Arnold

By Turner Classic Movies

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Turner Classic Movies presents a bucket list of the best and most beloved holiday films of all time, complete with spirited commentary, behind-the-scenes stories, and photos spanning eight decades of Christmastime favorites.

Nothing brings the spirit of the season into our hearts quite like a great holiday movie. “Christmas films” come in many shapes and sizes and exist across many genres. Some, like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, are perennials, while others, such as Die Hard, have only gradually become yuletide favorites. But they all have one thing in common: they use themes evoked by the holiday period – nostalgia, joy, togetherness, dysfunction, commercialism, or cynicism – as a force in their storytelling.

Turner Classic Movies: Christmas in the Movies showcases the very best among this uniquely spirited strain of cinema. Each film is profiled on what makes it a “Christmas movie,” along with behind-the-scenes stories of its production, reception, and legacy. Complemented by a trove of color and black-and-white photos, Turner Classic Movies: Christmas in the Movies is a glorious salute to a collection of the most treasured films of all time.
Among the 30 films included: The Shop Around the Corner, Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, Little Women,and The Nightmare Before Christmas.


Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Publicity photo of Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh promoting Holiday Affair (1949)


Would the holiday season feel complete without the sight of James Stewart running through the snow, shouting “Merry Christmas” to Bedford Falls? Without the longing on Peter Billingsley’s face as he stares through a shop window at the air rifle of his dreams? Without Natalie Wood’s skeptical yank of Kris Kringle’s whiskers?

Each December, we look forward to the warm cheer that comes from reuniting with family and friends, sitting down to festive meals, exchanging presents, and revisiting our favorite holiday movies. They are as much a ritual of the season by now as candy canes and roast turkey. When we view them, we journey back to our childhoods, laugh at our quirks, and lose ourselves in tales of love and compassion. There’s nostalgia in many of these stories and even in the simple act of watching them: they stir our memories of having seen them in earlier times, with earlier loved ones.

We also adore them for their buoyant endings. Knowing they end happily is not a spoiler but part of the appeal. It’s what we want and expect at Christmastime—for the spirit of the season to come through and win in the end, somehow, some way. In short, these films do what the season does: bring us back and lift us up.

Motion pictures with Christmas themes date practically to the dawn of cinema. The earliest surviving example, Santa Claus, runs all of seventy-six seconds and was made by British filmmaker George Albert Smith in 1898; three years later came the first known version of A Christmas Carol. The films have kept coming ever since, in all shapes and sizes, but the most powerful have one vital element in common: the Christmas season is not just a backdrop but plays a meaningful role in the storytelling.

The Christmas movie house of our memories, from A Christmas Story (1983)

The season, of course, can “mean” different things to different people, from compassion, togetherness, and nostalgia to commercialism, cynicism, and loneliness. All have been themes for great holiday movies ranging from farce to tender drama. Genre doesn’t matter: musicals, westerns, fantasies, action, and horror tales can all become Christmas films with the right approach.

This book presents thirty of the best and most intriguing English-language holiday movies—beloved classics, under-the-radar gems, and a few familiar titles you may not have considered for their yuletide slants. Some were made and marketed with their holiday content in mind; many others were released with barely a mention of Christmas. A few take place entirely on the holiday; in others, it’s only a short part of the running time.

For all their differences, they share some interesting patterns and similarities. Nearly half these films, for instance, were released in the 1940s. Christmas no doubt resonated on the screen in those years because it was so often used to represent romance, nostalgia, and the idea of a complete family unit—all while millions of moviegoers were separated from loved ones or rebuilding their own families.

Family, in fact, is at the center of the vast majority of films profiled in this book. In Christmas movies, families form, grow, divide, and especially reunite. They can be generally loving (A Christmas Story) or highly dysfunctional (The Lion in Winter). They can be part of an idealized past (Meet Me in St. Louis) or reflect a more complicated present (The Holly and the Ivy). They can be made up of coworkers (The Shop Around the Corner) or even random strangers (Love Actually). Closely tied to family is the notion of the home, and as a result, many Christmas films prominently incorporate houses, sometimes to the point of the houses becoming “characters”—as in Holiday Inn, Christmas in Connecticut, and Home Alone. Remember the Night uses two houses, one inviting and one cold and dark, to make a point about the value of family. It’s a Wonderful Life does the same, although thanks to a fantasy sequence, it’s the same house in each case!

Part of the fun of these films is in seeing recognizable elements of the season arise in different ways: office holiday parties, family dinners, the exchanging of presents, and department store Santas all take on entertainingly different tones from film to film. Even the idea of the “bad Santa” appears at least as early as Miracle on 34th Street, in a bit part played by Percy Helton. Holiday movies are also ripe for fantasy devices, with ghosts, angels, disembodied voices, and supernatural creatures popping up in Beyond Tomorrow, The Bishop’s Wife, Gremlins, and others. (Squirrels, for some odd reason, are played for laughs in three pictures. Who knew?)

The lonelier, more cynical aspects of the season are covered as well, sometimes with biting honesty, as in The Apartment—one of four titles that contain attempted or contemplated suicides. Even after countless viewings, It’s a Wonderful Life tends to shock us with the trauma it inflicts upon James Stewart and many other characters. Stewart’s transformation is so powerful that the joy and uplift of the ending blot out thoughts of the film’s darker sections—which, of course, have helped to make the joy all the more stirring.

Peter Billingsley feeling confident in A Christmas Story (1983)

Transformations of characters from bitterness to compassion are perhaps the purest Christmas stories. Often they happen without anything changing in the characters’ outward circumstances. Instead, it is Christmas that somehow makes them see their lives in a new context and reawaken to the point of change. The result is Alastair Sim dancing in his bedroom, light as a feather; James Stewart shouting “Zuzu’s petals!” with glee; and Margo, in Miracle on Main Street, suddenly confident and determined to raise an infant.

Transformed characters seem to notice the buoyant feel in the air that comes with the season. Maybe this “glow” is what really makes Christmas movies so popular. At their most bewitching, they allow us to bask in what Celia Johnson describes in The Holly and the Ivy as “the first moment when you wake up” on Christmas morning, “as if during the night, while you were asleep, something had happened”—or what Danny Elfman means in The Nightmare Before Christmas when he sings of “that special kind of feeling in Christmasland.”

As you journey through the thirty films ahead, you will find many inventive ways in which filmmakers have conjured that feeling. The journey will take you from small-town New England to the desert southwest with many stops in-between, as well as to London, Budapest, and the North Pole of our childhood imaginations. Cherished favorites await, but hopefully so do new discoveries, there to be found and added to future holiday traditions.

A dysfunctional family played for laughs: Chevy Chase and Mae Questel in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)


Columbia, 1939 • Black and White, 73 minutes

At the church on Christmas Day, Margo considers giving the baby to a woman played by Dorothy Devore, former silent star.


Margo takes refuge in a church on Christmas Eve.

Christmas is a healing force in the low-budget curiosity Miracle on Main Street. Right off the bat, with a striking montage of yuletide festivities, the film asks the audience to view the story through the prism of the holiday. The montage ends with a religious procession in the Old Spanish Quarter of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. But as the procession heads into a church, the camera suddenly turns to a nearby sideshow barker, Dick, who is enticing passersby to pay ten cents for “the thrill of a lifetime”—a tacky burlesque act headlined by his wife, Maria.

That entertaining contrast sets up an oddly endearing tale. Maria and Dick soon attempt to fleece an undercover cop, causing Maria to hide in the church and pray for heavenly help; when she notices an abandoned baby lying in the manger display, she takes it with her to mask her escape. But she gradually starts to feel such attachment to the baby that she decides to keep it, drop her no-good husband, and improve her life with a respectable job. Another man will enter the picture, but what will he think if he learns of her sordid past? And how will she deal with her shady husband when he returns?

Margo, Walter Abel, Jane Darwell, and William Collier Sr. face off with a welfare worker played by Ottola Nesmith.

What saves Miracle on Main Street from being just a far-fetched melodrama (or an obvious Christ-child parable) is the film’s touching way of using Christmas as an entity that pushes characters to redeem themselves. Maria finds a new will to carve out an honest life; a doctor (William Collier Sr.) grows from drunk hobo to wise philosopher; two dancers (Wynne Gibson and Veda Ann Borg) soften their cynicism; and Maria’s landlady (the plucky Jane Darwell) finds a sweet maternal instinct under her crustiness. Only Dick, the villainous husband played by Lyle Talbot, is irredeemable.

Maria is played by the actress known as Margo, born in Mexico as Maria Margarita Guadalupe Teresa Estella Bolado Castilla y O’Donnell. A professional dancer from the age of nine, she helped popularize the rumba in the early 1930s by performing in nightclubs to the music of her uncle, the bandleader Xavier Cugat. By the time she made this picture, she was already well known for her screen role in Winterset (1936), which she had also played on Broadway, and her turn in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) as the woman who ages rapidly upon leaving Shangri-La. Miracle on Main Street is a much smaller and cheaper production than Lost Horizon, but Margo carries it with a committed performance as she evolves from stripper to clothing designer and mother. She even sings a lullaby.

There was some surprisingly interesting talent behind the camera as well. This was the first American film for the Hungarian director Steve Sekely, who had worked as a journalist in the 1920s before embarking on a filmmaking career through Europe, Mexico, and India. Cowriter Boris Ingster had roots stretching back to his work with the pioneering Sergei Eisenstein in their native Russia; following this movie, Ingster would direct what some consider to be the first true film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940).

Producer Jack Skirball would decades later become a major philanthropist with a passion for interreligious and cross-cultural programs, and Miracle on Main Street is an early example of that interest: it was produced in two languages so as to appeal to Latin audiences. A former rabbi, Skirball transitioned to film in 1933, producing short subjects and an infamous educational documentary, Birth of a Baby (1938), which was banned in several states for its explicit childbirth scenes. After taking a job as head of production at the poverty-row studio Grand National Films, he formed a subsidiary, Arcadia Pictures, to produce English- and Spanish-language versions of the same scripts.

Both versions of Miracle on Main Street were shot at Grand National in the spring of 1939, with Margo starring in each. A few weeks later, Skirball resigned from the studio but continued to run Arcadia as an independent producer. When Grand National disbanded soon thereafter, he enticed Columbia to step in as domestic distributor.

In September 1939, Twentieth Century-Fox released the Spanish-language version, El milagro de la calle mayor, in South American markets. The English-language version opened in the United States a month later. Reviews were mixed: “Hokum the family will enjoy,” said one. “Will please those who see it, for it has a message of happiness and hope.”

Miracle on Main Street remains decidedly rough around the edges, lacking the polish of a major studio’s resources, but it compensates with some unusually frank scenes for its time and an offbeat story that succeeds because its heart, like that of Maria’s, is in the right place.


Paramount, 1940 • Black and White, 94 minutes

Publicity shot of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck


A happy Christmas Day with Barbara Stanwyck, Beulah Bondi, Fred MacMurray, Sterling Holloway, and Elizabeth Patterson

Remember the Night is a charmer. While it has remained for decades mysteriously under the radar, its tender romance and comedy are so skillfully blended—and its use of Christmas so poignant—that it stands among the very best holiday movies. The creative forces came together perfectly here: a witty screenplay by the great Preston Sturges; the visual touch of producer-director Mitchell Leisen, who had just made the masterful romantic comedy Midnight (1939); and the screen chemistry of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, so strong that the duo would team again for three more pictures, starting with Double Indemnity (1944).

Sturges’s story revolves around a New York assistant district attorney (MacMurray) prosecuting a shoplifter (Stanwyck) just before the holidays. Feeling sorry that she will have to spend Christmas in jail waiting for the trial to resume, he bails her out; she has nowhere to go, so he offers to drive her to her childhood home in Indiana, as it’s right on his own way. When he sees her cold and unwelcoming mother, however is, he whisks Stanwyck off for Christmas at his house. Stanwyck is bowled over by the love and affection she encounters there, and she and MacMurray start to fall in love. Hanging over both their heads is the realization that they still have to return to the city to resolve the trial. Will MacMurray purposefully blow the case? Will she let him? As Sturges himself said: “Love reformed her and corrupted him.”

Christmas is key to Remember the Night. It practically defines the inner psychologies of the two main characters. For Stanwyck, there is no such thing as Christmas at home—there’s just a dead-looking house with no electricity, no smiles, a mean stepfather she’s never met, and one of the iciest moms in American cinema. (She is underplayed perfectly by Georgia Caine.) For MacMurray, Christmas equates to cheer—with a boyhood house full of light, laughter, food, music, and a kindhearted mother (the wonderful Beulah Bondi). MacMurray’s Christmas feels a bit unreal, too, which is by design: it’s the idealized, nostalgic Christmas that Stanwyck always dreamed of and finally gets to experience.

Producer-director Mitchell Leisen behind the scenes with his two stars

The visual contrast between the two houses—in terms of their design and lighting—is especially striking, revealing the expertise of Leisen. A trained architect, he had worked as an art director (and costume designer) before starting his directing career, and he always kept a careful eye on set design and decor as tools to help tell his stories.

This was Leisen’s second picture with a script by Sturges, after Easy Living (1937). He trimmed many scenes before shooting and deleted a few more afterward, something that always irritated Sturges and was why he resolved from then on to direct his own scripts. But Leisen was certainly intelligent enough not to make the trims haphazardly. Biographer David Chierichetti has written that Leisen reshaped the script to the personas and abilities of his two stars, which had the effect of making MacMurray less heroic and Stanwyck a bit more dominant than Sturges had envisioned.

Fred MacMurray plays “Swanee River” as Barbara Stanwyck and Beulah Bondi look on.

Leisen wrapped production eight days ahead of schedule and $50,000 under budget. He attributed this not to the script pruning but to Barbara Stanwyck’s professionalism. “[She] was the greatest,” he said. “She never blew one line through the whole picture…. We never once had to wait for her to finish with the hairdresser or the makeup man…. She set that kind of pace and everybody worked harder, trying to outdo her.”

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray welcome a friend.

A pivotal moment for Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as bit player Kate Drain Lawson looks on

Fred MacMurray tries to sweet-talk judge Charles Waldron while Barbara Stanwyck fires up a distraction.

Sturges often visited the set and got to know Stanwyck well. She later recounted that he was already planning to work with her again: “One day he said to me, ‘Someday I’m going to write a real screwball comedy for you.’ Remember the Night was a delightful comedy, swell for me and Fred MacMurray, but hardly a screwball, and I replied that nobody would ever think of writing anything like that for me—a murderess, sure. But he said, ‘You just wait.’” A year later, Sturges was directing Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), one of the best movies either of them ever made.

Perhaps the only blemish on Remember the Night is its inclusion of a character named Rufus, MacMurray’s valet, who is presented as a black stereotype. Billed as “Snowflake,” his stage name, he is played by actor Fred Toones, a familiar face to audiences for two decades. He appeared with and without credit in more than two hundred films, many of them at Republic, where he was under contract for several years.

Remember the Night opened in early January 1940, the same time of year that the story within the movie winds down. The New York Times called it “the real curtain-raiser for 1940,” and the film was a hit. Preston Sturges quipped that he knew exactly why: “It had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz, and just enough schmutz to make it box office.”


MGM, 1940 • Black and White, 99 minutes

The chemistry of Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart was “red-hot,” according to Louis B. Mayer.



  • "Arnold's second book in Running Press' TCM collection is a savvy roundup of seasonal films, with sharp observations about such perennials as Holiday Inn, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, and Elf. Stalwart film buffs will be especially pleased to find essays and rarely-seen photos covering unexpected choices like Miracle on Main Street, Beyond Tomorrow, Trail of Robin Hood, and We're No Angels, among others. (Any book that includes a tribute to Roy Rogers scores points with me.) An exceptionally handsome design in an unusual format (7 ¼ x 8 1/4") makes this an appealing gift. It can adorn your coffee table without taking up too much space."—
  • "This volume is a welcome television table companion."-—Booklist
  • "Christmas in the Movies is a keepsake treasure perfect for gift giving. And it's very likely that if your loved one doesn't watch classic movies that they've seen several of the classic Christmas films listed in the book. It's beautifully designed and I particularly liked its more compact size. If you're looking for a coffee table type book this is not it. It's better suited on your mantle next to your Elf on the shelf and above your Christmas stocking."—Out of the Past blog
  • "Another handsome, beautifully-illustrated, and affordable entry in Turner Classic Movies' series of books on film history, genres, and trivia, comes just in time for the holidays... Christmas in the Movies is comprehensive, informative, and fun. It might well be the perfect gift this season for the movie lover in your family!"
    Cinema Retro

On Sale
Oct 9, 2018
Page Count
208 pages
Running Press

Jeremy Arnold

About the Author

Jeremy Arnold is a film historian, commentator, and author of Turner Classic Movies: The Essentials volumes 1 and 2 and Christmas in the Movies: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season. His writing has appeared in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Moviemaker, and the Directors Guild of America magazine, and he has recorded audio commentaries for the Blu-ray or DVD releases of numerous vintage films. He lives in Los Angeles.

photo credit: Kate Butler

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