If there’s anything that can ease the pain of living through this General Election it’s a Christmas movie. But what makes a great festive film? Writer at Large, Neil Mackay, explores how to create a seasonal cinema classic

IF you take most Christmas movies to pieces – if you lift up the bonnet and have a poke around in the engine to find out how it all works – you’ll find that at their heart they’re paying homage in some way to one very old and powerful story: the Nativity.

There’s a child, there’s a family, there’s a powerful evil Herod-like villain, there are otherworldly creatures, there are gifts, there’s the essential power of belief, there’s threat, there’s love, there’s fear, there’s poverty, and most importantly, there’s hope and redemption.

Of course that recipe doesn’t work precisely for every Christmas movie. Die Hard (yes, it’s a Christmas movie despite what Bruce Willis says) doesn’t conform to the Nativity template – yet there's still lots of family, redemption, and villains, so the echoes are there nonetheless. But those secret ingredients, that Nativity recipe, is deeply embedded in all the Christmas biggies: It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Scrooged. You’ll find traces in all other Christmas movies – even the likes of Home Alone and Gremlins.


Apart from the Santa-exploitation genre – yes, such films exist, just check out blood-soaked slasher flicks like Black Christmas, or Norway’s Rare Exports – children are at the heart of Christmas movies. You can’t have a good Christmas movie without kids.

Even films that seem thoroughly unChristmasy – that mock Christmas – like Bad Santa are driven by children. In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton plays the most despicable department store Father Christmas who’s ever lived. He’s a robber, a sleaze-bag, a filthy, shameless drunk. But he’s redeemed by the kindness (and intense gullibility) of one little boy – the tubby, half-witted dupe Thurman Merman.

Bad Santa has a long line of predecessors. Look no further than the Grinch – a green, hairy fiend so awful that in the 1966 cartoon How the Grinch Stole Christmas he’s even voiced by Boris Karloff, the man who gave us the original Frankenstein. Who saves the Grinch? Who makes his ‘heart grow two sizes’? Little Cindy Lou Who who was no more than two – that’s who. A child saves a monster. It’s an eternal Christmas theme.

Christmas films which we think are about adults are often actually about children. For me, the big three Christmas movies are It’s A Wonderful Life, any version of A Christmas Carol (but especially Alastair Sim’s 1951 version, or the Muppets’ take on Dickens) and Scrooged. They all share the same cinematic DNA. Seemingly, they all tell the story of a man who’s given a second chance at life thanks to the intervention of spirits on Christmas Eve. But actually, each of those films is about a man who’s saved by rediscovering the truths and values of his own childhood. They’re all about innocence regained in the face of a cruel world.


In most Christmas movies, family is valued above all else – which is kind of ironic given a lot of us would gladly kill at least one relative over the holidays. But maybe that’s the point – these films remind us to be good to those we love at this time of year even though they may drive us mad, because, really, they’re all we’ve got in this world.

It’s the loss of family or absence of family which adds poignancy to the lives of the main characters. Think of Frank Cross, played by Bill Murray in Scrooged, or Ebenezer Scrooge himself. The paths they took led to a life without love – no partner, no children, relatives pushed away. Without family, their lives are meaningless so they fill up on greed and ambition. They’re so self-starved of love that they’re almost inhuman.

When Frank and Ebenezer are redeemed, the redemption comes with the gift of family – for Frank, his old love returns to him, and his bond with his brother is rebuilt; Ebenezer gets Christmas Day with his estranged nephew and the discovery of a surrogate family thanks to Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

In Miracle on 34th Street, the film ends with little Susan, the girl who couldn’t believe in Santa, finding that Father Christmas has granted her wishes and given her a home and a family as a present. If you don’t cry at that, then there’s something wrong with you.

Love Actually is one giant portmanteau movie with a single message – people need people. Love is all around, remember. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Prime Minister, a scorned wife, a Portuguese cleaner, or an infatuated pre-teen, Christmas can’t exist unless we all have someone to love.

Plenty of Christmas movies turn the idea of the healing power of family upside down, though. Let’s be honest, we need a little cynicism to cut through the schmaltz at this time of year.

The Family Stone is a good example – it’s not so cynical that it’ll kill your Christmas, but it’s honest about the Christmases we all have as families forced to come together and spend time with in-laws like the awful Meredith, played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Much more subversively anti-Christmas is the delightfully idiotic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It’s a story of a family of profoundly stupid people, led by Chevy Chase, making each other miserable over Christmas.

The French Christmas movie Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale), stars Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch forcibly holding her family together. The film takes cynicism towards the idea of the happy family into a much darker and more adult place. This is Christmas with domestic violence, heavy drinking, adultery and cancer. Yet still the message is that without unconditional love, we’ve really got nothing.


The best Christmas films are otherworldly. Christmas is meant to be magical – the Nativity story itself is full of magic and wonder.

It’s A Wonderful Life is now as much a part of Christmas as turkey and presents. Many families watch it religiously every Christmas Eve. Without the element of the supernatural, this film would be too dark too bear. It would be a tale of a decent man ruined by the world who then takes his own life on Christmas Eve leaving his loving wife and children behind.

But Clarence, the eccentric angel working to get his wings, takes the terrible destruction of Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey and turns it into a comic chaotic tale of salvation – albeit one in which it’s still impossible not to shudder at the darkness the film explores.

Charles Dickens laid down the template for the supernatural at Christmas with A Christmas Carol. He is, after all, commemorated in another festive film as The Man Who Invented Christmas. What would A Christmas Carol be without its ghosts? Without Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, it would simply be the story of a cruel and lonely old man looking back on his wasted life. But the ghosts terrorise Scrooge, they force him to change into a better person. Scrooge has to see his own death and the death of others to realise that his greed and ambition were all for nothing.

In Christmas movies, the supernatural is the catalyst for change. Without the intervention of Cary Grant’s angel Dudley in The Bishop’s Wife (later remade starring Denzel Washington as The Preacher’s Wife), a troubled couple might have lost their marriage and forgotten the love they had for each other. Humans are stupid, you see, in Christmas movies – we need a little push from powers greater than ourselves to make sure we become the people we ought to be.


Villains in Christmas movies are nearly always rich, they’re often businessmen or political figures. Think of the utterly evil Mr Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life. Think of Buddy’s dad, played by James Caan, in Elf – a villain redeemed. There’s Scrooge himself. There’s the rival department store owner in Miracle on 34th Street. In Santa Claus the Movie, starring Dudley Moore as the elf Patch, John Lithgow plays BZ, a thoroughly despicable executive who wants to hijack Christmas.

If you think of the original Christmas story, the heroes ­— Jesus, Mary and Joseph – are dirt poor. Christ is born in a stable. They’re hunted by King Herod. Christianity is about loving the poor, and rich men never getting into the kingdom of heaven.

If you watch It’s A Wonderful Life carefully it sometimes comes across as a socialist tract. Capitalism is monstrous in the film – money destroys everything – and only sharing resources and loving one another can provide a route to happiness. Trading Places is similar – the modern take on The Prince and the Pauper set at Christmas makes a homeless hustler a hero and a Wall Street giant a mean-spirited nothing.

What’s fascinating about the role of the villain in Christmas films is that the hero is often the villain as well. No other genre plays this game so well. Frank Cross in Scrooged and Ebenezer himself turn from rich, selfish, cruel misanthropes to men who literally give everything away – because at the end, once Christmas has changed them, they realise money means nothing compared to love.


You’ve got to believe at Christmas time. Don’t we all suspend our disbelief a little on Christmas Eve and remember what it was like to be a child in bed dreaming of Santa on his way? In Joyeux Noel, which tells the story of the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches, Christmas itself restores belief in peace and humanity. Of course, when Christmas ends, belief fades and war returns.

In the film Nativity! Martin Freeman has to believe that he can put on the school Christmas play. In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger has to believe he can find that action toy. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (okay, it’s set at Thanksgiving but for us on this side of the Atlantic it’s a Christmas film) John Candy and Steve Martin have to believe that they can get home.

In a Christmas film, belief means sacrificing something to help others – because Christmas is about giving. Without sacrifice, belief is meaningless. There’s those echoes of the nativity story again.

In Nativity! Freeman’s character hates Christmas but has to put on the school play – his reward is success, love, and a newly found fondness for Christmas. Arnie nearly kills himself trying to get his son a present – but the suffering makes him a better dad and a better person. John Candy and Steve Martin have to suffer each other to discover that they’re friends after all.

The central theme of The Polar Express is simple belief – the magic of a child’s faith in Christmas, and the saving power of belief in something good, something greater than yourself, in this case Christmas.


In The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton’s deliciously dark Christmas cartoon, Santa is kidnapped by Halloween’s Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, and all hell breaks loose. Order is only restored when Santa is freed and able to brings gifts to all.

Christmas is a time when the forces of chaos and darkness are beaten by the simplest of things – love and kindness. That’s the revolutionary message of Christmas and the movies which celebrate Christmas.

Gremlins is a study in chaos. Home Alone is one long chaotic slap-stick routine. As with The Nightmare Before Christmas, the forces of chaos come in from outside – this time the two hapless robbers played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern – threaten Christmas itself and are finally defeated, so that we can all return to eggnog and loving each other. In The Santa Clause, Father Christmas dies, and chaos erupts until Tim Allen truly becomes the new Santa.

Die Hard is basically a fairytale – the handsome prince has to save the damsel in the tower – and fairytales are driven by chaos. Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman with scenery-chewing brilliance, is the force of chaos come to destroy Christmas. Once Gruber is defeated, the lovers are reunited and up comes the title music, Let It Snow.


Speaking of music, Christmas films know that their principal purpose is to play with our emotions. If they don’t make us cry, they have to make us smile. And if you want to manipulate emotions then call in the string section.

When Judy Garland sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas in Meet Me in St Louis, it’s so heart-breaking even a stone would cry. When Bing Crosby sings White Christmas amid the ruins of World War Two in the film White Christmas, it’s impossible not to choke up a little thinking of all the men who’d never come home again to see their loved ones at Christmas time.

Songs bring out the beauty and silliness of Christmas like Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf singing It’s Cold Outside to Zooey Deschanel, or Bill Nighy’s over the hill rocker reprising Love Is All Around.

The best song ever in a Christmas movie? The end scene of Scrooged (for my money the greatest Christmas film ever made) where Bill Murray’s Frank Cross leads the audience in a rendition of Put A Little Love in Your Heart. It makes you smile, and it makes you cry at the same time – at least if you’re me.

Isn’t that what Christmas is about? We’ve all had a tough year. We’ve cried at times. We’ve failed at things. We’ve had regrets. But at heart, we’re essentially good. We just need reminded of our goodness sometimes – and when we remember that, at the end of the year, we can all smile, at least for one day.

As Frank Cross says: “For a couple of hours out of a whole year, we’re the people we always hoped we would be.”

We’re redeemed.