Holiday movies

The Great Holiday Debate: Are They Christmas Movies or Not?

The holidays are here. Cue the countless films focusing on Christmas. But just because one takes place on or around a major holiday, is that enough to call it a “Christmas movie?” 

What’s a Christmas movie? It’s a question that movie fans ask this time every year, often over 1988’s “Die Hard” starring Bruce Willis. According to IndieWire, Steven deSouza, the screenwriter of the action thriller, told CNN that he considers it a Christmas Movie. Willis himself has gone on record saying it isn’t.

As debates like the one over “Die Hard” keep coming back, we’re here to settle which of the following are Christmas movies and which are just, well, movies. 

Is it a Christmas Movie or Not? The Criteria

To be considered a holiday film, we assessed the seven movies in question on the following:

  • First Sign of Christmas: When and how Christmas comes into play to set the scene.
  • The Role of Christmas in the Story: How much the theme of Christmas contributes to the unfolding of the plot.
  • Classic Christmas Touches: If the film ties in holiday elements like Christmas music and references throughout to help tell the story.
  • Heartache vs. Heartwarming: How much the spirit of Christmas–themes like generosity, kindness, love, hope, and understanding–is reflected in the sentiment of the plot and its characters.

Before we say more, SPOILER ALERT.

Is “Die Hard” a Christmas Movie? 

First Sign of Christmas: Shortly after John McClane (Willis) arrives in Los Angeles, the audience is transported to his wife’s company holiday party at Nakatomi Plaza.

The Role of Christmas in the Story: It’s Christmas Eve, which seems a little late to throw a fancy office gathering. But the party gives McClane a definitive reason to “come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs” with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).

Classic Christmas Touches: The office is laced with all things Noel. Characters make festive references in dialogue and they hum yuletide tunes. As for the soundtrack, Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” Beethoven’s “9th Symphony Ode to Joy,” and “Let it Snow” are utilized to full effect.

Heartache vs. Heartwarming: Where there’s action, there’s blood, grizzly death scenes, and a barefoot John tearing up his feet walking on glass. However, there are heartwarming moments when McClane interacts with Holly and Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).

The Verdict: Could the story have taken place another time of the year? Not with the same impact.


Where to Stream: HBO Max and buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video

Is “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas” a Christmas Movie?

First Sign of Christmas: Around 13 minutes in, Jack “Pumpkin King” Skellington enters a forest and sees a tree with a Christmas Tree painted on it.

The Role of Christmas in the Story: Most of this reality occurs in Halloween Town but there are visits to Christmas Town which affect the entire movie.

Classic Christmas Touches: The main storyline revolves around Jack Skellington trying to appropriate Santa’s role. There’s plenty of festive representation, from reindeers and sleighs to gifts and stockings. 

Heartache vs. Heartwarming: It’s Tim Burton. So, again, darkness is the norm. In order to wrestle control of Christmas away from Santa Claus, Jack has him kidnapped. This gives the monstrous Oogie Boogie the chance to string Jolly Saint Nick up and torture him a little bit.

The Verdict: The animated movie musical was released two days before Halloween. While Christmas is a major player, the scares dominate making this a Halloween-centric vehicle.


Where to Stream: Disney+ and buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video

Is “Gremlins” a Christmas Movie?

First Sign of Christmas: Randall Peltzer wanders into a store in Chinatown to purchase a gift for his son: a little Mogwai.

The Role of Christmas in the Story: Without it, Randall wouldn’t have picked up Gizmo for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). And their good tidings wouldn’t have turned into madness and mayhem with rampant gremlins terrorizing the residents of Kingston Falls.

Classic Christmas Touches: “Deck the Halls” can be heard. The decorations in the Peltzer household act as props for both gremlins and the humans, namely, Christmas trees, cookies and Santa hats.

Heartache vs. Heartwarming: While the gremlins go pretty dark (and murderous), it’s all done in a really fun, humorous way.

The Verdict: Although the events of this holiday movie could play at any other time of the year, the stakes mean even more because it takes place during Christmastime.


Where to Stream: buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video 

Is “Lethal Weapon” a Christmas Movie?

First Sign of Christmas: “Jingle Bell Rock” plays over the opening credits.

The Role of Christmas in the Story: Detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) celebrates his 50th birthday just before the 25th of December. The buddy cop saga ends on Christmas day with Detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) attending the Murtaugh family dinner.

Classic Christmas Touches: Plenty of decorations and references to the holiday. Popular tunes “Jingle Bell Rock” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” bookend the movie. A Christmas edition of “Bugs Bunny” airs on Riggs’ television.

Heartache vs. Heartwarming: Riggs is in a very dark place. At the beginning of the movie he even tries to take his own life. Normally not something you’d expect to see from a Christmas film. There’s murder, violence, torture, and blood. But guess what? There’s also plenty of bonding, bromance, hilarious moments, and family goodness to balance the darkness.

The Verdict: Martin’s grief is more painful to witness because it’s Christmas. This makes Roger slowly bringing Martin into the Murtaugh family fold wonderfully uplifting.


Where to Stream: Hulu and buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video

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Is “Iron Man 3” a Christmas Movie? 

First Sign of Christmas: Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) in the lab testing out a new way to suit up Iron Man-style. He does this while dancing to “Jingle Bells.”

The Role of Christmas in the Story: The movie takes place around Christmas.

Classic Christmas Touches: Tony gifts Pepper with a gigantic stuffed bunny, which she’s not happy about. There are definite references to Christmas including the corrupt vice-president taking calls from his holiday party.

Heartache vs. Heartwarming: When a terrorist and an advanced form of genetic mutation are involved, things tend to go grim. Plus, themes of PTSD come into play as Stark struggles with anxiety and panic attacks caused by their recent catastrophic battle with the Chitauri.

Thankfully he’s good at making the darkness disperse with his wit, his money, and, of course, his heartwarming relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). When Stark crash lands in Tennessee, he meets young Harley Keener, who can banter as well as Tony can. This adds to the positive vibe of the film.

The Verdict: The seasonal touches are nice, but the plot could have happened any time of the year.


Where to Stream: Disney+ and buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video

Is “Batman Returns” A Christmas Movie? 

First Sign of Christmas: In the very first flashback sequence of this “Batman” sequel, there’s a Christmas tree in the home of who we soon learn are Penguin’s (Danny Devito) socialite parents.

The Role of Christmas in the Story: It doesn’t just take place during Gotham’s Christmas season, much of Tim Burton’s story revolves around related events.

Classic Christmas Touches: The residents gather around the town Christmas tree. When The Princess falls to her death, she lands on a gift near that tree. Business tycoon Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) is thought of as Gotham’s own Santa Claus when in reality he’s more like Ebenezer Scrooge.

An under-the-mistletoe kiss between Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) happens. Batman and Catwoman get their own mistletoe moment in dialogue form:

Batman: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”

Catwoman: “But a kiss can be deadlier if you mean it.”

Heartache vs. Heartwarming: “Batman Returns” is painted in Burton’s classic gothic style so everything is dark and looming. The characters feel very lonely which is even more pronounced since it’s the holidays. But this is a good-triumphs-over-evil story and Batman does just that.

The Verdict: Being set during the holiday season helps make this superhero drama a success.


Where to Stream: HBO Max and buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video

Is “You’ve Got Mail” a Christmas Movie? 

First Sign of Christmas: About 42 minutes in, corporate suit Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) utters “Happy Holidays.”’

The Role of Christmas in the Story: The timeline in this romantic comedy about two bookstore business rivals/online crushes starts in the fall, but eventually works its way to the holiday season.

Classic Christmas Touches: All sorts of festive touches and decorations line the streets, shops, and homes of New York City. One of Joe and Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) internet exchanges includes the duo talking about the holiday.

Heartache vs. Heartwarming: Kathleen and Joe represent the light and the dark. Their relationship is what makes or breaks this movie and, thankfully, Hanks and Ryan have a little history going for their third rom-com partnership.

The Verdict: Sure, Christmas is a component of the film. But it isn’t close to the main theme despite it being released a week before Dec. 25.


Where to Stream: HBO Max and buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video

After exploring the evidence, what’s your verdict? It’s a great debate, and there may never be a single definitive answer to the question “is it a Christmas movie or not?” At least now you’ll have some good ammo to bring to the debate table.  

*Program availability is subject to change, of course. A subscription and fee will be required to watch some of the networks and streaming platforms mentioned above. Network and streaming service availability will vary by geographical area.


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