Tis the season for millions of Christmas movies, new and old. Whether you’re taking a chance on something new, like The inhibitions or Candy Cane Laneor revisiting a classic, such as It’s a wonderful life or Elfthere are so many options, but most Christmas movies seem to fall into two categories: the silly and the serious.
Do silly, light-hearted tales of childhood wonder really capture the holiday spirit? Or is it the more melancholy and dark musings on the meaning of the season that shine brightest? We’re pitting them against each other in some very Christmassy categories — decorations, dinner, desserts, gifts and magic! — and decide which type of film does it better.
All Christmas movies have some level of decoration. In a sad movie, it could be a pitiful tree or an empty sock. But silly movies often really play up the set pieces to the point where they can be big, driving plot elements. Street-wide decorating contests! Extravagant trees that are actually full of squirrels! Falling off the roof while stringing lights, over and over again! Dazzling lights! The decorations just lend themselves to trickery.
Winner: Stupid movies!
Image: Focus functions
Christmas dinner is usually featured in silly films, often surrounded by hilarious antics, such as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Nora Crank fighting with a rival shopper over a honey-roasted ham in Christmas with Krank or Griswold’s aged and bewildered Aunt Ruth recites the Pledge of Allegiance instead of grace in the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
But the lonely Christmas dinner is a typical part of melancholy Christmas movies. Characters stare thoughtfully out of windows at feasts they weren’t invited to, or ditch a minimal meal because they’re down on their luck. The incredible trio at the center of The inhibitions manage to enjoy a rather lovely Christmas dinner even as they deal with their own loneliness. Christmas dinner represents togetherness, and for most of these sad movies, that human connection is just out of reach.
Food tastes better when you want it more, after all, not when it’s served with a heaping side of toppings.
Winner: Serious movies!
Image: New Line Cinema
I had to separate these categories because for some reason silly Christmas movies have a harder time rocking the sweet treats. You’ll find a brief mention of them in serious films, but silly films are all about gleeful childish joy – and sweet treats are very much a part of that.
These deliciously sweet concoctions are often so over-the-top and so specific that they stick in the mind for years to come, like Buddy the Elf’s disturbing conglomeration of spaghetti and candy in Elfthe dispenser for cocoa and biscuits in Santa Clausand the extravagant weddings that Kevin makes Home alone 2.
Winner: Stupid movies!
Like Christmas dinner, the Christmas present often takes on a deeper meaning in the serious film. We can go back to O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi and his many, many, many iterations for this one. The gifts are stronger when the stakes are higher!
Verdict: Serious movies!
Image: Liberty Films
At first glance, it seems silly Christmas movies would have the most genuine magic – how else could Santa be real? But in fact, many more melancholic holiday movies use magic to force the main characters to confront their lives and their mistakes. Charles Dickens set the precedent in 1843 when ghosts first came to haunt Scrooge on Christmas Eve and films such as It’s a wonderful life and completely underrated The family man have followed in his footsteps ever since.
But how can we deny the sheer joy of seeing Santa’s workshop, even in many different movies? Or the moment in Elf where everyone just believes in Santa a little more and the sleigh flies a little higher? Christmas magic is the real equalizer!
Verdict: It’s a tie! It turns out that every Christmas movie could use a little Christmas magic.
The reason for the season
Image: Universal Pictures
Here’s the reality, though: the best Christmas movies blur the lines. All versions of Christmas song are inherently melancholic—and that includes the seemingly silly ones with Disney characters, Muppets, and Barbies. Polar Express is a fantasy adventure about a trip to the North Pole, in which Tom Hanks plays a zillion characters and has an entire song about hot chocolate, but it’s also quite bittersweet as the young protagonist reflects on how everyone he knows is slowly losing faith in Santa Christmas Claus. Real love is a fun romantic comedy for the most part – except when Emma Thompson opens this CD and everyone’s heart breaks as she tries to pull herself together to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’.
Expecting Christmas to be all joy will inevitably lead to disappointment, while setting your standards super-low will just lead to unhappiness. It’s a time of year filled with mixed emotions, especially for adults who can never quite capture the magic of childhood Christmas mornings. The best silly Christmas movies will still be a little dark, while the best serious ones will contain moments of genuine Christmas joy.