Spoiler Warning: There may be spoilers ahead for the titles on this list.
Tis the season to be jolly… and all that. There are some fun Christmas films and television specials, and with it being only four days till the big day, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites. I’m sure most will be familiar to you, but they’re all worth a watch at this time of year.
With all of the controversy around projects like Star Wars, it’s nice to kick back with an old favourite at this time of year. Some of the titles below are full-on guilty pleasures, the kind of film you’d never watch if it wasn’t Christmas-themed. But there’s nothing wrong with that every once in a while.
These titles are in no particular order, but it’s a list so I had to number them.
Number 1: Carols From King’s (Annual)
I’m by no means a religious person. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I set foot in a church. But when I was at school, every Christmas just before the end of term we all trooped down to the local church and attended a Christmas carol service. My English teacher would pick on a few of us every year to read aloud some kind of Christmassy poem or short section from a story, so every year while at school I got to take part. The only benefit was that we got to miss a few lessons in the run-up to the event, but that alone made it worthwhile.
Carols From Kings is basically the kind of Christmas carol service I remember from my schooldays – just much better quality(!) There’s a choir, and they sing a selection of Christmas carols interspersed with a few readings and churchy things. While the selection of carols varies somewhat year on year, most of the traditional English carols make an appearance, such as Once In Royal David’s City, or The First Nowell.
As a fan of Christmas music in general, Carols From Kings is a pleasant, calm television programme of the sort that I’d never be interested in at any other time of year. At the end of the day, all it really is is a church choir singing Christmas carols – but that’s okay. Of course if you just wanted to hear the music you could find 1,001 versions of all of these carols on any music streaming platform, but seeing it and knowing it was recorded live does make it a different experience, and focuses attention on the music and the event itself rather than letting the songs be background noise for whatever else you might be doing.
There are new editions of Carols From King’s recorded every year (or most years, at least). Several past years, including 2018, are available on YouTube at time of writing, and I believe the 2019 edition is to be broadcast on Christmas Eve here in the UK.
Number 2: The Polar Express (2004)
This film was a novel take on the “does Santa Claus exist?” theme that a lot of Christmas titles explore. Following a young boy who finds it hard to believe in Santa, The Polar Express takes the unnamed child on a whirlwind adventure to the North Pole, complete with snow, ice, and a weird train roof-riding hobo.
Notable at the time of its release for its CGI animation – which some critics called “creepy” due to its attempts at realism – the film has aged well and has rightly become a modern-day Christmas classic, one which is fun to return to year upon year. I’d especially recommend it for families – though with the caveat that very young children may find a few scenes frightening.
Tom Hanks is on form here, voicing several characters and giving each a unique sound. You might recognise him in the persona of the train’s conductor, such is the nature of semi-realistic CGI animation, but some great voice acting ensures his other characters are unrecognisable.
Trains – especially toy steam engines – have somewhat of an association with Christmas, so The Polar Express doesn’t come from nowhere. However, its unique approach to Christmas, Santa Claus, and the North Pole, as well as some comical moments, make for a fun modern Christmas film with heart. The message is that Santa is real, and for little ones wavering on that issue it might be a reassurance. And though it’s primarily a fun adventure for kids, there’s some entertainment for grown-ups to have here as well.
Number 3: Father Christmas (1991)
A semi-sequel to 1982’s The Snowman, Father Christmas sets out to answer a simple question: what does Santa do for the other 364 days of the year? Apparently the answer is that he takes a massive round-the-world holiday. And gets drunk.
As a kid, the scene where Father Christmas (as Santa is known in the UK) gets completely trashed and starts hallucinating/dreaming and throwing up was a really weird thing to witness. And that sequence may be why this animated short doesn’t seem to be readily available at the moment. It is, of course, online on various streaming sites – none of which I’d happily recommend, so take your own chances – but it is on DVD at least here in the UK.
Clocking in at only 25 minutes, it’s a bit steep to pay a lot of money for a copy, but it is a fun, wholly British, and entirely tongue-in-cheek look at Santa’s everyday life. For some reason he lives in a terraced house in the UK. And has a pet dog and cat. And his neighbours seem blissfully unaware of his true identity.
The animation style is, frankly, outdated. It’s very much a product of its time, with a particular hand-drawn style that may not be to everyone’s taste. And as mentioned, a few scenes may be offputting for sensitive young ones. But there is a bloomin’ great song (which you can almost certainly find on YouTube).
Number 4: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
I’m kidding – no one should watch this nonsense.
Thankfully non-canonical, the Star Wars Holiday Special takes classic characters from the original film and sets up the premise of Life Day – a celebration on Chewbacca’s home planet.
It has been rightly ridiculed for its bad script, bad effects, and for being an all-round failure.
It is, however, a wholly unique piece of television. Sometimes bad films make for entertaining viewing simply because of how bad they are, and if you have a few Star Wars-loving friends (and a healthy amount of alcohol or other substances) maybe this could be a fun romp for you.
And since this came out before Empire Strikes Back is is technically the first Star Wars sequel.
Still, it’s better than The Phantom Menace.
Real Number 4: Miracle on 34th Street (1947; 1994)
I actually had a hard time deciding which version of this Christmas classic to put on this list. The 1994 version is a rare example of a successful remake – thanks largely to the wonderful performance of the late Richard Attenborough.
I’m not a huge fan of black-and-white films in general. Not so much the lack of colour itself, but primarily because older films tend to be very dated in their effects, sets, and especially their acting style. I know that’s a horribly subjective statement, but as a very general rule I’d say most films (and TV series) prior to the mid-1960s don’t really work for me. The original Miracle on 34th Street was an exception, however. I actually saw the remake first, probably not long after it was released, and for years I wasn’t even aware there was an older version. When I did encounter it, I was initially put off by the black-and-white and the year it came out, but when I gave it a chance I found the same heartwarming tale underneath.
When a Thanksgiving parade needs a replacement Santa Claus, a man named Kris Kringle steps up – and claims to be the real deal. After being briefly institutionalised, a court case find that (for differing reasons in the two versions) they cannot prove he isn’t Santa – so therefore he can go free.
Actor Edmund Gwenn won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his role as Kris Kringle in the original film, and though his performance is in many ways iconic, Richard Attenborough took over the role for the 1994 version and also gave an incredible performance.
Number 5: Love Actually (2003)
So here’s a conundrum – is Love Actually a Christmas film, or is it a romantic comedy with a Christmas background? I can’t decide.
Some films seem to pick a Christmas setting and hope it will cover all manner of sins. Not so for Love Actually, because while Christmas serves as a backdrop for the film and the various sets of characters, it’s actually (pun intended) rather good.
Taking multiple plot threads and a huge cast of characters, the completely different stories slowly work their way together over the course of the film. And there are some wonderful performances in there, as well as some funny ones. Hugh Grant’s take on the British Prime Minister came mere months after then-PM Tony Blair took Britain controversially into the Iraq War. And the scene in which Grant’s character stands up to a rude, pushy American President (a pitch-perfect performance from Billy-Bob Thornton) was, in a very real sense, something that large sections of the country were looking for and responded to.
Alan Rickman also gives one of his best performances here, and his on-screen chemistry with Emma Thompson is part of what gives the film its heart.
I didn’t expect Love Actually to become as culturally significant as it is when I first saw it. I dismissed it as “just another rom com”, having seen Hugh Grant in what felt like several dozen similar pictures by that point. But, helped by its Christmas setting no doubt, Love Actually is another modern classic which I think families will enjoy at this time of year for a long time to come.
Number 6: A Christmas Carol (1999)
There are many adaptations of Charles Dickens’ famous novel – the book credited with bringing Christmas back into the popular imagination after a period in which it wasn’t widely celebrated. And many of those versions are good. Some are funny, some are animated, and some take great liberties with the source material. But if I had to pick just one adaptation, the 1999 made-for-TV version is my choice.
Starring Sir Patrick Stewart (hot off his role as Capt. Picard in Star Trek: Insurrection) this version of the story sticks fairly closely to the original novel. There’s nothing especially ground-breaking here, nothing that will change the way future adaptations are viewed. But as a pure adaptation of the novel, I don’t think the performances can be bettered.
Some of the effects, especially those for the ghosts, may look a little dated by now, but overall the film does a great job telling the classic story of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge as he learns to embrace the spirit of Christmas. I’m a big fan of Sir Patrick (as you probably know by now if you’re a regular around here) but his performance here is a great example of why. He carries this film all the way, appearing in practically every scene, and if you can get over the fact that he’s not Jean-Luc Picard and simply enjoy the story being presented, you’re in for a treat because his performance is incredible.
Some actors are inexorably linked to their most iconic roles, and if you’re a huge Star Trek fan perhaps this version will be jarring for you. But stick with it if you can, because in my opinion this is the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
Number 7: Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation (2009)
You might remember from the list of my top television series of the decade, but I’m a big fan of this Disney Channel animated series.
Christmas Vacation is actually one of the best episodes as well, a feature-length episode in which the evil Dr Doofenshmirtz builds a machine to make everyone in town naughty – thus cancelling Christmas. The boys manage to save the day, of course, and there’s plenty of mayhem and fun along the way.
The soundtrack to this special episode is great, too, featuring a couple of Christmas classics and a few original songs – including a Christmas-themed version of the show’s opening song.
If you’re a sucker for the “Christmas is in danger, then someone saves it” plot cliché – and I absolutely am – then this will be a fun time. Yes it’s a kids’ show, but Phineas and Ferb has always been a series that holds some appeal to adults too, so it’s not without merit here. It’s by no means an original premise, but it is a uniquely Phineas and Ferb take on that premise, and as a fan of the series it’s great to come back to this special at this time of year.
The soundtrack album (which also includes a few tracks from a couple of other holiday episodes) is also well worth a listen. Yes, I bought it.
Number 8: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Every family has different Christmas traditions, and these traditions vary an awful lot from country to country. It wasn’t until I spent a Christmas in the United States that I became aware of this charming stop-motion film, and I think from people I’ve spoken to that it doesn’t have as big of a following over here.
Despite first encountering Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer as an adult, I had a fun time with this film and enjoyed a look at another country’s idea of a Christmas classic. And a classic it certainly is – it was on TV dozens of times in the run-up to Christmas when I lived in the States, and almost everyone I spoke to reacted with incredulity when I said I’d never seen it.
It’s a re-telling of the Rudolph story with a few original characters that haven’t appeared elsewhere, like Yukon Cornelius, and Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist. After facing rejection, the characters run away together, only to be welcomed back after their adventures in a heartwarming tale of… bullies that decide to stop bullying? I guess.
Number 9: Delia’s Classic Christmas (2009)
I wanted to put at least one cookery programme on this list, because of all the various holidays and events throughout the year, none are so intrinsically linked to food as Christmas.
Delia Smith is the original British television cook, appearing on TV since at least the 1980s. Her 2009 outing – Delia’s Classic Christmas – is exactly what it sounds like. British Christmas classic dishes, presented in her trademark gentle style.
As a collection of classics, don’t expect much outside the mainstream of British cuisine. That’s actually what I like about this television special, because in many ways, Christmas is the one time of year where traditions dominate and it’s great to celebrate that. In this case, we’re talking about food traditions like roast turkey with all the trimmings. For my American readers, Turkey has been traditional Christmas fare in the UK for at least the last century. Though some families will still opt for ham or beef as their main meat of choice, turkey is still the king. And because we don’t have Thanksgiving, this is for most people their main turkey dinner of the season – possibly of the whole year.
But to get back to Delia’s Classic Christmas for a moment, Delia Smith’s style of presenting is just pleasant and enjoyable to watch. This is pure light entertainment at its festive best, and even if cookery shows wouldn’t normally be your thing, maybe you can make an exception at this time of year. It does wonders to get me excited for my Christmas dinner, anyway!
Number 10: Die Hard (1988)
I debated whether or not to put Die Hard on this list. Is it a Christmas film? Or is it an action film with a couple of Christmas references? That argument will rage on and on, I fear.
Christmas film or not though, Die Hard is a classic of the action genre. While its sequels haven’t really lived up to the original, that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment here. Bruce Willis is on form as action hero John McClane – trapped in a building under siege and where terrorists have taken hostages (including his wife), McClane slowly cuts his way through the terrorist troupe.
Alan Rickman features on this list for the second time, in his iconic role as terrorist leader Hans Gruber. Though protagonist and antagonist only meet at the film’s climax, their radio communication earlier in the story is fantastic and the way Willis and Rickman portray their characters’ hatred for one another in this limited format is really something to witness.
Die Hard could’ve ended up like so many other action films of its day – a fun but mediocre gun-fest. But there’s something about the two leads, perhaps aided by the Christmas backdrop, that elevates the title to something better.
Number 11: Jingle All The Way (1996)
In the entry above for the Star Wars Holiday Special, I mentioned that sometimes a bad film can be entertaining. And make no mistake, Jingle All The Way is, by practically every conceivable measure, a bad film.
It’s on this list purely as a guilty pleasure, and were it not for its Christmas theme it would probably be long-forgotten. In Jingle All The Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger (future Governor of California) has to get his son a must-have Christmas toy… but they’re all sold out. What follows is a slapstick comedy in which Arnie fights with another kid’s dad to find the last one on Christmas Eve.
It really is as bad as it sounds – Arnie’s acting has always been wooden at best, and this is certainly not his best performance by a long way. The premise is dumb, and the comedy is really quite stupid in parts, but what’s hiding just below the surface is a story worth telling – one of a family man recognising his flaws and trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. Christmas is both the setting and the driving force for the main story, but the idea of a family coming back together from the brink of falling apart is a timeless one in many ways, and one that epitomises Christmas.
Number 12: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (1989)
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire is actually the first ever episode of the long-running animated sitcom. And it is a classic in its own right, as Homer tries to turn his financial troubles into a successful family Christmas.
Much of what makes The Simpsons great is on display here. At the end of the day, the series has been so successful and lasted so long because it has heart. There are plenty of funny moments, but despite his failings, it’s easy to root for Homer. He’s a likeable protagonist in this episode.
Arguably this isn’t The Simpsons at its best, because the show probably took at least to the end of the first season to really hit its stride, but despite that, and despite the fact that many of what would become the show’s principal supporting cast aren’t present, it’s a solid episode.
And as a Christmas story, it’s oddly timeless. The down-on-his-luck dad, trying to hide his finances from his family and then having to get into deeper and deeper trouble to cover it up, all while trying to provide them with Christmas gifts is, in an unfortunate way, still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. While life has changed in many ways since The Simpsons premiered, there are still too many people who don’t have enough money at this time of year – or indeed all through the year. That sense of a real-world situation comes through, despite the fact that we’re looking at a cartoon, and I think that’s what makes it so relatable.
I couldn’t possibly cover every Christmas film or television special on this list. There are far too many, and there are some real classics that I’ve probably forgotten all about. Here are a few more that could’ve made this list, and are definitely worth a look.
Santa Claws (2014) – Not to be confused with the 1996 horror film of the same name, this family adventure sees a litter of kittens save the day and deliver Santa’s presents – after he has an allergic reaction to them.
The Snowman (1982) – The predecessor to the 1991 film Father Christmas listed above, this animated short sees a boy and his magical snowman go on an adventure.
Home Alone (1990) – A holiday classic. When a young boy is left behind by his family, he has to cope on his own while fending off burglars who want to rob his mansion.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – After losing his firm’s money, a desperate man contemplates taking his own life and wishes he was never born. His guardian angel shows him the effect his life has had on others.
The Flight Before Christmas (2008) – A reindeer who’s afraid of flying saves the day in this cute animated film.
Elf (2003) – A human raised by Santa’s elves at the North Pole travels back to the human world in this lighthearted comedy.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Is it a Halloween film or a Christmas film? Either way, this stop-motion film directed by Tim Burton has become a classic.
The Morecambe and Wise Show Christmas Specials (1968-83) – For well over a decade in the late 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, these variety shows by a comedy duo were the most-watched thing on British television on Christmas Day.
The Nativity Story (2006) – Future Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac features as Jesus’ father Joseph in this re-telling of the Biblical story.
So that’s it. A few Christmas specials and films to get us all in the holiday mood now that we’re on the home stretch. Only four days left and then it’ll all be over for another year!
I hope you all have a Merry Christmas!
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studios, networks, and/or distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.