We all have our ways of celebrating the holidays. For many people it centers around the food, the gifts, and the celebrations, but for a lot of people out there, the holidays are also marked by the movies as well. Quite a few people make it a tradition to watch a specific film every year around Christmas that in many ways reflects the mood of the season. And most of the time, those movies end up being what you would expect. You’ve got your Miracle on 34th Street (1947), your Holiday Inn (1942), your The Santa Clause (1994), your Elf (2003) and you Polar Express (2004). These are all different types of movies from many different eras, but the one thing they all have in common is that the holidays are front and center in the story. But, among these, there is another film that has somehow worked it’s way into the conversation; 1988’s Die Hard. But, how is this Bruce Willis action thriller considered a holiday classic? The first thing you think about when you hear Die Hard is certainly not Santa Claus. And yet, there is a passionate contingent of people out there who will swear that their holidays are not complete until Hans Gruber falls from the top of Nakatomi Plaza Tower. It’s an unusual tradition to be sure, but one that’s becoming more frequent this time of year. Die Hard is part of a growing number of movies that have formed this alternative collection of holiday classics, becoming a sub genre of a sub genre. They are not all Die Hard-esque style movies, but rather films that don’t quite ring out as Christmas movies, until you dig a little deeper into their themes and find that the holidays are indeed part of their respective plots. This is also a growing category that does see resistance to more traditional holiday tastes, mainly because these types of movie redefine the definition of what a Christmas movie should be.
One of the things that people take issue with when they hear people classify movies like Die Hard as a Christmas film, is that it’s subverting the values of holiday themed entertainment. Some would claim that Christmas movies should be uplifting and positive in their themes, and putting an R-rated action movie in the same conversation is merely a rational to weaken the impact of the holiday season altogether. And while the argument can be made that adding any movie with a loose connection to Christmas to a list of holiday classics only weakens the classifications as a whole, I also think that a stringent guideline for what makes a Christmas movie shouldn’t be so specific either. Indeed, the most famous Christmas themed movies do have a certain character in common with each other, but as audiences have changed over the years, so have the films, and we find the things that people value about the holidays tend to be reflected within the movies of their time. That’s why whenever the conversation of what makes a Christmas movie comes up, there is often a generational divide. There is crossover, but in general, you’ll find that younger generations have a more loose sense of what composes a holiday classic. And, as time has turned tastes a bit more unconventional, the classification of holiday themes changes as well. Perhaps in response to the pervasiveness of classics from the past, a whole new generation of subversive Christmas movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), and Bad Santa (2003) have become part of the conversation. And with these, the idea that old definitions of Christmas favorites start to change, which gives way to the question of Die Hard being a part of the mix.
Now, to actually address the movie in question; is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not? My answer would be yes; in fact, much more so than you would think. The Christmas Eve setting of course is unquestionable, but that’s not the only thing. Honestly, the movie’s plot could have worked at any time of year, because there isn’t anything that says it must absolutely be Christmas time for this story to make sense. The fact that it incorporates Christmas themed elements into it’s story is an added bonus to everything else. You can’t help but love the way that Bruce Willis’ John McClane taunts the bad guys with Christmas puns as he dismantles their intricately laid out plan. The most famous example of this of course is when he sends the body of a slain terrorist down the elevator wearing a Santa hat and a blood inked message saying, “Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho.” But apart from that, the story itself also fits very well within other classic Christmas stories. McClane has a Scrooge-esque redemption arc throughout the movie, where he manages to reconnect with his estranged wife by means of proving himself through this trial of fire with a group of deadly foes, all while on a holiday trip from work. Sure, some of the thematic connections are a stretch, but you can see the deep influence that the Christmas setting has on the story. The movie is aware of it too, as the closing credits even begin with a classic rendition of “Let it Snow;” an ironic choice given the Los Angeles setting, where snow never falls. While the conversation of what makes an official Christmas movie or not hinges on Die Hard most of the time, you can’t argue too much that it shouldn’t be considered at all. There’s too many aesthetic and thematic elements that support it’s inclusion, but it certainly is a movie that opens the door to considering alternatives in the conversation.
What Die Hard brought to the genre of Christmas movies more than anything was the idea that a movie didn’t necessarily have to be about Christmas in order to be called a Christmas movie. In a sense, there could be movies that tackle all sorts of subjects that can be called a Christmas movie purely through the way it uses the setting and the iconography of the holiday. And in this subset, we find where the degrees of arguments split. Some people believe that one scene taking place at Christmas time does not a Christmas movie make. But, there are also Christmas movies that take place with the holiday continuously as a part of the backdrop, but are never the focus of the plot. Home Alone (1990) is a good example of this, given the near wall to wall Christmas iconography used in the movie. But, when you get down to it, the setting wasn’t really necessary to tell that story. You just needed a little kid left to fend off home invaders alone while his family is away. It could have just as well been set during summer vacation, but the Christmas setting obviously provided more possibilities for the filmmakers. You find little dispute towards Home Alone being considered a Christmas classic, but it’s justification falls pretty much within the same bounds as Die Hard, because the setting is just there as an added bonus for the plot. There are also some other Christmas movies that are not necessarily about the holiday, and where it holds little significance towards the overall story as well. One of the greatest depictions of Christmas festivities that I’ve ever seen on film is in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1982), but it only makes up the first half hour of a three hour epic and is largely inconsequential to what follows after. And yet, I fully agree that the movie is just as worthy a Christmas movie as anything else.
Some of these alternative Christmas films tend to fall into the category without intending to be that way. I’ve heard many arguments out there that Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is a Christmas movie. That seems at first to be a wild stretch, but the signs are there. The movie is set at Christmas time, and there are visual representations throughout the movie to remind you that the holiday is on everyone’s mind. But, at the same time, you can’t say that the movie has in it’s mind to be classified as a holiday classic in the same company as Miracle on 34th Street. That becomes abundantly clear once you get to the legendary orgy scene. And yet, people want to classify it as a movie within the same genre. My belief is that Kubrick never intended to have his movie become associated with the holiday, or any genre that pertains to it. His movie is an exploration of the desires that drive men and woman and how they push us into some dark and depraved areas. But, the Christmas setting does add some context to the turmoil of the characters. The holiday season often is a time of reflection, and of considering the things we value in our lives. It’s also a time where people become aware of the things that are lacking in their lives, and how that can be sometimes depressing. That is why I think Kubrick wanted to use Christmas as the backdrop of his movie, because at it’s center is a character (played by Tom Cruise) who loses his way in his relationship with his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) and takes a journey towards the edge to reflect on where his life has gone wrong. In a strange way, it has a lot in common with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in this regard, as the main character is driven towards desperation as his life crumbles during the festivities of the season. But, at the same time, Cruise’s character is no George Bailey, and Kubrick never intended him to be. The two movies share universal themes and a common Christmas setting, but are otherwise from different worlds. So, Eyes Wide Shut does have a case to make in the Christmas movie conversation, but it was an argument that I don’t think it’s creator ever thought was going to happen.
There are some filmmakers that work in a variety of genres that do make more overt gestures towards Christmas themes in their movies. In fact, one filmmaker not only uses Christmas intentionally in his movies, it has become his signature. That man is Shane Black, a legendary action film writer and director with a body of work spanning several decades and genres. Starting off as a screenwriter, Shane made a name for himself with the script for Lethal Weapon (1987), an action movie with Christmas elements that actually predates Die Hard. While his movies tend to use Christmas backdrops, they aren’t necessarily tied to the holiday itself. And yet, more than any filmmaker, he loves to incorporate it into the plot whenever he can. The introduction of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Weapon happens in a Christmas tree farm for example. And whether the story calls for it or not, Shane manages to find a way to work Christmas into it; something that even extends into his directorial efforts like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013) and The Nice Guys (2016). The only other thing his movies have in common with one another other than Christmas is the inclusion of a wise ass little kid tagging along with the often cynical main character, which shows just how much of an intentional cinematic choice the holiday is as a part of his body of work. One thing that I think Shane Black finds so appealing with this signature element is how it juxtaposes against the larger story he is trying to tell. One thing you’ll notice in his movies is that his movies aren’t just depicting Christmas time in general, they are depicting Christmas in a California setting. In many ways, Christmas time in LA has an innate artificiality to it, because it’s a city where there is never snow and Christmas trees have to be imported in, so Shane likes to spotlight the way that the holiday traditions clash with the reality of this Southwestern city, and there he finds a cinematic subtext to the stories he wants to tell, which tend to always have a dark sense of humor to them. So whether people want to see them as such or not, Shane Black absolutely insists on his movies being synonymous with the holidays.
So, you have to wonder, why is there so many arguments for an alternative class of holiday classics. I think the reaction to standards of tradition have something to do with that. People want Christmas tales that reflect how they feel about the holidays, and it often includes feelings of rejecting traditional standards. It is true that there has been something of a culture clash regarding the holiday of Christmas, and arguments on both sides tend to divide among the different movies that people choose to watch during the holiday season. Traditionalist tend to favor movies that have spiritual themes and treat the holiday with a sense of reverence, while others tend to value the movies that subvert the traditions of the holiday. There are movies that fall into common ground, and they are generally among the most beloved. But there are some movies that do gather a little too much one way or the other, and these are the films that essentially are considered to be the worst of the genre. The more traditional Christmas movies that are among the worst are the ones that immerse themselves so much in the Holiday spirit that it ends up ringing hollow and manipulative. You can especially find these kinds of movies playing nonstop around the holidays on the Hallmark Channel. I would also put Ron Howard’s misguided 2000 Grinch remake in this class as well. But, when a Christmas movie becomes too subversive, it has the same effect of being off-putting and disingenuous. Stuff like Surviving Christmas (2004) and Eight Crazy Nights (2002) think they are being clever in mocking or critiquing Christmas traditions, but it only ends up making those movies mean spirited and usually unpleasant to sit through. If anything, alternative Christmas movies do a great service to the genre of Holiday movies, because it allows for the holiday to be associated with better films. No one can doubt the enjoyment factor of Die Hard, so why not embrace it as a Christmas movie. It makes the holiday a whole lot more exciting.
Like all other genres, Holiday films are an evolving genre, and the definitions of it’s characteristics are continually being refined. But, we do know that many movies intentionally use the symbols, emotions, and aesthetics of the holiday season to add a little flavor to their movies, even to the point of making it essential to the story. It’s just interesting to see that so many movies of different types now fall under the banner of holiday fare. I’ve even seen the FreeForm channel play Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) as a part of their holiday marathon of movies. Yes, Christmas is depicted in that movie, but the plot spans a full year, and there is even a scene specifically tied to Halloween in there too. But, I guess I can’t argue with their choices either. There are so many movies that take on the spirit of Christmas, but often fall short, so it makes sense that so many people are embracing quality movies that only have a glancing connection with the holiday. Like I said before, one of my favorite Christmas scenes in a movie ever was in Fanny and Alexander, a film that in no way is about the holiday at all. I only take issue with there being extremes to the arguments of what makes Christmas movies. A Christmas movie, of course, must have something to connect it with the holiday in terms of aesthetics and at times themes as well, but it in no way has to be exclusively tied to them either. I often like how a movie sometimes decides to just use a Christmas setting for whatever reason, because it provides an interesting perspective that sheds a different light on the story otherwise. Somethings like Die Hard, or Batman Returns (1992), or Lethal Weapon are given a fresher bit of flavor once it uses the holidays as a part of their stories. So that’s why the question of whether or not Die Hard has earned it’s place as a Christmas classic is an essential one for the future of the genre as a whole. Christmas is a holiday that embraces more traditions, and if a gun-wielding New York cop is a part of that for that for you, than Merry Christmas and Yippy-ki-yay.