Cinematic Chestnuts: My Favorite Films for the Holiday Season

LiW_Tree Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter.

In the United States, this week marks the beginning of a five-week-long revel of holidays that opens with Thanksgiving – a day set aside every year for feasting and a celebration of gratitude – and closes with the New Year.  In between will fall St. Nicholas Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Boxing Day (or St. Stephen’s Day), each of which can be rich with family traditions and history.

The cornucopia of dramatic material inherent in the winter holidays, coinciding as it has with the demand presented by generations of cold-weather filmgoers, has yielded a wealth of winter holiday films.

I offer for your enjoyment some of my family’s holiday season favorites, all of which I recommend highly.

Thanksgiving Films

There is no shortage of movies that explore emotional minefields vulnerable to exposure at family Thanksgiving dinners.

Here are two lighter offerings set in the days around Thanksgiving.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy
Synopsis: A wealthy businessman and a traveling salesman share a series of madcap adventures as each struggles to get home in time for Thanksgiving.
Recommended for: Hilarious pratfalls and excellent timing from two of the 1980s’ best film comedians punctuate an ultimately touching Thanksgiving story.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (language).


Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Stars: Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne
Synopsis: A department store Santa Claus claiming to be the real thing teaches a little girl, her divorced mother, and her mother’s young attorney suitor a lesson in faith.
Recommended for: The original film of Miracle on 34th Street is the best.  Edmund Gwenn steals the show as the enigmatic and avuncular Kris Kringle.
Appropriate for: All ages.


Christmas Films

I understand that while some of you who read this blog are Christian, others are non-Christians who celebrate Christmas, and still others do not celebrate Christmas at all.  With that in mind, I rated the religious content of each of the films listed below.

Many of the best Christmas films address the season’s important themes – hope, goodness, and generosity of spirit – without reference to religion.  Yet others are stories for which Christmas is an incidental frame of reference.

Here are several can’t-miss greats!

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry, Jane Merrow
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: A Christmas court in 1183 erupts into an extravaganza of power struggle and diplomatic wrangling among England’s King Henry II; his wife and sparring partner, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his three ambitious sons; and the young King of France.
Recommended for: One of the best screenplays of all time.  Phenomenal acting.  The finest balance of comedy and tragedy ever committed to film.
Appropriate for: High school-aged children and older.



Die Hard (1988)

Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: New York cop John McClane must save the day when a Los Angeles company Christmas Eve party becomes a lethal hostage situation.
Recommended for: Highly entertaining, nonstop action.  A very funny script.  Delightful, just-this-side-of-camp performance by Alan Rickman as the film’s arch-villain.
Appropriate for: This film should be a PG-13, because of some graphic violence, a brief few adult scenes, and rampant blue language.



Die Hard 2  (1990)

Stars: Bruce Willis, William Sadler, Fred Thompson, William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Franco Nero, and Dennis Franz
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: John McClane finds himself in a race to save passenger flights held hostage by a group of terrorists that seizes control of Dulles Airport on Christmas Eve.
Recommended for: A rare sequel that lives up to the standard set by the original film.  Another engaging and very clever action plot.  Amusingly tongue-in-cheek (although rather blue) screenplay. Impressive stunts.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (a great deal of violence and strong language).



A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Stars: Animation.
Religious Content: One character recites the Nativity verses from the Book of Luke (KJV) at a pivotal point in the story.
Synopsis: Perennial loser Charlie Brown searches for the true spirit of Christmas amidst a fog of secular commercialism.
Recommended for: This made-for-television classic never grows old.  It was groundbreaking in 1965 for its use of child voice-actors, its pioneering jazz score, and its direct invocation of a passage of the New Testament.
Appropriate for: All ages.



Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Stars: Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart
Religious Content: Minimal; some Christmas carols appear in the score.
Synopsis: The Christmas rush wreaks havoc on the personal lives of staff in a Budapest gift shop.  A Christmas spirit of patience, generosity, and forgiveness helps to set everything aright.
Recommended for: This heart-warming gem of a film is infused with gentle pre-War courtesy and innocence.  Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are terrific as star-crossed lovers courting by mail.  Frank Morgan is poignantly gruff as the lonely storeowner.  Felix Bressart plays the warm-hearted, sensible, behind-the-scenes hero whom anyone might want as an uncle.
Appropriate for: All ages.



Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sakall.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: A single career woman who impersonates a married domestic goddess for a magazine column finds herself in a bind when a war hero asks to spend Christmas in her home.
Recommended for: Very much a period piece, this film showcases the comedic talents of one of the 20th century’s best actresses, Barbara Stanwyck.  The lovable and always smiling S. Z. Sakall saves the day.
Appropriate for: All ages.



The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester.
Religious Content: A bishop’s crisis of faith is central to the story.
Synopsis: In the days before Christmas, an angel visits a harried Episcopalian bishop in order to restore the bishop’s faith and raise spirits in his congregation.
Recommended for: This is a beautiful movie.  Cary Grant delivers a subtle and poignant performance as an angel who has to give up the woman he loves.
Appropriate for: All ages.



Scrooge “A Christmas Carol” (1951)

Stars: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Kathleen Harrison, Jack Warner, Michael Hordern
Religious Content: Christmas is central to the story, but there are no overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: This outstanding version of Charles Dickens’ classic emphasizes character development and presents a tragically sympathetic Ebenezer Scrooge.
Recommended for: This is one of the two best film versions of A Christmas Carol.  I highly recommend it.
Appropriate for: The ghosts, and especially the ghost of Jacob Marley, might be too scary for young children.



A Christmas Carol (1984)

Stars: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, David Warner, Susannah York, Edward Woodward, Roger Rees, Michael Gough, Angela Pleasence
Religious Content: No overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: An excellent made-for-TV version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Recommended for: This version of Dickens’ classic is visually sumptuous.  The script and cast are strong.  George C. Scott was born to play Ebenezer Scrooge just as he was born to play General George S. Patton.
Appropriate for: The ghosts might be too scary for young children.



The Nutcracker (1977)

Stars: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Alexander Minz, the American Ballet Theatre
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: From her mysterious uncle, a young girl receives on Christmas Eve both a Nutcracker doll and a magical dream.
Recommended for: Mikhail Baryshnikov may be the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century.  His TV production of The Nutcracker with the American Ballet Theatre is a gorgeous masterpiece.
Appropriate for: All ages.



White Christmas (1954)

Stars: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Jagger.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: Two ex-army buddies take their successful musical revue to Vermont in an effort to save their former Commanding Officer’s hotel.
Recommended for: White Christmas showcases its cast’s tremendous singing, dancing, and comedic skills through a series of musical set pieces.  Danny Kaye is, as always, brilliant, warm-hearted, and hilarious.
Appropriate for: All ages.



A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1987)

Stars: Denholm Elliott, Mathonwy Reeves, Jesse McBrearty.
Religious Content: Minimal, beyond Christmas carols.
Synopsis: On Christmas Eve, a Welsh grandfather regales his grandson with stories of his early Christmases.
Recommended for: Deeply engaging, alternately poignant and humorous, this exquisite dramatic realization of Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem is a nostalgic celebration of Welshness and childhood.
Appropriate for: All ages.



Star in the Night (1945)

Stars: J. Carroll Naish, Donald Woods, Rosina Galli
Religious Content: This film is a clear allegory of the Nativity.
Synopsis: A mysterious stranger brings about a series of miraculous events on Christmas Eve at what had been a dismal desert motel.
Recommended for: This short (30-minute) film is a refreshing and touching reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.  The film is available among the Special Features on the DVD release of Christmas in Connecticut.  It is also available on YouTube (linked below).
Appropriate for: School-age children and above.




Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Stars: Robert Powell, Olivia Hussey, Anne Bancroft, James Earl Jones, Caludia Cardinale, Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, Valentina Cortese, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov, Ian McShane, James Farentino, Stacy Keach, Tony Lo Bianco, James Mason, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Quinn, Fernando Rey, Michael York, Cyril Cusack, Ian Bannen, and many more.

This spectacular six-hour TV miniseries is Franco Zeffirelli’s retelling of the life of Jesus, beginning with the betrothal of Mary and Joseph and ending with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Zeffirelli treated the material with great reverence and attention to detail – even thinking to have the village dogs bark at the Holy Ghost – and created an artistic triumph.

The cast is staggeringly good.  The script is spare and economical.  The narrative is well structured.  Details such as costumes and architecture are correct for the period.

Whether one views the miniseries as Biblical history or as a dramatization of a story which has been hugely important in the history of western civilization, Jesus of Nazareth is a compelling and high-quality piece of TV drama.

The Christmas story is presented in the series’ first seventy minutes with moving, rustic simplicity.  The stable is no more than a cave, and the shepherds are realistically ingenuous.

Because Zeffirelli freely depicts the New Testament stories’ violence (including the Slaughter of the Innocents), Jesus of Nazareth is not appropriate for young children.

The entire miniseries is available on YouTube.


Quote for Today

“What shall we hang — the holly, or each other?”

Christmas Eve 1183
Chinon Castle
Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Lion in Winter


4 thoughts on “Cinematic Chestnuts: My Favorite Films for the Holiday Season

  1. Nice assortment of classics for the holidays. I would add one to the list, based on a story written by one of my favorite authors, Jean Shepherd. I think it’s simply called “The Christmas Story.” Seems as if I’ve never watched it from beginning to end—-just have seen segments as I’ve tuned in at different times over the years. Happy Thanksgiving.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A few years ago, TCM rolled out a film that hadn’t been aired in years – Remember the Night. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and my favorite character actress, Beulah Bondi. Wonderful supporting performances, too. I’ve seen it several times since then (UW Cinematheque showed it on the big screen a couple years ago) and it’s become one I always watch for. (TCM is showing it again at 7 p.m. CST on December 4.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great list. Thanks, Cynthia! I’d like to recommend the movie “Mixed Nuts” (1994). Great cast… Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Rob Reiner, Rita Wilson, Adam Sandler. It even has Jon Stewart and Liev Schreiber before they were famous for anything else. It’s a fun movie, and watching it has become an annual tradition at my house.

    Liked by 1 person

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