’Tis the season for a million Christmas movies, new and old. Whether you’re taking a chance on something new, like The Holdovers or Candy Cane Lane, or revisiting a classic, like It’s a Wonderful Life or Elf, there are so many options, but most Christmas movies seem to fall into two categories: the silly ones and the serious ones.
Is it the silly, lighthearted tales of childhood wonder that really capture the holiday spirit? Or the more melancholy and somber reflections on the meaning of the season that shine brightest? We’re pitting them head-to-head in some very Christmas categories — decorations, dinner, desserts, presents, and magic! — and deciding which type of movie does it better.
All Christmas movies have some level of decorations. In a sad movie, this can be a pathetic tree or an empty stocking. But the silly movies often really play up the decorations, to the point where they can be big, driving elements of the plot. Street-wide decorating competitions! Extravagant trees that are actually full of squirrels! Falling off the roof while stringing up lights, over and over again! Blinding lights! Decorations just lend themselves to shenanigans.
Winner: Silly movies!
Christmas dinner is usually featured in silly movies, often surrounded by hilarious antics, like Jamie Lee Curtis’ Nora Krank feuding with a rival shopper over a honey-baked ham in Christmas with the Kranks or the Griswolds’ elderly and confused Aunt Ruth reciting the Pledge of Allegiance instead of grace in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
But the lonely Christmas dinner is a quintessential part of melancholy Christmas movies. Characters look wistfully through windows at feasts they weren’t invited to, or scrap together a minimal meal because they’re down on their luck. The unlikely trio at the center of The Holdovers manages to enjoy a pretty lovely Christmas dinner, even when they’re navigating 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 hijinks.
Winner: Serious movies!
I had to separate these categories, because for whatever reason, silly Christmas movies swing harder in highlighting the sweet treats. You’ll find brief mentions of them in serious movies, but silly movies are all about gleeful childhood joy — and sweet treats are largely part of that.
These delicious sugary concoctions are often so over-the-top and so specific that they linger in the mind for years to come, like Buddy the Elf’s alarming spaghetti-and-candy conglomeration in Elf, the cocoa and cookie dispenser in The Santa Clause, and the extravagant sundae that Kevin makes in Home Alone 2.
Winner: Silly movies!
Much like the Christmas dinner, the Christmas present often takes on a deeper meaning in a serious movie. We can go back to O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and its many, many, many iterations for this one. Gifts hit harder when the stakes are higher!
Verdict: Serious movies!
At first glance, it seems like silly Christmas movies would have the most actual magic — how else could Santa Claus be real? But actually, a lot of more melancholy holiday movies use magic to force protagonists to confront their lives and faults. Charles Dickens set the precedent back in 1843 when ghosts first came to haunt Scrooge on Christmas Eve, and movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and the totally underrated The Family Man have followed in its footsteps ever since.
But how can we deny the sheer joy of seeing Santa’s workshop, even across many different movies? Or the moment in Elf where everyone just believes a little harder in Santa Claus and the sleigh flies a little higher? Christmas magic is the true equalizer!
Verdict: It’s a tie! Turns out, every Christmas movie can use a little Christmas magic.
The reason for the season
Here’s the reality, though: The best Christmas movies blur the lines. All versions of A Christmas Carol are inherently melancholy — and that includes the seemingly silly ones starring Disney characters, Muppets, and Barbie. The Polar Express is a fantastical adventure about going to the North Pole in which Tom Hanks plays a million characters and there’s a whole song about hot chocolate, but it’s also pretty dang bittersweet, as the main young hero reflects on how everyone he knows slowly stops believing in Santa Claus. Love Actually is a fun romantic comedy, for the most part — except when Emma Thompson opens up that CD and everyone’s heart breaks as she tries to pull herself together to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
Expecting Christmas to be entirely joyful will inevitably lead to disappointment, while setting your standards super-duper low just lends itself to misery. It’s a time of year full of mixed emotions, especially for adults who can never quite recapture the magic of childhood Christmas mornings. The best silly Christmas movies will still be a little somber, while the best serious ones will contain moments of true Christmas joy.