A Countdown to Christmas: 25 (+1) Must-Watch Holiday Movies

A Countdown to Christmas: 25 (+1) Must-Watch Holiday Movies

11 minute read

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! We asked the LitJoy staff to give us their must-watch holiday movies and what follows is the outcome. There are some traditional classics, rom-coms, and yes, even some that raise the age-old debate “is that really a Christmas movie?” but those are in part two.

So, grab a cup of eggnog and join us for a countdown to Christmas!

Classic Christmas

a black and white image of the Bailey family by a Christmas tree from the 1946 It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings!” And good ol’ Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody certainly deserves those wings after helping George Bailey, played by James Stewart, see just how much he means to everyone in Bedford Falls and especially at George’s father’s Building & Loan Company. Well, maybe everyone except Mr. Potter.

Fun fact: It's a Wonderful Life is based on the story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern published in 1943. And it still happens to be the most watched must-watch holiday movies of all time!

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Here’s to holiday sentimentality and a reason to keep believing in Santa Claus. Miracle on 34th Street is a classic, feel-good, delightfully charming movie that has been a yuletide staple for the whole family since 1947. The 1994 adaptation has also won the hearts of many with Mara Wilson, also known for playing the lead in Matilda, as the skeptical Susan Walker.

a black and white image of Kris Kringle and Susan Walker in the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street
characters from the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tv special

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

This 55-minute TV special has aired every Christmas since 1964 making it the longest running TV special in history! It is a timeless classic showing incredible artistry with its use of stop-motion animation and puppets. Johnny Marks’ music and the memorable voice of Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman make Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer a memorable hit with characters like Hermey, Yukon Cornelius, and the Abominable Snow Monster.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Another favorite family tradition is watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the many Peanuts specials that have found their way into our homes year after year. The television special first aired in 1965. The opening notes to "Christmas Time Is Here" and Charlie Brown working through his melancholy to understand the true meaning of Christmas get us every time.

Charlie Brown and Snoopy with the Charlie Brown Christmas tree representing the Charlie Brown Christmas special
cover of Frosty the Snowman television special on DVD

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerFrosty the Snowman was a Rankin/Bass production adapted by Romeo Muller, Jr. and won the hearts of families all over when it first aired in 1969. Frosty comes to life with iconic comedian Jimmy Durante as the special’s narrator. At only 25 minutes, this classic animated story about a magical snowman’s journey to the North Pole is an essential—and quick—holiday watch.

The Polar Express (2004)

Based on the 1985 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, the 2004 adaptation featuring Tom Hanks is both beautiful and magical. Watching this movie at home with loved ones every year reminds us of the spirit of the holiday season. The music is award-winning and the animation is surreal, inspiring viewers to keep believing in the magic of Christmas.

The Polar Express movie poster for must-watch holiday movies article
Klaus movie poster

Klaus (2019)

A Spanish-American animated Christmas film written and directed by Sergio Pablos, Klaus tells the tale of an unlikely friendship between a postman and a toymaker that eventually gives the world its legendary Santa Claus. With uniquely gorgeous animation, the movie is just a bit creepy, quite a bit funny, and absolutely heartwarming—an instant holiday classic.

Christmas in Whoville

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Theodor Geisel, the infamous Dr. Seuss, gave readers the beloved story of Cindy Lou Who down in Whoville and the Grinch born with a heart two sizes too small in 1957. Nine years later, an animated version found its way to television, and since then the Grinch is almost as iconic as Santa Claus himself! Since it’s short, we recommend watching it first before diving into a Grinch movie marathon.

the original Dr. Suess's Grinch television special advertisement
Jim Carrey as the Grinch

Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Forty-four years after the Grinch's first animated release, we got an updated Grinch adaptation with a backstory. Jim Carrey’s Grinch is everything you would expect the Grinch to be. This one may deviate from the original with darker undertones, but the Grinch charms his way into your hearts in this version once again.

The Grinch (2018)

With the 2018 version, the animation comes back but is much softer than either the original or the live-action version. Benedict Cumberbatch is quite good as the Grinch. This version is great for littles who may not be so keen on the darker Grinches of Christmases past.

Fun fact: This version of The Grinch is the #1 highest grossing of the must-watch holiday movies ever at $540 million!

2018 animated Grinch movie poster

Comedy Christmas

A Christmas Story movie poster

A Christmas Story (1983)

As a movie based on fictional childhood stories as told by radio personality Jean Shepherd there’s something relatable about A Christmas Story—a story of middle class families during the holidays told through the eyes of a nine-year-old who just wants a Red Ryder BB Gun. It’s realistic and sarcastic and funny because it could very well be true. Ralphie's friends were our friends; I mean can Flick really say no to the triple dog dare?

Fun fact: Shel Silverstein was the one who helped Shepherd turn these stories into a book called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash published in 1966.

Scrooged (1988)

There probably hasn’t been a story adapted as many times as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. While there are many spectacular adaptations out there (hello 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol), they all follow the original pretty closely. All except, Scrooged with Bill Murray as Frank Cross—a modern and much more cruel and soulless Ebenezer Scrooge.

The movie is quite dark and violent—even Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present with sparkles and sweetness gives Frank a swift kick between the legs and a punch to the face—but that’s exactly the appeal.

Scrooged movie poster
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation movie poster

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Filmmaker John Hughes is known for making memorable movies that define the 80s and he ends the decade with a memorable holiday must-see.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation brings our favorite dysfunctional family to the home of Ellen and Clark Griswold. Even Cousin Eddie shows up with his new RV home. There are too many favorite one-liners to name, but don’t doubt we say them as we watch every year. We also love Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the yuppy neighbor Margo Chester.

Home Alone (1, 2, & 3)

With the help of director Chris Columbus, Home Alone is holiday-movie excellence with perfectly placed slap-stick humor, just enough sentimentality with “Old Man” Marley, and a misunderstood kid with an unrealistic wish that comes true is actually relatable. Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister is magic on screen, and Catherine O’Hara with John Candy is a polka, polka, polka good time! We suggest watching the rest of the movie franchise because, why not?

Macauley Caulkin as Kevin McCallister in Home Alone 1
The Santa Clause movie poster with Tim Allen as Santa and Charlie Calvin

The Santa Clause (1, 2, & 3)

The entire world building of The Santa Clause movies is phenomenal! All of the specific attention to detail matters and even the secondary characters seem important, like Judy the Elf who spent 1,200 years perfecting her hot chocolate recipe.

Tim Allen went from Home Improvement's “Tim the Toolman Taylor” to Santa Claus quite seamlessly through his character Scott Calvin’s transformation and the help of Bernard, the number one elf in the North Pole. The rest of the movies in the franchise make for a great holiday movie marathon.

Elf (2003)

If you could contain childhood excitement for Christmas in one movie, Elf does it! Will Ferrell is perfect as Buddy the Elf who loves what he loves with unabashed enthusiasm. Buddy the Elf may be over the top, but the movie isn’t. His man-child naïveté is balanced with James Caan as his Scrooge-like human father and a bit of a Grinch for a department store manager.

Fun fact: Elf’s director Jon Favreau was inspired by A Christmas Story and Peter Billingsley (who played Ralphie) played Ming Ming one of Santa’s elves.

Buddy the Elf with his elf dad in Santa's workshop in the North Pole
Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen as Luther and Nora Krank in bathing suits from the movie Christmas with the Kranks

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)

Tim Allen is back on the Christmas movie must-see list! If you've seen Christmas with the Kranks I’m sure you’re already wondering how this movie is getting a mention as a must-see.

With a Rotten Tomatoes score of only 5% it is notably bad, but that is precisely why it became a Christmas tradition with the movie rolling in the background as the house is transformed into a Winter Wonderland. And Luther's Botox paralysis gets an actual LOL every year!

Interesting fact: it's based on John Grisham’s novel Skipping Christmas.

Christmas RomComs

Love Actually (2003)

Possibly the greatest movie about love of all time, Director Richard Curtis’s Love Actually has everything you could want—and probably more—in a Christmas time romantic comedy.

It acknowledges that there are many definitions of love: platonic, family, lost, young, romantic, dedicated, unrequited, and even guilty. It has a stellar cast: Laura Linney, Andrew Lincoln, Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Kiera Knightly, Thomas Sangster, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman.

It has a lobster in the school Nativity play, an epic airport chase, and so much more. Literally, what more could you want?

Love Actually movie poster
The Family Stone movie poster

The Family Stone (2005)

The Family Stone is uptown city slicker meets cozy, charming, and care-free New Englanders. This movie’s charm lies not necessarily in the plot, but in how absolutely hygge the whole feel is. The Stones’s house is a home you can get comfortable in.

You will want to be part of the rambunctious, multi-faceted, and caring family, put on cozy socks and a fluffy robe, play fun games, and look out at a snow-covered yard. It’s lived in and it feels like home.

The Holiday (2006)

Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, and Jack Black seem like an unlikely foursome in 2022. But in 2006, it was the perfect swap-houses-across-an-ocean-during-the-holidays matchup! Like The Family Stone, each of Iris's (Winslet) and Amanda’s (Diaz) homes are charming in their own ways—quaint in London & luxurious in L.A.

The idea that one could just swap houses for a couple of weeks on a whim is a magical fantasy everyone has. And randomly meeting the love of your life while on said unrealistic vacation? Well, it’s a dream come true!

The Holiday movie poster with Jack Black, Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, and Jude Law
Four Christmases movie poster with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon

Four Christmases (2008)

Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn are the ultimate humbugs and they are perfect for each other. Kate and Brad are both from dysfunctional, divorced families, hate the chaos of little kids, and are happily unmarried and in love. It only takes them surviving four family celebrations in one day—rather than the Fiji holiday they’d planned—to realize that getting married and having kids is exactly what they want after all.

Bonus: For Those Who Want More Haunts With Their Christmas Cheer

Krampus (2015)

We’ll leave you with the movie that will settle the great debate and appeal to the whole family’s needs for classic Christmas and something a little bit edgier. With a PG-13 rating, Krampus is only a moderately scary Christmas horror film that actually has deceptively wholesome values and a homicidal gingerbread man. What could be better?

Join us for Part two: The Great Debate: Christmas Movie or Not? For Us, It’s a Yes to see our other maybe questionable traditional holiday must-sees!

Krampus movie poster with Krampus front and center

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