I got a letter from 20-year-old Shawna, who is recovering from a case of COVID-19 that briefly landed her in the hospital. She is at home on the mend now, but remains stuck in bed for days, drinking gallons of her aunt’s chicken broth.
She wanted to know if I could recommend any Christmas movies to help pass the time.
The first thing to say, Shawna, is that I’m no expert. Most of my favorite movies are considered to be deader than ragtime. Secondly, I don’t have enough room to list them all here, but I’ll hit the big ones.
I begin with “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which debuted in 1965, and aired every year throughout many people’s childhoods. I’ve been watching this program since I wore rubber underpants and chewed on furniture.
Coincidentally, the Charlie Brown special almost didn’t air on TV this season after a streaming service bought the rights to the program. This would have been a tragedy.
Thankfully, PBS swooped in at the last minute and secured the rights to air the Charlie Brown special. I’ve never been so grateful to see a show saved from oblivion; the annual Peanuts broadcast was the apex of kid-dom.
Which reminds me, I don’t know how we did it back then, planning our lives around live network TV. It was a wholly different world before streaming services.
Instead of on-demand movies, for example, we had Mama. Mama would consult the newspaper broadcast-schedule with a ferocious eye, weeks in advance, scanning for television shows. Then she would plan our entire liturgical calendar year around “Facts of Life,” “The Love Boat,” and “Magnum P.I.”
Also, today you have the pause button, which has ruined everything. Long ago, back in the Middle Ages, nobody paused anything. People just let their bladders rupture.
We even used to watch the commercials. Like the one where Mister George Whipple, a perpetually frustrated supermarket manager warns TV moms about the hidden dangers associated with squeezing the Charmin.
Don’t forget to watch Irving Berlin’s 1954 classic “White Christmas.” An American standard. It’s staggering how many young people have not seen this movie. I read an article about a channel that almost scrapped the film because it claimed nobody watches it anymore.
This picture is an annual staple. My old man never missed a showing of “White Christmas.” And whenever micro-waisted Judy Haynes started tap dancing, my mother would look up from her knitting and say with disapproval, “It’s a wonder she can even sit down without breaking in two.”
I also love the many incarnations of Scrooge. It’s hard to beat the performance of George C. Scott. The musical version with Albert Finney isn’t bad, either. But if you ask me, 1951’s “Scrooge” is the winner.
I don’t want to forget to mention the holiday stop motion movies. My childhood would have been nothing without the Rankin/Bass animagic productions, which featured Rudolph, the Abominable Snowman, Yukon Cornelius, Kris Kringle, Burl Ives, and Hermey the Elf, whose passion for dentistry went on to inspire dozens.
But it was 1989’s “Prancer” which stole my heart and never gave it back. This is my movie.
Last Christmas I wrote a column about this film, proclaiming it to be, perhaps, my favorite. I was surprised how many felt the same. But I was equally surprised by emails from people who disagreed, saying it was a stupid movie. Well, in the spirit of holiday fairness, who’s to say those who disagree with me are wrong?
Me. That’s who. These people are wrong. “Prancer” is the perfect flick.
Still, the undisputed Christmas champ is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I love this movie for the same reasons everyone does: the story, the small town, Donna Reed, Henry Travers as the bumbling angel.
But I also like the movie because there are similarities between this film and the life of my late father. People used to say my father looked like a redheaded Jimmy Stewart. The older I get the more I see it. Also, my father was deaf in one ear, just like Stewart’s character.
I grew up watching this holiday gem every year on a wooden Zenith console with a funky picture and bent rabbit ears. And to this day, whenever the movie comes to the crying scene, where George Bailey starts weeping, it just rips me apart.
As it happens, Stewart’s famous crying scene was completely unscripted. Apparently, he had just arrived back in the U.S. after serving in World War II. When he was reciting his lines he had an unexpected breakdown on camera, but he somehow stayed in character. If this scene doesn’t touch your heart, check your wrist for a pulse.
I’m running out of room here, but there are more movies worth naming. “Miracle on 34th Street” is one. The black-and-white version, please.
And don’t leave out 1989’s “Christmas Vacation.” Cousin Eddie is the reason I get out of bed.
“We’re No Angels,” (1955) Bogart shows the world how to be cool.
“While You Were Sleeping” (1995) is one my wife and I watch each year. It’s sweet. I often cry and my wife makes her annual Yuletide remark about how I’m hormonal.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Not the newly computerized aberration. I mean the 1966 animated special with Boris Karloff.
You can keep your “Home Alone” movies, my mother would have swatted that kid’s hindparts halfway to Sunday school.
“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) is the definition of joy.
“Ernest Saves Christmas” (1988) deserves an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer.
And so do you, Shawna, for making it through this crummy year. Get well soon.
Penn Wells - December 15, 2020 6:52 am
I was thinking the other day I might see if I find Nicholas Cage in The Family Man sometime between now and Christmas. Just a thought…
And besides, it also has Tea Leoni 😎
Jayne Cash - December 15, 2020 10:05 am
Great list! I would add “It Happened on 5th Avenue,” “Going My Way,” and “Christmas in Connecticut.”. I also love “The Homecoming,” for which my family ridicules me. But, it reminds me of my childhood so I endure their comments for the sake of nostalgia. Merry Christmas!
Sherry Wheeler - December 15, 2020 11:26 am
Great article! You mentioned most of my favs! I would add the 1996 movie The Preachers Wife, with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington. It’s a remake of the 1947 The Bishop’s Wife, one to watch as well. Feel good Christmas stories! Merry Christmas Sean!
Kathy - December 15, 2020 11:40 am
The Year Without a Santa Claus! The Heat Miser and Cold Miser songs are classic. And there’s even a tear jerking rendition of Blue Christmas. They rarely show this anymore so I had to find a way to buy a copy to make sure my own kids (now in their twenties) didn’t miss out.
joan moore - December 15, 2020 12:00 pm
A good list, I will add “The Nativity Story” which is both down to earth and beautiful telling of Christ’s birth with a solid cast of international actors and a dash of humor to make the characters relatable. Also, for the Tom Hanks fans, “The Polar Express.”
Kathy - December 15, 2020 12:06 pm
Ooo, yes. Polar Express!
Grammy - December 15, 2020 12:10 pm
Sean, I love “While You Were Sleeping” too, and I often cry. And I am way past being hormonal. But you left out “A Christmas Story”! How can you forget Ralphie?!
Melissa Williams - December 15, 2020 12:12 pm
My favorite Christmas movie is The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. It’s a must see at our house every Christmas season!!
Steve - December 15, 2020 12:12 pm
Just watched ” Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause” now finally available on dvd. It’s about 30 yrs old, but has a number of great actors including Ed Asner, Richard Thomas, and Charles Bronson. I believe the best performances ever for all three. Try getting thru this one dry-eyed. This has been my #1 for some time!
Darren - December 15, 2020 12:15 pm
I’m kind of surprised you didn’t have A Christmas Story on your list. Lots of great choices but if you haven’t seen this one check it out.
Jean - December 15, 2020 12:20 pm
I loved Prancer. I keep looking for it to be shown again but so far havne’t found it. White Christmas is the tops for me..
Te Burt - December 15, 2020 1:16 pm
I always thought George c. Scott’s Christmas Carol was the best. I’ve seen every version (well, almost; some are just plain stupid), and I wait for that one to air each year. I’m always disapponted when they pick Bill Murray’s version. Or the original b/w version. Now that we have Hallmark Channel, we have Christmas movies all year. It’s definitely ruined the genre.
Bill Ledbetter - December 15, 2020 1:20 pm
How can you possibly list all these Christmas movies, and not even mention one of the best?l! “A Christmas Story” or better known as “You’ll shoot your eye out!” is a classic! It is watched every year at our home, and in millions of other homes. Check it out! You will love it!
Beverly Wynn Bua - December 15, 2020 1:36 pm
I love, love Christmas movies & will probably watch each & every one this season…,I always cry at some point in all of them, but, the one that makes me laugh is ELF, with Will Ferrell! 🥳he’s so silly!!
Wishing wonderful holiday to all this year. I’m almost 86 years young, so each season is special as it may be my last….. so ENJOY…
Sheila B Ahler - December 15, 2020 2:19 pm
You hit all the right notes – we share the same memories!
Christmas in Conn – my favorite – I have it on DVR and watch all year when I need a little reminder of happiness:)
Thanks for sharing my memories along with yours
Beryl - December 15, 2020 2:32 pm
I just watched POLAR EXPRESS last night, as I do each year. I love this movie and it always makes me cry. If someone gifted me a Christmas bell I think I would weep.
Lori Brown - December 15, 2020 2:49 pm
Holiday Inn, The Bells of St Mary’s, The Nativity, Love Actually, The Family Stone are also on my list. But my favorites??? White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life are the best!
Jefe - December 15, 2020 2:54 pm
C’mon everyone… A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote starring Geraldine Page? Perfection! Another one we watch every year….Remember the Night with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray…Heaven!
Dawn - December 15, 2020 3:06 pm
You sure did nail it with all the movies you listed here!! The comment on Judy Haynes, hilarious!! I always find myself starring abnormally long at that!! 😂. Such great memories of my mom checking out the TV guide as well!! I was just telling my husband the same thing about my mom and how each day when we got home from school what would be on that night. Such great memories!!
Phil (Brown Marlin) - December 15, 2020 3:08 pm
Thanks, Sean, for listing so many of these great Christmas productions. Like you, I have an industrial strength case of nostalgia. White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life are also my favorites. The only thing I regret from It’s a Wonderful Life is that the villain, Mr. Potter, does not get his “just desserts” at the end. Got to look for the Charlie Brown Christmas. Thanks for the tip on that one. Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation are my comedy favorites.
NancyB. - December 15, 2020 3:11 pm
If it’s in black and white and a Christmas movie, it’s on my list on “most loved movies.” However, most of all, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE “It’s A Wonderful Life!” Thanks to my DVD, I’ve been know to watch it in July when I’ve needed a pick-me-up. No matter when or where I watch it, I ALWAYS cry. Always! Last week I subbed for a local high school teacher and in her two Film classes, we watched “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I was there for the last 2/3 of the movie. (Didn’t matter. I knew exactly what had happened in the first third.) I told myself over and over “You are NOT going to cry. You are NOT going to cry!” And I hadn’t! It was nearly over, 5 minutes left, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself for not crying in front of the students. Then Harry comes into the living room, pushing through the crowd. Lots of slapping on the back stuff. Then he says what to me is the BEST line in the movie. “To George Bailey, the richest man in town!” I lost it! Tears are flowing. And of course as soon as the credits begin rolling, the designated “light switch student” turns on the lights. No hiding the tears running down my cheeks. “Miss B are you crying?” “You ok, Miss B?” Laughs. Snickers. Etc. I mean, they are, after all, high school students. Finally one of the girls said “Give her a minute. She told us she’d probably cry. She’s OK. Just give her a minute.” A foolproof method of classroom management–NOT! Sure, I’d seen it a hundred times before, but I still cried right there in class. It’s the best movie! Just so you know, they are not tears of sorrow. They are tears of compassion, happiness, and joy. Nothing sad about any of these Christmas movies. They are “pick-me-uppers” not “take-me-downers!” (I really like all the other ones mentioned by everyone also. And most of them make me cry!)
Jim Thomssen - December 15, 2020 3:23 pm
George C Scott as Scrooge – Best Christmas Movie EVER! “They did it all in one night….Well of course they can”
jondragonfly - December 15, 2020 3:32 pm
I’m with Grammy and Bill, one of my favorites is “A Christmas Story”. I read it originally in Playboy, of all places! (See, we did read the articles.)
Sharon Brock - December 15, 2020 4:27 pm
My grandteens love “Last Holiday” with L.L. Cool J and Queen Latifah, White Christmas, Grinch, National Lampoon Family Christmas, and Polar Express.
Sharon Brock - December 15, 2020 4:32 pm
Love that one as do my grandteens. Bought DVDs of all my favorites, just in case.
jnearen2013 - December 15, 2020 4:45 pm
Yes. Earnest Saves Christmas is clearly the best and deserving of all the awards you mention.
Jim Stephens - December 15, 2020 4:49 pm
Don’t forget Die Hard. One of my favorites ❤.
Jenny Young - December 15, 2020 4:58 pm
I agree with you except A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart is THE best version for sure!
And one you don’t mention, The Shop Around the Corner…an old black & white, 1940 with Jimmy Stewart…..is one of my all time favorites. Another mention…Courage Mountain…a sequel to Heidi, stars Juliette Caton & Charlie Sheen (1990) is super good.
kitkat6556 - December 15, 2020 4:59 pm
One of my favorites is The Bishops Wife. It’s a black and white and stars Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven. It’s not easy to find but I feel worth the time.
kitkat6556 - December 15, 2020 5:01 pm
My favorite too!! Many people haven’t heard of it. It’s not easy to find but do love Dudley the Angel!
H. J. Patterson - December 15, 2020 5:29 pm
Great list Sean and your first pick is one of my favorites but what makes it so good is the incredible music score written and performed by Vince Guaraldi. Being the piano player that you are, I’m sure you’d agree. Merry Christmas Sean and Jamie and Happy New Year.
Patricia Gibson - December 15, 2020 5:33 pm
Love all those movies! Just cried through It’s a Wonderful Life for the millionth time❤️❤️
Virginia Russell - December 15, 2020 5:37 pm
My vote’s for A Christmas Story “fragi lay—must be Italian” and “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Linda Douglas - December 15, 2020 5:40 pm
One of my favorites “A Christmas Memory”. It was is a short story written by Truman Capote. He narrates the made for TV movie.
Katrina Butler - December 15, 2020 5:44 pm
Little known much loved half hour story staring Jimmy Stewart. Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.
Linda Moon - December 15, 2020 6:08 pm
My guy and I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the old console TV recently. The black and white version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim as Scrooge is the 1951 winner for us, too. But enough about us. Shauna is the reason for your recommendations, Sean. Ragtime recovers every time I listen and dance to it, and recovery always leads to hope for Shauna and anyone who needs it. God Bless Us Everyone!
creativedolan - December 15, 2020 6:23 pm
Yes! Prancer is one of my favorite Christmas movies, but the movie that tops it for me is 1985’s “One Magic Christmas”. I’ll never forget Gideon the angel in that movie. I had my own kids (ages 8 and 5) watch that movie last year and they loved it as well.
Elizabeth - December 15, 2020 7:48 pm
We have “The Family Man” on DVD & just watched it the other night!
Bill - December 15, 2020 8:01 pm
Ah, Christmas movies…I like the Charlie Brown Christmas the best not only for the story it tells, but the great music performed and composed by Vince Guaraldi. We must be about the same age, plus or minus 10 years, because I remember all the movies you listed. Remember the parallel movie, Holiday Inn also with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. My wife and I just watched the Charlie Brown Christmas…many lessons there…
Vickie - December 15, 2020 10:32 pm
A must add to the list is “It Happened on Fifth Avenue”.
Christopher Spencer - December 15, 2020 11:31 pm
Sean I love all you listed but I also love both Home Alone movies. There are some valuable lessons in both movies about how we treat people we don’t really know and also finding help from unexpected sources.
Just my 2cents.
Becky - December 16, 2020 12:19 am
You have to include A Christmas Story. It doesn’t make me cry, but it has so many touching and funny moments. It’s great for both kids and grownups. Happy Christmas movie viewing!
firstname.lastname@example.org - December 16, 2020 1:11 am
No one has mentioned one of the greatest (short) Christmas stories of all time. If you have not seen please watch it. It is a classic. There are two versions. The Big Baby Jesus both presented on Dragnet. One was produced in 1957 and the second was a remake on 1968. Naturally Jack Webb plays Sgt. Joe Friday in both versions. Webb produced Dragnet under the his company MARK VII Ltd . The 1968 version features some of the original cast from 1957. The TV show is 30 minutes in length. The commercials are removed, thus it is about 25 minutes long. Enjoy…
Joann Thompson - December 16, 2020 1:37 am
My Christmas afternoon tradition is watching “A Christmas Story” while my husband takes a nap. I love Ralphie!
Marci Welker - December 16, 2020 2:28 am
All my favorites for the same reasons. I would add The Bishop’s Wife, Christmas in Connecticut, and Meet Me in St. Louis for sentimental classics. For a movie that makes me laugh at the same places every time I watch it, there is Elf. A Christmas Story brings back back memories of a Christmas spent in the area where the movie takes place. I was called a hillbilly and fortunately spent future childhood Christmases in Alabama.
Marci Welker - December 16, 2020 2:33 am
In my previous comment, I forgot to mention an all time favorite, The Shop Around the Corner, which also stars Jimmy Stewart.
Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - December 16, 2020 6:02 am
I love Christmas in Connecticut! I wish they would colorize it though. I like Miracle on 34th Street in color too. It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t my kind of movie. It’s depressing to me. The Santa Clause trilogy is good for me too but Christmas Vacation is my favorite. Thanks for the memories Sean!
Verna Montgomery - December 16, 2020 6:42 am
How about One magic Christmas!!!!!I Love them All Sean..
Debbie Taylor - December 20, 2020 1:38 am
Great movie reviews, in pure Sean style!
Julie - January 6, 2021 2:56 pm
Hands Down, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is NUMBER ONE‼️ Everybody Loves 🥜❤️