The 10 Greatest Holiday Films

You’ve seen them countless times. You have a fond history together. They never fail to lift your spirits or temper your nerves. And yet, you only bring them into your home once a year. We’re talking about holiday movies, of course, and anyone who claims not to have a favorite is either lying or named Ebenezer

Kindhearted and uplifting, holiday movies (the good ones, anyway) have an uncanny knack for capturing and kindling the warmth of the season. They remind us to be considerate and compassionate while showing us that even the iciest hearts (that includes you, Mr. Grinch!) melt under the shimmer of the season.

Inspired by these films’ universal allure, we couldn’t help but cobble together a list of our favorite holiday movies. So after much debate and some quibbling (keeping with the spirit of the season, we refrained from name-calling and hair-pulling), we give you the “10 Greatest Holiday Films of All Time”.  Pretty grandiose title, we agree. But something tells us that you, too, can’t resist these “reel” winners.

It's a Wonderful Life
A Christmas Story
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Miracle on 34 Street
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
A Year Without a Santa Claus
A Christmas Carol
White Christmas
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
The Bells of Saint Mary

1.  It's a Wonderful Life

Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers

Plot in 65 words or less: Upstanding small-town citizen George Baily contemplates suicide when the family business, a savings and loan association, hits hard times. To make matters worse, a greedy curmudgeon named Mr. Potter is looking to capitalize on George's misfortune and take over the town. An angel named Clarence comes to the rescue by showing George what life would have been like without him.

Most memorable moment: The film's final moments when George dashes joyfully through the snow-covered streets toward his home, professing along the way his unwavering love for the town and his cheerful neighbors.

Strange but true: The film was anything but an overnight success. In fact, it was a box-office bomb when first released in 1946. Not until the early 1970s, when PBS stations starting showing the saga of small-town hero George Baily in response to expensive network holiday specials, did the film secure an avid following and much-deserved praise.
Return to top

2.  A Christmas Story

Starring: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin

Plot in 65 words or less: Ralphie, a bespectacled blonde growing up in 1940s Indiana, yearns for the perfect Christmas gift: a Daisy Brand Red-Ryder BB Rifle. His parents and teacher don’t share his enthusiasm, reminding him incessantly that “you’ll shoot your eye out!” Determined, Ralphie takes his case to Santa Claus (well, at least an ill-tempered department store version), but soon realizes his town is abuzz with anti-BB gun sentiments.

Most Memorable Moment: Too many to choose from, but we can’t help but chuckle at the scene where one of Ralphie’s classmates is “Triple-Dog-Dared” to stick his tongue onto a frozen lamppost, and the fire department has to be called.

Strange but true: A wholesome, warming slice of 1940s Americana, “A Christmas Story was directed by Bob Clark, whose other big hit was the raunchy teen flick, “Porky’s”.

3.  A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Starring: Charles Schultz’s beloved Peanuts gang

Plot in 65 words or less: Poor Charlie Brown. Despite his best efforts to banish the commercialism of Christmas, the bald, bulbous-headed kid can’t compete with glittering lights and pink plastic Christmas trees. Even his attempts to buy a natural, if puny, tree are met with ridicule. Eventually, Charlie Brown’s rather hippy message of peace and love is heard, and the gang belts out a rousing version of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Most memorable moment: Stricken with a case of happy feet, the entire Peanuts gang is prone to spontaneous dancing spells, especially when Schroeder pounds out modern jazz numbers on his toy piano. Fred and Ginger they’re not, but you still can’t help but marvel at the moves of the Redheaded Girl with Naturally Curly Hair and the hopping, stringy-haired twin girls decked in purple jumpers.    

Strange but true: The longest-running cartoon special in television history, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was nearly canned days before its debut (Thursday, Dec. 9, 1965).  Nervous TV execs complained that it was “too religious” and “too melancholy” for primetime and criticized the special for using the voices of real children instead of adult actors.


4.  Miracle on
34th Street (1947)

Starring: Edmund Gwenn, Nathalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara and John Payne

Plot in 65 words or less: A white-bearded, red-cheeked gentleman named Kris Kringle is hired to play Santa at Macy's Department Store in New York. One catch: the lovable old coot believes he is Santa Claus. When Kris' sanity is questioned, leading to his firing from Macy's, a young lawyer sets out to prove to the courts (and the world) that Kris is indeed Santa Claus.

Most memorable moment: The final courtroom scene where the presiding judge—exhausted, confused and buried in an avalanche of letters to Santa—declares Kris the real Santa Claus.

Strange but true: Unlike many child stars, Nathalie Wood, who played skeptical lass Susan Walker in “Miracle on 34th Street,” went on to have a successful acting career as an adult. She starred alongside James Dean in the groundbreaking “Rebel Without a Cause” and played Maria in the musical smash “West Side Story.”

5.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Featuring the voices of Boris Karloff and June Foray

Plot in 65 words or less: Whether it’s because his shoes are too tight or his heart is three sizes too small, the grumpy Grinch loathes Christmas in this animated classic. In miserly fashion, he attempts to “keep Christmas from coming” by looting Who-Ville—home to the Whos, a short-in-stature, but large-in-love bunch—of its presents, decorations and food. What he can’t steal, however, is the Whos’ Christmas spirit.

Most memorable moment: The musical montage featuring the now-classic song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” During this sequence, the Grinch sews himself an ill-fitting Santa costume, fits his petite pooch with reindeer antlers and orchestrates an assault on unsuspecting Who-Ville.


Strange but true: June Foray, the voice of Cindy Lou Who, was also the voice of Rocky the flying squirrel and Natasha Fatale in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

6.  A Year Without A Santa Claus (1974)

Featuring the voices of Mickey Rooney and Shirley Knight

Plot in 65 words or less: Convinced that children no longer believe in him, Santa Claus decides to take the year off and cancel Christmas. Hoping to change the once-jolly man’s mind, Mrs. Clause sends two bumbling elves and a baby reindeer (Vixen) to find children who believe in Santa. But when Vixen is captured by the dog catcher and the elves can’t post bail, it’s Mrs. Claus to the rescue.

Most memorable moment: The quarreling Miser Brothers’ (Heat Miser and Cold Miser) over-the-top song-and-dance numbers. Just try to get these lyrics out of your head: “I’m mister green Christmas/ I’m mister sun/ I’m mister heat blister/ I’m mister hundred and one/ They call me Heat Miser/ What ever I touch/ Starts to melt in my clutch/ I’m too much.”

Strange but true: So popular are the Miser Brothers and their campy songs that legions of adoring fans have built Web sites and formed fan clubs in their honor. One toy company even bought the licensing rights to the bickering brothers and plans to produce action figures in their likeness sometime soon.
Return to top

7.  A Christmas Carol (1951)


Starring: Alastair Sim, Kathleen Harrison and Mervyn Johns

Plot in 65 words or less: Mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge, despite his enormous wealth, takes no pity on London’s poor and homeless—especially during Christmas. The crotchety curmudgeon is visited on Christmas Eve by four spirits who show him bleak episodes—past, present and future—from his miserable life. This drab flick turns sunny when Scrooge, realizing the error of his ways, renounces his old life and promises to be kind, generous.

Most memorable moment: Scrooge’s heartwarming, but not sappy, transformation into a caring, compassionate soul. The film concludes fittingly with the narrator joyfully exclaiming, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did all he promised, and infinitely more. And to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” And how.

Strange but true: There are more than 200 film and television adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” in circulation. While the 1951 black-and-white classic featuring Alastair Sim is generally regarded the best by purists, other depictions cast Scrooge as everything from an unscrupulous TV executive (Bill Murray in 1988’s “Scrooged) to a Western outlaw (Jack Palance in 1997’s made-for-TV “Ebenezer”).
Return to top

8.  White Christmas (1954)

Starring: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney

Plot in 65 words or less: Two army buddies turned entertainers pair up with a sister act in an attempt to reverse the fortunes of a struggling Vermont ski lodge that’s battling bankruptcy due to an unseasonably warm winter. A thin storyline at best, the film focuses more on lush sets, jaw-dropping dance sequences and a treasury of Irving Berlin classics—including “White Christmas” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Most memorable moment: The seamless blending of gravity-defying dance sequences with impossibly catchy melodies. One showstopper involves the enchanting Haynes sisters (Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney)—decked in sequin-studded, glacier blue snowflake suits—singing “Sisters” to mesmerized (gawking, really) onlookers.        

Strange but true: Contrary to popular belief, the song “White Christmas” did not make its debut in the film bearing the same name. Instead, the yuletide tune was first crooned by Bing Crosby in the 1942 seasonal classic, “Holiday Inn.”

9. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo and Juliette Lewis

Plot in 65 words or less: The disaster-prone Griswold family decides to throw an old-fashion holiday celebration, complete with quirky relatives, potent eggnog and 40,000-plus outdoor twinkle lights that make the Manhattan skyline look dim. Inevitably, things go wrong quickly for the ill-fated Griswolds, who see their tree torched, house trashed and Christmas turkey burned beyond recognition. Despite many more drawbacks, the Griswold clan somehow salvages their Christmas from complete ruin.

Most memorable moment: Clark Griswold’s discovery of a wayward squirrel nesting in the family Christmas tree. As if an unruly rodent running rampant through the house wasn’t bad enough, Cousin Eddy’s overstuffed dog (appropriately named “Snots” for his chronic sinus condition) joins the fracas and chases the uninvited four-legged guest from room to room. The end result: an escaped squirrel, a winded pooch, a destroyed home and heaps of hilarity.

Strange but true: Four National Lampoon’s Vacation movies have been made, and while each installment features the same parents (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo), the kids are always played by different actors. Suddenly “Bewitched’s” befuddling swapping of Darrins (Dick Sergeant replaced Dick York on the popular sit-com in 1969) doesn’t seem so odd.

10. The Bells of Saint Mary

Starring: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman and Henry Travers

Plot in 65 words or less: Father O’Malley is transferred to a poverty-stricken school run by Sister Benedict, a forward-thinking, kind-hearted nun battling tuberculosis. Her only hope, Father O’Malley tells her, is to check herself into a rehabilitation hospital. This means leaving her beloved school, something she’s not prepared to do. Father O’Malley and the good sister bicker over her stubbornness, ultimately forming a liking and mutual admiration for each other.

Most memorable moment: Ingrid Bergman’s luminous performance of a persistent but playful nun who bestows kindness and compassion on all of her students. In one touching scene, she overhears Father O’Malley comment that sometimes a man must fight his way though life. Her pitch-perfect response: “Why not make him think his way through instead?”

Strange but true: “The Bell’s of Saint Mary’s” is actually the sequel to 1944’s “Going My Way,” a film for which Bing Crosby won a Best Actor Oscar. Though wildly popular with fans, Crosby’s performance was panned by critics, especially after his surprising Oscar win. One critic went as far to say, “Crosby’s undernourished, laconic technique barely qualifies as acting.” Ouch.