Then there's Love Actually, which seems to be a very divisive "love it or hate it" experience for most. The debate over Love Actually reminded me that I've long sought to come up with what truly defines a Christmas movie, mostly because I want to broaden my prospects and add some rewatchable movies to my December repertoire. Somehow, though it's a decade old now, I hadn't seen Love Actually until about a week ago. And that's a shame, because it finally helped me define what makes a movie a Christmas movie.
Now, before I go on, a disclaimer. I may be about to tell you that I don't think your favorite Christmas movie is actually a Christmas movie. I've chosen Love Actually and Die Hard to illustrate my point because they couldn't be more different from one another. They aren't the only two, they're just perfect representatives. You should know, though, that whether I categorize a film as a Christmas movie has nothing to do with whether I think it's a worthwhile experience. I don't consider Love Actually a Christmas movie; I think it's more fitting to categorize it as a subpar romantic comedy full of terrible people who deserve neither a beautifully decorated tree nor love any time of the year. On the other hand, Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies ever made, and all the good guys in it deserve love and twinkling trees and the merriest of Christmases. But that isn't a Christmas movie either.
Anyway, the first point, about pattern-seeking, is really where this discussion blossoms. Pajiba.com offers a list of movies set during Christmas that aren't about Christmas, as does BuzzFeed. This establishes two categories to satisfy our need for compartmentalization: Christmas Movies and Movies Set During Christmas. Title case and bold to show we really mean business. That's a great first-step distinction. But I don't know if it quite works for every movie. Case in point: Home Alone. This is a movie that is not about Christmas, yet belongs in the Christmas Movie category. But why?
In true Christmas Movies, Christmas isn't just the setting, Christmas is a character, affecting the plot in important, unique ways. The plots of Die Hard and Love Actually don't require Christmas to happen, and neither does Home Alone. But Home Alone becomes fundamentally different without Christmas. Die Hard could just as easily be set on any old day and would still be just as awesome. Love Actually almost plays like Christmas was added in post. (A cynic might argue that it hides behind its status as a Christmas Movie so that fewer viewers take a hard look at how good it actually is. See what I did?)
Another thing: Who gets the urge to pop in Christmas Vacation on, say, a balmy summer evening after a pool-party barbecue in August? Crazy people, because that movie is specifically potent and watchable only as Christmas approaches. Die Hard (and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon, Edward Scissorhands, Gremlins, etc.), on the other hand? Timeless.
So we come to my realization, which popped in my head during Love Actually. When determining the difference between Christmas Movies and Movies Set During Christmas ... well, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said it best: "I know it when I see it." He, of course, was talking about hardcore pornography, but it's actually an apt comparison in many ways. Just because a movie features nudity and sex, even explicit sex, that doesn't make it pornography. Likewise, just because a movie features holiday cheer and Christmas, even explicit Christmas, that doesn't make it a Christmas Movie. To me.
The "I know it when I see it" explanation might sound like a cop out, but look at it like this: Christmas movies are in the eye of the beholder. OK, it's definitely a cop out. It's just that, what I learned from Love Actually (besides how terrible love apparently is) is that a Christmas Movie needs to make me feel a certain indescribable way during the holidays, plain and simple. There's no predefining it. And because the feelings I feel while watching are the best gauge, I have to allow that you and everyone else will know it when you see it too. So, if Die Hard makes you feel the holidays more intensely, I suppose that's a Christmas Movie to you. And if Love Actually is your favorite Christmas Movie, well, you're still wrong, sorry.
Now go curl up and watch whatever movie makes you happiest, fill your glass with whatever liquid enhances that experience most, and have a happy Christmas.