The Christmases of my childhood were a unique blend of idyllic nostalgia, split across the households, and the unique kind of dread that comes from having a parent who doesn’t really like the holidays but celebrates them anyway because society expects it. So there was usually a tree but it wasn’t put up until it had to be. We’d either celebrate in Oregon or Colorado where the rules varied on when presents were opened. The food was always plentiful but a little different depending on where we were. Some years there was more snow than others, and we’d be able to sled or make snowmen. The only constant between all the years of my childhood came in the films I watched over and over again, that made the holidays feel spirited, and brought the season to life in various ways.
There’s something magical, yet predictable about Christmas movies. Usually they’ll have some kind of family drama, a bit of Santa iconography, and more than a dash of that holiday fever. But by the end you should walk away feeling rejuvenated in some way, as if you understand the true meaning of Christmas and are now prepared to deal with every stress once again. Usually, they emphasize that the holiday isn’t about the food, the gifts, or the time off—it’s about spending time with our loved ones and appreciating what we already have, and I’ve always appreciated the following films.
I’ve decided to put them from least to most obscure because, as a Millennial, my childhood favorites might not have been universal (obviously).
5. Home Alone (1990) & Home Alone II: Lost in New York (1992). Not only are these films now thirty years old, but they’re still widely syndicated around the holidays. And, usually when someone asks what my favorite movie is, I’ll say these. And I mean movie in general—not just Christmas. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen them. I cried when my grandma accidentally taped over our copy of the sequel with her soap opera. I can quote literal scenes still today, and have pajamas and a sweater. It has a fantastic soundtrack, great humor, great heart, and nice acting. The essence of high class Christmas is both over the top, and just right for Hollywood. If you haven’t already seen these, where have you been?
4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). This was one of the few Christmas movies that my family tolerated each year. It was mostly due to Jim Carrey and the power of Dr. Seuss. The story itself is relatively timeless, and I still enjoy it to this day even though I’ve found different things to appreciate beyond the humor. The costumes and production are amazing, and who can forget the classic song “Where are You Christmas?” I do enjoy that this film and its general vibe has regained popularity with quarantine, because we’ve all been doing a lot of wallowing in self-pity and staring into the abyss. No matter how many times they remake the general story, it still works, but this one does have that unique Carrey mania and Ron Howard charm.
3. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (2000). Did you know there was a TV special based on the classic 1979 song? Well, I loved it and usually watched it multiple times a holiday season. Was it actually good? Very debatable. However, it takes the basic premise of the titular event and runs with it by throwing in a subplot about the grandson being too old to believe in Santa but still doing so and a lawsuit (so American). There are some catchy musical numbers I remember, and I always looked forward to it airing. I also like that they got the original artist of the song to voice the grandpa and the narrator so it felt organic. Honestly, in some ways, this movie feels like a fever dream. My mother did not look forward to this re-watching every year.
2. Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999). Based on the book of the same name, this 2-D computer-animated film was a favorite of mine because of the premise. A) It takes the popular song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and then spins a story on misheard lyrics B) The villain is a postal worker C) It involves an animal who wants to be a reindeer. Drew Barrymore voices Olive and does fantastic work, and the animation is unique compared to a lot of styles then and now. There’s a lot of random stuff in the plot, but it all works out in the end and it’s heartwarming and cute. I tried to watch this every year, and loved the music, the characters, and story. My mom didn’t mind this one so much—probably because of the voice cast.
1. Annabelle’s Wish (1997). I’m honestly surprised anytime anyone knows this movie, and I feel instant kinship with them. This was a direct-to-video movie that I watched every Christmas and sometimes randomly as a child; I often took it with us on our vacations so I could watch it. The movie follows Annabelle, a calf who wants to learn how to fly so she can become one of Santa’s reindeer. The plot also involves family drama, a mute child, and bullying—but it’s Annabelle’s connection with her human friend, Billy, that really shines through. There’s music, provided by Randy Travis, and it’s so, so country and corny but I loved it. As an adult, I realized some of the thematic elements of the movie were actually kind of dark or perhaps Christian-toned when I thought about them too deep, but that wasn’t on kid-me’s mind. I was just in it for the cow.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve added new favorites into the rotation and lost some to time. Eventually, maybe I’ll find new “childhood” favorites if and when I have my own kids, but, for now, I get to enjoy animated features on my own and experience wonder whenever I want. Plus, it isn’t hard to find the true meaning of Christmas—you just have to look away from the screen once in a while.