Top Ten Theatrical Christmas Movies

Christmas is one of the richest seasons for storytellers and moviemakers. Hope, redemption, joy, regret, innocence and the loss thereof are all emotions and themes that have inspired these stories for centuries. Add to that the classic music of the season and some of these stories seem to write themselves.

Top 10 Criteria
Before I reveal my Top 10, let’s set a few ground rules. First, this is a list of movies, not television specials or holiday themed episodes of TV series. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by a so-called movie list that includes A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Second, to make this list the movie had to debut in a theater where people had to buy a ticket. No made-for-TV movies on this list.

And finally, these are films that have Christmas as a central theme or plot device. The fact that the story of a movie happens to take place on or around Christmas isn’t enough to get that title on my list. So you won’t see Die Hard here.

The Top 10

10. The Nativity Story (2006)
This is the only film to make our list that deals with the very first Christmas, a subject that curiously has not been explored very often in feature films. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Isaac as Joseph, The Nativity Story focuses on the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy and her journey with Joseph to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.

Castle-Hughes caused a minor scandal when she revealed during filming that she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. This is the first movie to premier at the Vatican. It opened in the U.S. on December 3, 2006.

9. Babes In Toyland or March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
Originally released in 1934 as Babes In Toyland, this Laurel and Hardy classic was reissued in 1950 as March of the Wooden Soldiers. While not one of the best films made by Laurel and Hardy, its holiday theme has made it a perennial favorite on TV between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Laurel and Hardy play Ollie Dee and Stanley Dum, employees in a toy factory who mistakenly take an order from Santa Claus for 100 wooden soldiers at six-feet high. The order was supposed to be 600 wooden soldiers at one-foot high. But the mistake saves the day as Silas Baranaby and his army of bogeymen attack Toyland. It opened in the U.S. on December 14, 1934.

8. Scrooge (1970)
Albert Finney plays the title role in this musical version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Sir Alec Guinness plays the ghost of Jacob Marley. It made its U.S. debut on November 5, 1970.

7. White Christmas (1954)
Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney star in this musical set in a struggling inn in Vermont. Crosby and Kaye’s old army commander operates the inn. White Christmas debuted on October 14, 1954.

6. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Another musical version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, this one stars Michael Caine as Scrooge. Kermit the Frog is his hapless employee, Bob Cratchit. The Great Gonzo, as Charles Dickens, tells the story. The Muppet Christmas Carol made its U.S. debut on December 11, 1992.

5. The Polar Express (2004)
The only animated film on our list, The Polar Express stars the voice and likeness of Tom Hanks in six roles, including Santa Claus. It’s the story of a young boy who is starting to question the existence of Santa Claus and the magical train ride he takes one Christmas Eve. The Polar Express had its general U.S. debut on November 10, 2004.

4. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn and a young Natalie Wood star in this classic. The movie opens on Thanksgiving at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Macy’s Santa turns up drunk, but luckily a bearded old man, Kris Kringle, with his own padding and Santa suit happens by to save the parade.

Things get complicated when Kris claims to be the real Santa Claus. He faces a sanity hearing that’s set to end on Christmas Eve, just in time for Kris to make his annual deliveries. One of only two Christmas movies to make the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Inspirational Movies of All Time (coming in at #9), Miracle on 34th Street debuted on May 4, 1947.

3. A Christmas Story (1983)
Starring Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, A Christmas Story has become a classic due in large part to its day-long exhibition every Christmas on cable TV. Based on the story by Jean Shepherd, who contributed on the screenplay, it’s the tale of a young boy’s quest to get an official Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, despite the belief by every adult in his life that he’ll shoot his eye out. It debuted on November 18, 1983.

2. A Christmas Carol (1951)

Charles Dicken’s classic story of redemption and hope has been adapted for film since the 1920s. The 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge is the best of them all. Released in the U.K. on Halloween 1951, A Christmas Carol made its U.S. debut on December 2, 1951.

The last scene from this movie (see the video above) contains a line by Scrooge that crystallizes how I often feel, especially at this time of year, when I consider the richness of the blessings God has so generously showered me with–“I don’t deserve to be so happy…but I can’t help it.”

1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)


Not an instant classic, the copyright on was actually allowed to lapse and it fell into the Public Domain in 1974. That meant that TV stations could air the movie for free, and it become a staple of holiday television marathons until Republic Pictures restored its copyright in 1993.

Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, described by his nemesis, Mr. Potter, as “a warped, frustrated, young man.” George comes to the end of his rope on Christmas Eve and is about to jump off a bridge so his family can collect on his $5,000 life insurance policy. Angel Second Class (A-S2) Clarence comes to the rescue and shows George how much poorer a place the world would have been if he had never been born.

It’s A Wonderful Life also stars Donna Reed with Lionel Barrymore as Potter. It was named #1 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Inspirational Movies of All Time. It debuted in New York City on December 20, 1946.

What’s On Your Top Ten?
I’d love to hear your comments on my Top 10 list.  You can leave a comment here, or on my Face Book page or the brand new Prevenings with Jerry & Shannon Face Book.  (There’s a link to it to the right of this post).  Whatever your favorite Christmas movie is, I hope you get a chance to watch it this season with family and friends.  Merry Christmas.

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