Hollywood loves Christmas. And why wouldn’t it? It’s right in the name. Holly is, like, a Christmas vegetable or something. You throw wood on your fire to roast your chestnuts. Sure, Southern California doesn’t look like your typical winter wonderland. But squint a little, and Hollywood’s scrubby hills and palm trees make parts of it look just a wee bit like Bethlehem.
OK, so the entertainment industry doesn’t typically doesn’t do much with Christ’s birth. But every once in a while, it offers us a bit of the Bible in its Christmas fare. And even when Christmas movies don’t dive into Scripture, they can still give families something they can all watch together. And that, my friends, is as rare as myrrh.
Don’t believe me? Why, just take a look at 10 of the best family Christmas movies ever—films that even an unreformed Scrooge might enjoy.
And we begin with …
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Bishop Henry Brougham needs to find the money to buy a new cathedral. He prays for guidance, and His prayers are answered in the form of a debonair angel named Dudley. But Dudley has more on his angelic mind than money: He wants to help those around him in other ways, too. Starring David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant, The Bishop’s Wife is a sweet, fun and surprisingly spiritual Christmas tale. And if the age of this ageless film scares you off, Denzel Washington offered his own, more contemporary take on the story in The Preacher’s Wife.
A Christmas Carol (1951)
Ever-so-many a movie has been made based on Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story. But this version—despite being practically as old as Marley itself—is still considered the definitive take. Starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, this 1951 cinematic version of A Christmas Carol (called Scrooge in its native Britain) hits all the beats and pulls all the heartstrings. And it’s one of the more accurate reimaginings of Dickens’ original novella, too.
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018, PG)
No, we’re not talking about the original TV special, though that’s pretty delightful. And we’re certainly not digging into the Jim Carrey 2000 abomination, where the toilet humor was three sizes too much. Rather, we’re talking about this oft-overlooked delight that sticks closer to the spirit (if not the word) of Dr. Seuss’ original story. And it even has some religious Christmas carols stirred into its wassail. If the black-and-whiteness of our first two entries on this list isn’t your thing, this Grinch is both contemporary and classic.
Elf (2003, PG)
Speaking of classics, this Will Ferrell flick has become one. Ferrell plays a human raised by elves.And not just any elves, but those who work with Santa up at the North Pole. When his character, Buddy, realizes that he’s (ahem) a bit different than his diminutive fellows, he decides to go on a quest to find his birth parents—which leads him to the bustling Big Apple. Both raucously funny and surprisingly heartfelt, Elf is required holiday viewing for many a family. If you’re unfamiliar with this one, you might want to check it out. (But, as with all these films, check our review first for a few content concerns we’ve noted there!)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Want to know what movie I watch, without fail, this time of year? This is it. James Stewart plays George Bailey, a desperate man who, on Christmas Eve, wonders if everyone would’ve been better off had he never been born. An angel named Clarence endeavors to answer that question. While it was a box-office disappointment upon its initial release, It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered not just one of the best Christmas movies, but one of the best films ever. Full stop.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020, PG)
We go from an all-time classic to a more modern movie you might’ve never heard of—but should. Forest Whitaker plays Jeronicus Jangle, an amazing-but-disgraced one-time toymaker who’s in a really bad place. And who should come to his rescue but Jeronicus’ delightful granddaughter, Journey—who sets off an adventure to make things right. Our reviewer Emily Clark said that “Jingle Jangle comes with a veritable sledful of positive messages,” and she’s not wrong: We even selected it as 2020’s “Best Movie for Kids” during our Plugged In Movie Awards. Need more? The film has an 89% “freshness” rating at Rotten Tomatoes. While largely overlooked at its release, Jingle Jangle may become a classic yet.
The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017, PG)
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the season’s most familiar stories. But the story of Charles Dickens himself? Not so much. This imaginative story takes us into the semi-real world experiences of Charles Dickens (who seems a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge at times himself). It speculates how he might’ve created his holiday classic—and how he forever changed how the Western world celebrates Christ’s birth. Starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens and the legendary Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fun, entertaining and surprisingly moving entry into the holiday canon.
A Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
What was it with 1947 and Christmas movies? Basically, three from that year land on our list (It’s a Wonderful Life was supposed to be released in 1947, but the studio pushed it out on Dec. 20, 1946 to be eligible for that year’s Academy Awards; it was released to the general public Jan. 7). The story focuses on a department-store Santa Claus who insists he’s the real McCoy—and who’s taken to court to prove his case. Part comedy, part legal thriller and all heart, Miracle is one of the season’s all-time classics.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, G)
Don’t laugh. Well, do laugh, actually—because this take on Dickens’ story just might be one of the funniest. Starring straight-faced Oscar winner Michael Caine and a whole bevy of familiar fuzzy faces, A Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie to be made following creator Jim Henson’s death. And some people rank it among the franchise’s very best. I know a family or two that bypasses It’s a Wonderful Life and Elf in favor of this seasonal gem.
The Nativity Story (2006, PG)
I’m not sure if we’ve yet seen a definitive cinematic treatment of Christ’s birth. But 2006’s The Nativity Story is about as close as we can get right now. This gritty look at Judea as it crossed over from B.C. to A.D. stars Keisha Castle-Hughes (fresh off an Oscar nomination for Whale Rider) as a teenage Mary, a pre-Star Wars Oscar Isaac as Joseph and Ciarán Hinds as a ruthless King Herod. It sticks close to the Scriptural script, too. If your family wants to watch a movie that shows, unambiguously, what the season is really about, give this a look.
There you are—10 classic movies that, if they’re not already in your family’s screening queue or DVD collection, might deserve some holiday attention. Now it’s your turn: What did we miss? What does your family love watching this time of year? Let us know below or on social media.