The Other Side of Christmas Classics

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Tonight is Christmas Eve! I hope your day’s going well and you’re in a festive mood. Personally, I’m looking forward to a candlelight church service, a traditional Italian dinner, and then watching each of my children open a single present as we plug in our tree, light a fire and snuggle on the couch. And if tradition holds, we’ll end the evening with a heartwarming Christmas movie.

In many homes, the Christmas season isn’t complete without certain holiday films. And while popping in a DVD may not have the spiritual significance of singing “Silent Night” or arranging a nativity scene, it’s a modern tradition just the same. Which is why it’s important to look beyond the warm themes and festive packaging to see what Hollywood is really saying about the reason for the season.

A favorite in our home is A Christmas Carol. My wife prefers the 1951 Alastair Sim version. I lean toward the Muppets. This year we watched the animated Disney adaptation starring Jim Carrey. In any case, Charles Dickens’ story is a cautionary tale of redemption … sort of. But something very important is missing from Ebenezer Scrooge’s dramatic change of heart and rescue from death into life: faith in the Christ of Christmas. Scrooge gets “saved,” as one film puts it, by deciding to be a better person. He promises to be more charitable in an attempt to make up for years of stinginess and cruelty. That’s admirable, but it fails to acknowledge the deeper issue of our sinful nature and need for the Savior.

Other holiday classics value childlike faith. But what’s the object of that faith? Miracle on 34th Street focuses on a skeptical little girl’s journey toward belief … in Santa Claus. In Elf, “belief” is the high-octane fuel that powers Santa’s sleigh. And this year’s Rise of the Guardians finds Santa and other icons of childhood (Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc.) weakened by unbelief, only to be restored to full strength once the world’s children overcome their doubts.

Similarly, in The Polar Express, a cynical boy has his faith in Santa restored by a magical train ride to the North Pole. Afterward, the conductor tells him, “One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.” In other words, have faith in something. It doesn’t matter what. However, we know from Scripture (Hebrews 12:2, Romans 3:22) that the object of our faith should be the Savior born on Christmas morn. No other train will do.

Meanwhile, who doesn’t love It’s a Wonderful Life? That inspirational story is brimming with charm and life lessons. Yet Frank Capra’s classic film says nothing of Jesus, and it stumbles in its depiction of angels. Via a heavenly servant out to earn his wings, the film suggests that people become angels when they die, a common misconception in our culture. In The Bishop’s Wife—remade in 1996 as The Preacher’s Wife—another once-mortal angel returns to earth on assignment, and soon decides he would rather be in love than in heaven.

I’m not suggesting that we cross these films off our Christmas lists. We should, however, be sensitive to the flawed philosophies in even the sweetest holiday movies, and be ready to discuss them with our children. Stories are powerful. They shape us. Maybe that’s why C.S. Lewis once said, “I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed.”

So if your plans tonight include a holiday film … enjoy! I’ll be right there with you. But while we’re at it, let’s create a new tradition of using feel-good Christmas films to celebrate the Savior and examine biblical truth together.

For free Christmas conversation starters, visit to download Movie Nights materials for It’s a Wonderful Life, The Preacher’s Wife and The Muppet Christmas Carol.