Most people if asked to define what constitutes a holiday movie would probably define it as "any movie set at Christmas or any movie in which Christmas plays a pivotal role in the plot." On the surface this sounds like a very good definition. Indeed, I would be inclined to agree with it myself. The problem is that there are movies that fit this description that are not generally considered Christmas movies and ones that do not that are.
A perfect example of a holiday film that is not often counted among holiday films is Billy Wilder's classic The Apartment (1960). The movie takes place from about early November to New Year's Eve, thus encompassing the whole holiday season. What is more, both Christmas and New Year's Eve play pivotal roles in its plot; however, for whatever reason it is not often included in lists of holiday movies. Indeed, I have seen the movie shown in July nearly as often as in December. While I am not about to complain about The Apartment being shown all times of year (it is one of my favourite films), it seems to me that it should be counted as a holiday favourite in the same way that It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 24th Street (1947) are.
Another movie that has in the past been excluded from lists of holiday movies is Love Actually (2003). Like The Apartment its plot encompasses nearly the whole holiday. And like The Apartment Christmas plays a pivotal role in its plot. Despite this, the first time I ever saw the film was on the USA Network in July. That wasn't an isolated incident either, as I have seen it at other times of year. Here I want to stress I am not going to complain, as I love the film, but it seems to me it is an ideal movie for the holiday season. Fortunately, unlike The Apartment, I think Love Actually is becoming regarded as a holiday classic, even if TV stations and cable channels neglect to show it over the holidays. Quite simply, I know a good many people who watch it every Yuletide (myself included)!
Another film not often regarded as a holiday movie is Die Hard (1988). Die Hard is set during the holiday season and given that a Christmas party is taking place the holiday does play a role in its plot. In fact, it is hard picturing it set during any other time of year. While I know of many who regard The Apartment and Love Actually as holiday movies, I know very, very few people who regard Die Hard as such. I suspect it is because it is an action movie. The emphasis in Die Hard is not so much on holiday cheer as it is on action. Still, the fact remains that the movie does take place at Christmas and the holiday plays a role in its plot. For that matter, it does have subplots which fit the holiday (McClane's reconciliation with his wife, Powell's redemption).
While there are movies that are set at the holidays and in which the holidays are central to the plots that are not considered holiday movies, strangely enough there are movies that actually have little to do with Christmas beyond relatively few scenes that are considered such. Among these are Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). Indeed, Meet Me in St. Louis takes place from the summer of 1903 to the spring of 1904. The movie then touches upon several seasons besides Christmas. Admittedly, the climax is set at Christmas, but the holiday itself only has little bearing on the plot. For all extents and purposes the Christmas ball of the climax could have been set at spring or summer with very little change to the plot. In fact, it can be argued that Halloween played a more pivotal role in the movie! Now while the holiday standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was introduced in the film, that really does not seem to me to be enough to qualify it as a holiday movie. As much as I have always enjoyed Meet Me in St. Louis, I fail to see why it is shown so much in December. It could easily be shown in October or March as well.
Similar to Meet Me in St. Louis is a movie considered one of the Christmas movies, Holiday Inn. The plot of Holiday Inn unfolds over roughly two years and covers much more than just the Yuletide. Indeed, while Christmas does play a pivotal role in its plot, so do many other holidays (including Valentine's Day and the 4th of July). It would be hard to argue against the film being shown at Christmas, but at the same time it seems to me that it could be played at nearly any holiday. Indeed, I rather doubt it was the intention of Paramount to create a Christmas film with Holiday Inn. Despite its close connection to the holiday now, it was originally released in August! Regardless, one could argue that Holiday Inn is a film for all holidays, not just the holidays.
At least Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday Inn do touch upon Christmas. There is one film that at least the media connects to Christmas, if no one else does, that has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday. Every year ABC shows The Sound of Music (1965) on or around Christmas Eve and several channels have done so before it. Despite this, The Sound of Music has no scenes set at Christmas, Christmas does not play a pivotal role in the film, nor do I think Christmas is even mentioned in the movie! The airing of The Sound of Music at the holidays actually does irritate me, not simply because I dislike the movie, but because it seems to me that they should be showing something that has more bearing on the holiday. While Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday Inn only touch upon Christmas, I can appreciate why they are shown at this time of year. I cannot understand why The Sound of Music is shown. If one is going to show The Sound of Music on Christmas Eve, then why not The Ten Commandments or Mary Poppins or Gunga Din?! Heck, Alien has much to do with the holidays as The Sound of Music.
In the end I suppose what is a holiday movie for any given person is largely a matter of perception. Indeed, despite my words regarding Holiday Inn above, I do see it as a Christmas movie, thus violating my own definition of the term. If some do not consider The Apartment as a holiday film, then I assume it is because they do not perceive it as such. Of course, I am still puzzled to ABC and other television outlets considering The Sound of Music holiday fare, but then I also have trouble seeing "My Favourite Things" as a Christmas song too.... I suppose some things just defy explanation.