Classic film buffs who celebrate the holiday generally have their favourite Yuletide films. These are films they watch every single holiday season without fail, films that make the season feel more like Christmas. At the same time, however, there are those films that are often shown this time of year that leave at least some classic film buffs scratching their heads and saying, "Why did they show that? That's not a Christmas movie!" I know it happened to me a few Christmases ago, when TCM showed both Little Women (1949) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) on Christmas Day.
Certainly what is considered a Christmas movie will vary from classic film fan to classic film fan, but for me it comes down to a few things. First, most of the film must be set at Christmas. The final scene in the classic spy spoof The President's Analyst (1967) is set at Christmastime, but given the majority of the film is set earlier in the year, it hardly qualifies as a Christmas movie. Second, Christmas must have a significant impact on the plot of the film. The classic Ocean's 11 (1960) starts around Christmas, but the holiday has no real impact on the film's plot (although New Year's Eve does). I would then say this disqualifies Ocean's 11 as a Christmas movie. Third the film must have strong themes related to the holidays. This is true of the most famous Christmas movies of them all. It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and so on all have this in common.
Now I have to say that films do not have to meet all of these criteria to be Christmas films. If they meet only one that is fine by me. That having been said, there are films shown this time of year that I would not consider Christmas films because they meet none of these criteria. While I love the aforementioned Meet Me in St. Louis, I do not consider it a Christmas film because of this. The film has does have a sequence set at Christmas (featuring the classic song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", no less), but it is only one sequence in a plot that stretches out over several months. Indeed, Meet Me in St. Louis also has a sequence set at Halloween (which I think may actually be longer than the Christmas sequence), but I don't consider it a Halloween movie either. While Christmas does have a significant impact on the plot, that impact is no greater than the sequences in summer or at Halloween. In the end, I just can't see Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie. In fact, I prefer to watch it in the springtime!
Another film frequently shown this time of year that I love but I do not consider a Christmas film is Auntie Mame (1958). While there is a sequence set at Christmas, if anything Christmastime plays an even less important role in Auntie Mame than it does in Meet Me in St. Louis. It is only a relatively brief sequence set in a plot that spans literally years. For me, then, Auntie Mame is something like The President's Analyst. A few scenes at Christmas does not make it a Christmas film.
Of course, earlier I mentioned Little Women (1949). It seems as if both it and the 1933 version are shown frequently this time of year and I have never quite understood why. Like Meet Me in St. Louis both versions of Little Women have scenes set at Christmastime, but they are only a small part of a plot that is set over an extended period of time. What is more, in both versions of Little Women I would have to say that Christmastime is even less important to the plot than other times of the year. Keeping in mind that, unlike Meet Me in St. Louis and Auntie Mame, I have no real love for Little Women. I find both versions exceedingly depressing to the point that they would not be suitable for holiday viewing even if Christmas played a bigger role in the films!
At least Meet Me in St. Louis, Auntie Mame, and Little Women have scenes set at Christmastime. This is not true of one film that is frequently shown this time of year, The Sound of Music. Indeed, not only are there no scenes set at Christmas, the holiday is not even mentioned in the film! It isn't even mentioned in any of the songs, which brings up the mystery of why "My Favourite Things" is played so often this time of year as well. Granted, I never cared for The Sound of Music (although I love the songs and Eleanor Parker), but even if I did I would not consider it a Christmas movie, nor would I consider "My Favourite Things" a Christmas song!
Of course, while there are films that are shown frequently this time of year that I do not consider Christmas movies, there are also films I do consider Christmas movies that are not often shown this time of year for whatever reason. Indeed, one of them numbers among my top five films of all time, The Apartment. The Apartment is certainly set during the holidays. It takes place over a period spanning from a little bit before Thanksgiving (or at least that's the impression I always had) to New Year's Eve. What is more, Christmas Day plays a very important role in the plot. Quite simply, the plot of The Apartment probably would not work (or at least it would be very different) if it was set at any other time of year. What is more, The Apartment touches upon themes of redemption that are very much in keeping with both Christmas and New Year's. Sadly, despite all this, it seems to me that The Apartment is rarely mentioned as a Christmas movie or shown during the holiday season very often.
Another film that qualifies as a Christmas film in my mind might surprise some readers. Quite simply, even though I first saw it in the summer, I've always thought of Die Hard (1988) as a Christmas movie. What does an action film about a New York cop fighting terrorists in a skyscraper have to do with Christmas? First, the entire film is set on Christmas Eve. This already makes it more of a Christmas movie than Meet Me in St. Louis, Auntie Mame, and Little Women. Second, the terrorists seized the Nakatomi Plaza building just as a Christmas party was taking place, complete with Christmas music and a gigantic Christmas tree. Third, the film deals with themes of reconciliation and redemption fitting the holiday. I suspect the only reason that Die Hard is not generally thought of as a Christmas movie is that it an action movie and hence not exactly a traditional Christmas movie. Regardless, using my criteria above, it certainly qualifies as a Christmas movie.
I realise from my perspective that Die Hard is a Christmas movie and Meet Me in St. Louis is not that some might question my criteria for what is a Christmas movie. That having been said, to me a Christmas movie is one that makes one feel the Yuletide spirit, and for a film to do that for me it must meet some of those criteria for the entirety of the film. While Meet Me in St. Louis might make me feel the Yuletide spirit during the Christmas sequence, it doesn't during the rest of the film. Die Hard actually does succeed for me on that account.
Of course, in the end what is and is not a Christmas movie is entirely subjective. In the end, as I said, a Christmas movie is ultimately one that makes one feel the Yuletide spirit. For me it takes the criteria I mentioned. For others it might be as enough for a short sequence in which Judy Garland sings a classic Christmas song. While the holidays are an event celebrated by people at large, they are also highly personal. And while Yuletide celebrations vary from family to family, I suppose so too do what people think of as Christmas movies.