Watching Christmas films is a longstanding tradition for many Americans during the holiday season. Many viewers recall with nostalgia films they watched as children, such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), White Christmas (1954), Scrooged (1988), and Home Alone (1990).
The question of what films qualify as “Christmas films” provokes endless arguments – just look at any online discussion of Die Hard (1988). (For the record, the film’s co-writer declared it a Christmas film on the Script Away podcast.) Christmas films have never been a cohesive genre themselves. There are themes (love, generosity, kindness, philanthropy, all the wonderful emotive traits of the “Christmas spirit”) and tropes (a problem occurs that can only be solved on Christmas Day, or an unrequited love is requited under the mistletoe on Christmas Eve) that give the illusion of a cohesive genre, but “Christmas films” are best understood as a subgenre that is applied to other genres.
There are romantic comedies that occur at Christmas and therefore become Christmas romances, such as Love Actually (2003) or The Holiday (2006). There are horror films portraying darker Christmas mythologies such as Krampus (2015). There are action-Christmas movies, musical-Christmas movies, gangster-Christmas movies, and superhero-Christmas movies that collide in the public consciousness as a filmography of Christmas-adjacent films, but Christmas movies in fact encompass a mixture of genres that have changed along with the trajectory of Hollywood and American culture.
Christmas films have changed and evolved greatly over the last 75 years since It’s a Wonderful Life was released on December 20, 1946. They have adapted to changing political and cultural climates and enriched the subgenre so that now it offers so much variety to viewers. The nostalgia that viewers may experience owes to the 20th century American feel embedded in the films that captured the cultural moment of a particular decade.
This article series explores some of the cultural history behind American Christmas films that became iconic holiday favorites and continue to influence the production and reception of Christmas films three-quarters of a century later.
The Dickensian 1940s
Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life dominates the Christmas film category to this day. At the time of its release, the film had moderate success at the box office, but it did not become a holiday classic for many Americans until the late 20th century. In 1974, the film’s copyright lapsed and it entered the public domain, at which point television networks ran the film repeatedly, without having to pay royalties. This relentless saturation of the holiday season with It’s a Wonderful Life continued for nearly two decades, until 1993 when the original rights holder, Republic Pictures, won the right to royalties and signed an exclusive deal with NBC, allowing that network alone to broadcast the film twice a year.
It’s a Wonderful Life’s history of lapsed copyright, regular airing, and exclusive deals almost perfectly aligns with the film’s message of philanthropic collectivism within capitalism. The film centers on two bankers – George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) – in an American populist twist on the 1843 Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. While Dickens follows the story of the wealthy miser Ebenezer Scrooge experiencing a moralizing evening with three ghosts who show him that the value of life is not monetary, Capra’s American reimagining is told from the perspective of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s underpaid and underappreciated clerk.
Capra’s reinvention, which pits George Bailey (Cratchit) against Potter (Scrooge), taps into major currents in postwar American culture. As Jeanine Basinger writes in her 1986 The “It’s a Wonderful Life” Book, which catalogues the film’s creation and legacy, after the Great Depression and World War II, many Americans distrusted big banks and saw in Potter the threat of a monopolizing financial power in the average small American town. Capra’s postwar spin on Dickens focuses on the empowerment of George Bailey (Cratchit) and raises him out of his financial difficulties by giving him the divine intervention to realize his own strength, whereas Dickens’s novel uses supernatural intervention to show Scrooge his own weaknesses. This new version of A Christmas Carol not only reflected post-Depression American sentiments toward banks, but also constituted a cinematic, postwar resolution by acknowledging that distrust while maintaining a capitalist message by having a (more sympathetic) banker, George Bailey, triumph in the end.
It’s a Wonderful Life’s Dickensian themes are echoed in other films of the late 1940s, particularly a lesser-known film from director Roy del Ruth, It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947). This film was originally supposed to be a Frank Capra production, but he passed it up in favor of It’s a Wonderful Life. The film maintains Dickensian qualities – with a surly millionaire undergoing a moralizing journey in another American update for the postwar period. In this film, instead of a supernatural intervention, however, the moralizing wisdom comes from an elderly homeless man who is squatting in the millionaire’s mansion with ex-GIs and their families who have been evicted from the millionaire’s tenement buildings.
In more than one Christmas film from the 1940s, there is a distinct Dickensian message of philanthropy, collectivism, and generosity that reflects the preceding decades, especially memories of the Great Depression, the ethos of the New Deal, and the experience of collective sacrifice in World War II.
The Romantically Militarized 1950s
Christmas films of the 1950s departed from the Dickensian tradition. With the economy rebounding from the war and emerging into what John Kenneth Galbraith termed the “Age of Affluence,” there was less public appeal for the moralistic journey of a Scrooge-type character. This era ramps up the saccharine sentimentality of “schmaltz” as Michael Curtiz’s 1954 film White Christmas poignantly and mockingly terms itself and its contemporary films.
White Christmas is a film about two veterans who became stage performers after the war, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), who follow two other performers, Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) to Vermont. When they arrive in Vermont, Bob and Phil recognize the owner of the inn where the Haynes sisters are meant to perform as their commanding officer General Waverly (Dean Jagger). Since he is down on his luck with little revenue due to a snow-less winter, the quartet decide to put on a show in honor of the General to raise his spirits (and profits) for Christmas.
At face-value, the film is a romantic musical with elaborate sets, extraordinary choreography, and enchanting songs all written by the prolific composer Irving Berlin. However, when probed deeper, the film offers commentaries on cultural views of the US military that Christian Appy labels “sentimental militarism.” For example, many songs dedicated to General Waverly and military life reflect powerful nostalgia for the American military of World War II. The film also has a scene in which General Waverly comments on how the military has changed from his service days, referring to the covert operations of the Cold War, and it specifically does not mention the Korean War despite it ending a year before the film’s release.
Even the title song “White Christmas” is a vector for militaristic nostalgia, as “White Christmas” was originally performed by Bing Crosby at The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day in 1941, mere weeks after Pearl Harbor. The song gained prominence the following year after it was featured in the August release of Holiday Inn (1942) and continued to gain prominence into winter in the context of American soldiers away from home for Christmas. The 1954 White Christmas recaptured many of these feelings twelve years later, close enough to play into memories of World War II but far enough to hold new relevance in a decidedly Cold War context.
White Christmas is itself a remake of Holiday Inn that was updated for 1950s audiences. The remake omitted a blackface performance that appeared in Holiday Inn, but retains overt minstrelsy references. In 1942, Hollywood films occasionally included blackface performances, but by 1954, blackface was increasingly recognized as problematic at the same time that American society slowly embraced the civil rights demands of African Americans.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ordering the desegregation of the Armed Forces and in 1953, a Supreme Court ruling, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., desegregated the nation’s capital. This ruling occurred just a year before the more famous Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the separation of students by race was unconstitutional and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protections Clause. Originally filed in 1951, the ruling for Brown was issued in May 1954, having been argued a second time in December 1953 after the desegregation of Washington D.C. took effect.
With these strides towards desegregation in the wider United States, Hollywood studios and television networks sought to distance themselves from visual representations of blackface. In The Adventures of Amos ‘N’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon, historian Melvin Patrick Ely chronicles the history of the early 20th-century radio show Amos ‘N’ Andy, a minstrel show created and voiced by two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The radio show was a hit across demographics, but in the 1951 when the radio show moved to television, Gosden and Correll stepped down from their roles and cast black performers. This decision was shaped by an earlier attempt to bring Amos ‘N’ Andy to film screens in 1930 that flopped terribly. While Gosden and Correll’s minstrel show was successful through the 1940s on the radio, by the 1950s, the visual representation of blackface on screen was deemed unacceptable in the cultural climate.
As with the television show Amos ‘N’ Andy, alluding to minstrel shows was considered acceptable in Hollywood, and this occurs in White Christmas. One song, “The Minstrel Number,” reminisces about the older entertainment traditions of minstrelsy and vaudeville, yearning for the days of “Georgie Primrose” a white vaudevillian who performed in blackface in the late 19th century. In remaking Holiday Inn, Michael Curtiz retained the nostalgic views of minstrelsy without any visual representations of blackface, walking a fine line to reflect the cultural and political climate of 1954.
Many Christmas films from the 1950s departed from the Dickensian model of the 1940s and forged a new path of romance-centric Christmases that would inform the subgenre through today. These films not only reflected American culture of the 1950s but also expanded the definition of a Christmas film, forecasting the subgenre’s expansion into a range of film genres.
Featured Image: Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed as George and Mary Bailey with their children in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Liberty Films. Retrieved from Screen Rant.
 Jeanine Basinger, The ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Book (New York: Knopf, 1986) 52.
 John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), http://archive.org/details/JohnKennethGalbraithTheAffluentSociety1998MarinerBooks.
 Christian G. Appy, ‘“We’ll Follow the Old Man”: The Strains of Sentimental Militarism in Popular Films of the Fifties’, in Rethinking Cold War Culture, ed. Peter J. Kuznick and James Burkhart Gilbert (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 74.