It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But what does Christmas look like? Whether we celebrate the holiday because of our faith or as a chance to spend quality time with family and friends, it tends to take the shape of our own personal family history, with beloved traditions passed down from generation to generation. In the UK, that means stockings on the mantelpiece or on the end of the bed. Midnight mass or the Queen’s Speech or both. Or neither. Carols or crooners or Maria and Wham.

However it looks, much of what makes Christmas special is the nostalgia that surrounds it. For many of us, childhood experiences are a potent memory, and we spend our adult lives trying to recapture it, or recreate it for our own children. And so many of the seasonal films that have come to be regarded as classics are so because they have managed to capture that universal feeling. In a year where Christmas may look quite different for families all over the country, these movies may well take on an additional resonance.

Get the latest from the BFI

Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.

White Christmas (1954)

To that end, the ultimate festive film is surely White Christmas. More so even than that glorious evergreen classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), this 1954 Michael Curtiz number is the sheer embodiment of the season: the smooth voices of Bing Crosby and Danny Kay, the talent and tenacity of Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the camaraderie and bonhomie as they band together to save their old army sergeant’s stunning, but struggling, Vermont inn. It never fails to delight.

The film that really heralds the arrival of Christmas in my household, however, couldn’t be more different. Richard Donner’s Scrooged (1988) retells Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from the point of view of Bill Murray’s cartoonishly selfish television executive, who is visited by 3 judgemental ghosts. Although Murray’s performance is completely off-the-rails (reportedly, he found making the film something of a nightmare), his journey from miser to true believer is genuinely moving. More than 30 years on, it remains sharply witty and deliciously spooky, with a tremendous performance from Carol Kane as the aggressive ghost of Christmas present. 

Of course, personal circumstances can also determine what becomes a hardy perennial in your home. The Family Stone (2005) is not regarded favourably by a great many critics, but it’s a favourite of mine. Diane Keaton is a joy as Sybil, the outspoken matriarch of an eccentric family gathered for the holidays. They’re a messy, crazy rabble in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s uptight Meredith, the girlfriend of one of Sybil’s sons, finds herself hopelessly adrift. Their raucous celebrations remind me of my own extended family, and Sybil’s terminal breast cancer, which casts a shadow over proceedings, really connects with me as someone whose own mother’s death utterly upended our Christmas traditions. It recognises that this time of year can, after all, be bittersweet.

Home Alone (1990)

Now that I have a young son, Christmas has regained the magic and mayhem that defined my own childhood holidays. In recent years, I have had the pleasure of introducing him to personal favourites like Home Alone (1990), that masterpiece of comedy and pathos. Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McAllister is the epitome of impish invention; his mother Kate (Catherine O’Hara) the personification of maternal love and determination. Their moment of reconciliation on Christmas morning never fails to bring a tear. We also both respond to Will Ferrell’s performance in Elf (2003), which unashamedly celebrates the unchecked desire to fully lean into the magic of the season, the sheer power of belief. 

Belief is also at the core of The Polar Express (2004), which my son and I watch several times a season, always with a mug of hot chocolate. While it may demonstrate then-cutting-edge motion capture techniques, its power lies in its embracing of yuletide themes: friendship, generosity and, of course, the magic of Father Christmas. For my son, the big man still looms large as a flesh-and-blood bringer of joy; for me, those feelings live on as pure nostalgia. 

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

As my son gets older, I’m looking forward to broadening his Christmas viewing beyond English-language films. The Japanese anime Tokyo Godfathers (2003), in which 3 homeless people living in Tokyo find a newborn baby on Christmas eve, would be a fantastic place to start. It’s a visceral, touching exploration of the value of community and family – even when you are unable to be with your own flesh and blood.

Which brings us neatly on to that most contentious of Christmas movies, Die Hard (1988), which doesn’t so much capture the spirit of the season as wrestle it to the floor. Tis the season to be selfless and, after a year like 2020, who wouldn’t be moved by watching Bruce Willis’s NY cop John McClane crawling through broken glass – literally – to rescue his wife from a heist at her office Christmas bash.

Of course, arguments still still abound about whether Die Hard is, in fact, a Christmas movie, despite the fact that a number of plot points hang on its Yuletide setting – not least the fact that the Christmas party provides the essential conditions (reduced security, a gathering of senior management) for Gruber’s (Alan Rickman) takeover, and McClane wouldn’t be at Nakatomi Tower to save the day if he wasn’t in LA to see his kids for the holidays.

It simply couldn’t happen any other time of year, which makes it a bonafide festive flick. Welcome to the party, pal.