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What’s the secret sauce for the perfect Christmas movie?

Every year, studios and streaming services produce another annual festive tale, but what ingredients do these movies need to give us those seasonal sensations? And can they be found in the original Christmas story?

3 mins

December 1, 2022

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When does Christmas truly start in your house?

It may be a food-related tradition, or the first playing of a certain song sung by Michael Bublé. For many it’s the moment when everyone sits down to watch the same movie together. A Christmas movie. The same movie as last year. The same movie every year. In my household, that movie is Elf. In yours it might be It’s A Wonderful Life, Home Alone or The Muppet Christmas Carol.

No other time of year is celebrated in its own category, with the possible exception of Halloween. And every year, different networks and studios bring out their seasonal selections. Netflix is giving us Lindsay Lohan in Falling for Christmas. Apple has paired Will Ferrell with Ryan Reynolds in Spirited, another reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Or you could go and see Violent Night starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour in Santa meets Die Hard.

Why make one movie when you could make dozens? According to Forbes, Hallmark has aired more than 300 Christmas movies since 2009. And they know it works. For most of November and December, Hallmark is the number one network among the advertiser-friendly demographics of women aged 18-49. Get the right formula and there’s money to be made. So what’s in the secret sauce of the Christmas movie?

It’s all in the timing

First, there’s the timing. This is important, albeit obvious. The story has to be set during the run-up to the big day, obviously, either Christmas Day itself, a party or a nativity play. Whatever it is, it has to be perfect because, well, it’s Christmas.

But it’s okay. No matter what goes wrong during the movie; a delayed plane, a runaway donkey or Christmas itself is about to be stolen, the Christmas scene at the end is always perfect. That’s because Christmas is redefined during the movie. So it could be spent in a departure lounge, or snowed into a car with a loved one, or in an exclusive suite of rooms in a world-famous hotel with only the bell boy for company. Whatever happens, we and the characters in the story are satisfied that this is the Best. Christmas. Ever.

A miracle

The second ingredient really is the magic ingredient, coming up in all the different kinds of Christmas movie, whether it’s romantic comedies, or the story of a frustrated parent trying to give their children the perfect Christmas, as well as stories about Santa himself. Whatever the plight of the hero or heroine, there will be a Christmas Miracle.

Just when it seems all is lost and Christmas is ruined, something wonderful happens. We get a sense of the supernatural as gifts magically appear under a tree, or a locked door is opened. Opponents and enemies are called away and the path is now clear. The hero has not earned this or caused it. It’s a Christmas Miracle. Call it the work of Santa, the elves or an angel, there’s a moment of supernatural intervention.

In a Christmas movie, there’s not just the possibility of magic. We expect it. We’d feel short-changed without it. It’s a moment that would be totally out of place in any other genre of movie. But just like a cracker without its snap, you cannot have a Christmas movie without a Christmas Miracle.

A starry Christmas night

Here’s the third secret ingredient, which is the time of the miracle. It usually happens at night. That’s not just the time Santa brings presents. It’s the time shepherds were watching their flocks in the traditional Christmas story when the angels came. We also picture Wise Men at night following the supernatural sign; yonder star. The night is integral to the Christmas story.

No matter how disconnected from the church, a Christmas movie is inextricably linked to this Christian Christmas story, which finds its meaning in the birth of Jesus. The actual details of the story are sparse but they have been embellished with centuries of tradition and art.

As we descend into winter – in the northern hemisphere at least – and the days get shorter and colder, it seems that lights are going out. The world is becoming a darker place.

The Bible’s Christmas story is also dark, featuring an occupied, divided land with a tyrant ruler, Herod the Great. He sought to snuff out the life of a baby, an unwanted challenger to his throne. In his desperation to cling to power, he slaughters all the babies in the town of Bethlehem. It’s hard to imagine a darker story.

But it’s a backdrop against which a miraculous light can shine and bring hope. It’s not a Halloween story in which we are terrified and threatened by the shadowy gloom. Rather, darkness is a place where the light is most visible and splendid. Christmas movies are festooned with lights of all kinds, because of that first unquenchable supernatural light that shines in the darkness, the baby born of a virgin – the original Christmas Miracle who defines what Christmas really means.


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