Movies are, for some people, as much a part of the Christmas holidays as stockings and trees. Whether it’s going to the theater or popping a favorite in the home system, Christmas movies help people catch the holiday spirit. They also help us unwind from other responsibilities, laugh and remind us of Christmases past.

This Christmas, I’ll be watching some of my favorites. Maybe they already are, or will be, some of your favorites too.

“It’s a Wonderful Life”
1946, Fantasy/Drama, Not Rated

Why this movie: Jimmy Stewart stars in this Frank Capra film about a man whose real Christmas gift is the enlightening, and frightening, experience of seeing his world if he hadn’t existed. The film can offer viewers layer upon layer when they reflect on its context: a post-World War II America, starring a man who actually left Hollywood for the armed forces.

Classic moment: Every time a bell rings …

“White Christmas”
1954, Musical, Not Rated

Why this movie: Simple: Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas.”

Classic moment: At the end, when the general is reminded of his worth.

“A Christmas Story”
1983, Comedy, PG

Why this movie: Christmas is a nostalgic time—for individuals, for families, even for whole societies. “A Christmas Story” may be the nostalgic Christmas film par excellence, with its schoolroom antics, gatherings around the radio, heightened family roles and burgeoning consumer mindset.

Classic moment: When schoolboy Flick goes for Schwartz’s triple-dog-dare to stick his tongue on a freezing flagpole.

“Christmas Vacation”
1989, Comedy, PG-13

Why this movie: The writer, John Hughes, has a gift for comedy. Pair that with Chevy Chase in a holiday home stuffed with relatives, and the result is a laugh riot flowing from physical comedy, sight gags and hilarious dialogue.

Classic moment: There are too many to name. Many of them involve Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie—a man who holds horrific fashion sense, childish ignorance and, of course, no job.

“Elf” (read our full review)
2003, Comedy, PG for some mild rude humor and language

Why this movie: “Elf” is one of the better Christmas movies in recent years (and audiences are loving it; it’s grossed around $150 million already and is still in theaters). It features a stellar cast, including Will Ferrell, Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner and Bob Newhart.

Classic moment: When Will Ferrell as Buddy screams “Santa!” uncontrollably in a department store after the loud speaker announcement leads him to believe that the real Santa will drop by.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

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