Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season. Wikipedia

Lights, camera ... and holiday cheer: The best of Christmas spirit on film

By  Sr. Helena Burns, Catholic Register Special
  • December 20, 2019

’Tis the season to be jolly, light the Advent wreath (I mean light the candles on the Advent wreath), dive into the amazing daily Advent Scripture readings, send out Christmas cards and newsletters, donate to the Salvation Army, re-gift fruitcake AND … watch a bunch of holiday movies with family and friends! 

Rather than just give you a list of the most popular Christmas movies — I thought I’d give you my top picks of Christmas flicks. 

Of course, there are far too many great Christmas movies to fit in one article, so I chose these for their capturing the proverbial “true spirit of Christmas”: God came as a child in utter poverty to show us that love is all that matters, that we must take care of each other, especially those in need — of whatever kind. And love always requires sacrifice, because the whole purpose of Jesus’ birth was in order to bring Him, in a few short years, to the cross where He would pay the ultimate price for our sins to give us the gift of everlasting life.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): Frank Capra’s classic (starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed) remains beloved through the years. Men in particular relate to the struggles (along with the desperation and despair) of a “working stiff,” a down-on-his-luck husband and dad who contemplates ending it all, only to have a complete rebirth and resurgence. Released on the heels of the Second World War, It’s A Wonderful Life avoids being maudlin. The world had lived through too much real horror at this point. It’s gritty, but not without a sense of humour. It “goes there,” into the darkness, but returns with hope and a light shining brightly. If young people you know haven’t seen it, ask them to “give you their opinion” on it. (A sure way to get a film viewed!)

2. Joyeux Noel (2005): Also a war film, this little gem captures the real-life Christmas truce of 1914 (First  World War) when the Germans, French and Scottish laid down their arms, sang Christmas carols and played impromptu soccer together for one blessed day. 

3. Martin the Cobbler (1977 claymation): Based on a Leo Tolstoy short story, a lonely old cobbler begins reading his Bible and is told to expect a visit from God. He waits all the next day for God, but the only visitors Martin receives are a few people who need his help, which he gladly gives. It is then revealed to him that: “Where love is, God is.” Each of those persons were God, and Martin helped God very well.

4. The Mystery of the Three Kings (2002): This American PBS documentary is an objective look at what we know about the Magi historically and factually — and, surprisingly, it’s a lot! Experts in various fields (e.g., astronomy) weigh in, and we follow the journey of the Magi through 2,000 years of Christianity to their resting place today … in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. You’ll never think of these exotic, stately seekers as shadowy legends again!

5. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 animated): Dr. Seuss’ brilliant rhymes and outlandish characters come to a kind of pinnacle (pun intended) in his “Grinch.” The Grinch is impossibly mean and selfish, but this is not a “dark” story. Rather, evil is ridiculous, even when it is succeeding, because love always overcomes hate. The little Who’s in Whoville don’t really care about presents and roast beast. They just want to be together and sing. 

Not only that, the Green One himself is moved to conversion and restitution (and, after all, he couldn’t help it, he was born with a too-small heart). And aren’t we all a bit like the Grinch (though we don’t like to admit it, even to ourselves)? Stink, stank, stunk.

6. Hannah-Barbera’s Greatest Adventure Bible Series – The Nativity (1987, animated): Part of a series of old-school, classic comic book animation, it is a thorough, faithful and straight-up presentation of the events of Christmas. No one sounds as commanding as a narrator for this genre. It’s almost as though they speak with a kind of authority that our culture readily believes, bows to. The overall execution is really quite grand, timeless.

7. Come To The Stable (1949): Although it has a Christmas title, this isn’t exactly a Christmas movie, but one that’s associated with Christmastime, due to its subject of works of charity, and … nuns. Two nuns attempt to set up a children’s hospital in New England (to fulfill a promise made during the war), but must first wrest the proposed land site from a shady business entrepreneur. Their many foibles and setbacks are made all the more charming by the nuns’ innocence and supernatural faith that doesn’t fail them in the end. The name of the hospital? St. Jude’s.

8. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): Although younger generations don’t have the same familiarity or nostalgia for the Peanuts comic strip, this Christmas special has stand-alone appeal and has aired more times on CBS than The Wizard of Oz. Charles Schultz, a Christian, fought to have Linus read the true meaning of Christmas from the Gospel of Luke. Linus was always the wisdom figure for the strip, so this proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ is definitive for the film. It’s almost as though the story is saying, yes, enjoy Snoopy skating and the Yuletide jazz number, but never take your eyes off the babe in the manger.

9. Pocketful of Miracles (1961): Another Frank Capra film, and once again, not exactly a Christmas film. A street peddler (Bette Davis) whose daughter thinks her mother is a high society lady is coming to NYC for a visit. A mobster who always buys his “lucky” apple from the peddler woman decides to help her put on an elaborate ruse (with the help of his thugs and their girlfriends pretending to be sophisticates). Deeply funny and heartwarming. Bette Davis generously plays a doddering old woman that makes us reflect on the elderly among us, their fragility, diminishing faculties, pride and dignity.

10. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983): Loretta Swit stars. From the 1972 book The Worst Kids in the World. A bunch of scruffy, problem kids find their way into a school Christmas play and everyone learns the true meaning of Christmas. This fun, “anti-Hallmark” film “keeps it real” and reminds us that not everyone has a perfect, shiny Christmas (because they’re not perfect and shiny) … and that might be more than OK.

11. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): Is it possible that the best version of Dickens’ tale is performed by felt (plus two humans)? Very possible. Jim Henson’s spirit is so strong in this masterpiece: his love, positivity, magic, glee (and neither is God forgotten). This is also a full-blown musical. The attention to detail is incredible, right down to a wagonful of vegetables singing their distaste for the tightwad, Ebenezer Scrooge. 

I dare you not to sob when Tiny Tim (Kermit, Jr.) sings and then (century-old spoiler alert!) expires. Every Christmas gives us, too, a second chance, a new lease on life to reflect on what our earthly life will look like in retrospect, from eternity. We, too, can “keep Christmas,” by choosing to make every day Christmas.

12. Mr. Krueger’s Christmas (1980): Another Jimmy Stewart film, and another film about a lonely elderly person. Mr. Krueger is a widowed janitor, living alone with his cat. He fantasizes to escape his lonely life, but the truly astounding and tender portion of this film is when Mr. Krueger goes to the Bethlehem stable in his mind’s eye and recognizes Jesus because He has always been a part of his life, and begins having an intimate conversation with Him. Another Christmas meditation for each of us to make!


Sr. Helena Burns, fsp, is a Toronto member of the Daughters of St. Paul. She has an MA in Media Literacy Education, studied screenwriting at UCLA and Act One-Hollywood and holds a Certificate in Pastoral Youth Ministry. She is a movie reviewer for Life Teen & The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM. She wrote and directed a documentary on Bl. James Alberione: www.MediaApostle.com.

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