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Ranking The 24 Most Iconic Christmas Movies and Television Specials of All Time
Iconic Christmas Movies and TV Specials
Christmas time is here. And it is a time of happiness and cheer. It’s a time of trees, carols, hot cocoa, and snow angels. It is also a time to watch our favorite Christmas films. And there are so many to choose from. Over the years, many have become classic and iconic parts of our Holiday traditions. How can Christmas pass us by without watching a version of A Christmas Carol or a Rankin and Bass animated short? Let’s dive into the most seminal Christmas movies and television specials of all time, ranking them by how iconic they are to the holiday season.
24. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
This half-hour Disney short is a sweet and faithful adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic. Disney characters easily slip into the story, such as Scrooge McDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit, Goofy as Jacob Marley, and Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past. In the grand tradition of animated Disney shorts, Mickey’s Christmas Carol is of the highest quality and one that many watch yearly. It is a funny, delightful, and surprisingly poignant version of a timeless story.
23. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
This film comes from director Ron Howard and stars Jim Carrey as the title character from the Dr. Seuss classic. The story follows the plot of the children’s book: the grumpy Grinch lives outside the happy town of Whoville, whose residents love Christmas. Determined to get revenge for past mistreatment, he has plans to ruin the Holiday for them all.
What makes this version stand out is the added back story given to the Grinch’s character, as well as the outrageous performance by Carrey. We see the Grinch as a child and are given reasons why he has becomes so cynical and mean, making the moment his heart grows, and he lets the holiday spirit in so special. The fanciful sets and costumes add to the festive flavor and whimsical aesthetics. And Carrey makes the Grinch his own in a very memorable role.
22. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
In this sequel to the original 1990 film, we see Kevin McCallister and his family in another hilarious, outlandish, and ultimately thoughtful film. This time around, Kevin is not left at home but accidentally boards a different flight than his family during a hectic race to the gate. The McCallisters head to Florida, while Kevin lands in New York. And he takes full advantage of being alone in the city, seeing all the sights, checking into the luxurious Plaza Hotel, and enjoying room service, limo rides, and a trip to the grandest toy store imaginable.
Unlike the first film, there is a lot more to the plot. Thieves Harry and Marv have escaped prison, and Kevin sets a slew of traps for them again. Kevin cleverly (and hilariously) fools the hotel staff into thinking his father is with him in some of the film’s funniest moments. And the touching and heartwarming moments involve Kevin and his mother again showcasing their connection and Kevin befriending a woman society has shunned.
Despite the multiple plot threads, everything flows together seamlessly, with moments equally funny and heartfelt. Though not quite as iconic as the original film, Home Alone 2 remains quintessential Holiday viewing for so many, especially those who love to greet you with “Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.”
21. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
There was a time when television during the holidays always meant an Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass production. Mostly known for their stop-motion animated programs, one of the most delightful is this origin story of Santa Claus himself. Told by a friendly mailman voiced by (and resembling) Fred Astaire, we see the Kringle family of toymakers adopts Santa (voiced by Mickey Rooney). He grows to be a man with a loving heart who opens the hearts of others with his unyielding kindness and generosity. The music, characters, and animation style are all charming and cozy, making this one of the best Rankin and Bass creations.
20. A Christmas Carol (1938)
The story of the heartless miser Ebenezer Scrooge who finds the spirit of Christmas after being visited by three ghosts, has been told countless times. The Charles Dickens classic tale is one of the most adapted stories ever. Of the classic Hollywood versions, the 1938 film with Reginald Owen Gene Lockhart, and his wife and daughter, Kathleen and June Lockhart, is beautifully told and well acted. The black and white adds to the old-fashioned charm and the somewhat darker aspects of the story. And the result is profound and moving. And while almost any version is worthy, this version remains one of the most iconic.
19. Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Although Rankin and Bass are mostly known for their stop-motion animated programs, traditional animation was also in their repertoire. In 1969 came Frosty the Snowman, a sweet-natured story inspired by the song of the same name. Told and sung by Jimmy Durante, this is a story of the snowman who is brought to life by the magic of a magician’s hat.
His first words are “Happy Birthday,” and he leads a group of children around the town, singing and having a grand time. But the magic of Frosty is threatened by the magician Professor Hinkle and rising temperatures, so a trip to the North Pole is needed.
A true delight from start to finish, this cartoon has become synonymous with the classic song and has become a yearly staple for television viewers. Even today, the magic of this happy, singing snowman with the corn cob pipe, button nose, and two eyes made out of coal lives on.
18. The Holiday (2006)
Inviting and sweet-natured, this 2000s rom-com from writer/director Nancy Meyers features an exceptional cast, including Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black, and Eli Wallach. Featuring the gorgeous home décor aesthetic and that classically inspired dialogue that Meyers is known for, The Holiday is a wish fulfillment dreamy holiday treat.
The story is about two women looking for a change during the holidays who decide to switch homes. Heartbroken Iris (Winslet) heads to Los Angeles, looking to get over her newly engaged ex-boyfriend. And she unexpectedly meets two men who help renew her spirits: sweet film composer Miles (Black) and the elderly Arthur (Wallach), a former movie writer.
Meanwhile, newly broken up Amanda (Diaz) heads to the English countryside of Surrey and meets Iris’s charming brother Graham (Law), a sensitive book editor and single father. And sparks instantly fly between them in very unexpected ways.
One of the loveliest romantic comedies of all time, The Holiday has become a yearly tradition for many movie fans. Jude Law has even said this is the film fans most mention to him as a favorite. The performances and story are endearing, and the scenery and production design are beautiful, from sunny modern LA homes to a snowy, charming English village and cottage. The Holiday is an endearingly romantic, often moving, endlessly cozy cup of hot cocoa of a film.
17. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
One of the loveliest and most enduring films of the golden age of Hollywood musicals is this charmer, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Mary Astor, and Tom Drake. The film follows the Smith family, living in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century. Told in a vignette style, the film follows the different seasons of the year as the family eagerly awaits the World’s Fair Exposition.
Although it is not strictly a Christmas film, Meet Me St. Louis is still a seminal Holiday tradition, with the segment set during Christmas being both a sumptuous and heartfelt treat. From a Victorian ball to a gorgeous rendition of the now classic song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the holiday season was never more exquisite. Many may need to learn the origin of this song sung by Garland is from this film. And it began an enduring and evergreen musical beacon of holiday warmth and hope.
16. The Polar Express (2004)
When this film from Robert Zemeckis was first released, the motion-capture animation style and technology were considered remarkable and state-of-the-art. Although that style hasn’t quite stood the test of time, The Polar Express as a film remains an engaging, moving Christmas adventure. The story is inspired by the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg about a young boy who boards a train bound for the North Pole on Christmas Eve.
Tom Hanks tackles many roles in this film, but as legendary as the actor is, the true star is the story and, despite its age, its extraordinary look and feel. Blue hues, a dance about hot chocolate, and a glorious imagining of Santa Claus’s home are the highlights. Overall, The Polar Express is a moving film about the power of belief.
15. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
In today’s movie world, remakes are commonplace, with the qualities of these films being extremely varied. Remaking a timeless classic can be an uphill battle to compete with that legacy. Although this remake of Miracle of 34th Street may not equal the original’s quality, it is still a lovely, heartwarming, and charming film. And it is one that defined the childhoods of many 90s kids.
The beauty of this film is that it has a Christmas sheen to it. The film has a luminous glow and oversaturated colors reflecting the film’s themes. In the story of a mother and daughter who learn to believe in Santa and the magic of Christmas, romance and sweet moments tug at our heartstrings in that Christmas-y way. While updated to reflect more modern sensibilities and norms, the film retains an old-fashioned charm and a beautiful and profound truth about life: “If you can’t accept anything on faith alone, then you will be doomed to a life dominated by doubt.” In the end, the characters and audience learn to believe.
14. Love Actually (2003)
From writer/director Richard Curtis, Love Actually is a star-studded romantic comedy, one of the finest of the genre, and undoubtedly the most iconic modern Christmas-themed romantic movie. The exemplary ensemble cast includes Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Andrew Lincoln.
With intertwining stories of Londoners in the month leading up to Christmas, there are tales of love, heartbreak, betrayal, and courage. We see love of all kinds: familial, friendship, lost love, unrequited love, first love, and love that overcomes all obstacles. The performances are fantastic, which is unsurprising considering the caliber of the cast. And the various stories range from hilarious to heartfelt to heartbreaking and moving. With the holidays as a backdrop, we see the pristine truth that falling in love at Christmas feels just a bit more magical. Above all, this movie shows that, despite all the harshness of the world, love is all around.
13. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
The earliest production by Rankin and Bass on this list is not just the most iconic, well-known, and beloved rendition of this character besides the song. It is also one of the quintessential joys of the holiday season. The character of Santa’s ninth reindeer with the glowing red nose has a fascinating journey into the Christmas lexicon. Rudolph was created for the store Montgomery Ward in 1939, and the 1949 Gene Autry recorded a song based on the character that became an instant classic.
In 1964, the stop-motion animation, or “Animagic” program, aired on NBC, and Rudolph’s place in history as one of the most recognizable characters ever was cemented. The story is expanded beyond Rudolph feeling ostracized because of his red nose. He journeys to the Island of Misfit Toys, where he meets discarded or broken toys and an elf that wants to be a dentist.
For such a simple and sweet story, the themes carry a great deal of weight about individuality, compassion, and acceptance. Combined with the whimsical feel and jovial narration and singing by Burl Ives (as a snowman), make Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer a classic in every way.
12. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Created by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a film that has become iconic for two holidays: Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps that is why the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland, transforms the Haunted Mansion attraction into a Nightmare overlay from September to January every year. Regardless of theme park rides, the film itself is a sheer delight and one that found its success steadily since its release, growing into the juggernaut and beloved film it is today.
The story follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, who has grown tired of his humdrum and tedious life of frights and ghouls. When he discovers a door to Christmas town, he is overcome with delight and decides to bring Christmas to his home and become “Sandy Claws.” But of course, he is in over his pumpkin head, and the steadfast and kind ragdoll Sally, who loves him from afar, is the one who must help her love and the holiday towns from the villainous Oogie Boogie’s threats.
Everything about The Nightmare Before Christmas is a masterful artistic achievement: from the atmospheric stop-motion animation character designs and settings to the music from Danny Elfman to the creative story that is equally spooky and enchanting. And like that love between Jack and Sally, this film is simply meant to be a quintessential Holiday film forever.
11. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The first “Peanuts” television special from creator Charles M. Schulz is the second longest-running Christmas special ever. And it is a wonderful one to boot, that became an instant acclaimed and beloved classic for viewers. It even coined the term “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” to describe a small and humble tree with few pine needles and branches.
The story is about Charlie Brown, who is depressed during Christmastime, mainly about the rampant commercialization of the Holiday. His spirits are lifted when Lucy and the other children ask him to direct their Christmas pageant. But it takes a humble tree and a speech from Linus to remind everyone about the true meaning of Christmas.
What makes this special such an iconic gem is the beauty of its simplicity. The story, voice work, and animation style are simple, sweet, and yet profound in a way that is not overly complicated. The lovely, jazzy score by Vince Guaraldi, including the original “Christmastime Is Here,” compliments the show’s gentle nature. And the characters convey the beautiful message about why people celebrate Christmas succinctly but in a way that can resonate with even the youngest viewer.
10. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Very few versions of the Charles Dickens classic are as beloved as this 1992 film that brought all of the Muppets into the story to such delightful results. For this musical tale, Michael Caine takes on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge while many of the Muppets inhabit the other characters, such as Kermit as Bob Cratchit and Statler and Waldorf as the Marley brothers. Gonzo even takes on the role of Dickens, narrating the story.
Charming in every way, the particular style of humor that the Muppets are known for is present without losing the story’s macabre, sad, and moving elements. And this is because the story remains a drama with some comedic elements, with Caine giving a genuinely affecting performance as the miserly Scrooge who rediscovers the warmth and generosity of spirit he had lost in old age. With lively music, colorful costumes, and a festive feel, The Muppet Christmas Carol may be considered an unconventional version of the story. But it has become perhaps the most exemplary one of them all.
9. Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Boris Karloff narrates and stars as The Grinch in this animated special based on the children’s book by Dr. Suess of the same name, originally published in 1957. This animated special features a style nearly identical to the illustrations from the book and the narration is right off the page.
The plot involves the sardonic, misanthropic Grinch, who lives on a high mountain outside Whoville and plans to steal Christmas from the Whos. But in the end, his heart grows three sizes when he sees that happiness does not come from gifts but rather from the ones we love.
Told in that whimsical Seuss style that is both lyrical and clever, the charm of The Grinch is the simple story with a heartwarming message. The other true highlight is the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung by Thurl Ravenscroft. Although this story has been told many times, the original book and animated special are part of the Christmas lexicon in ways that can never be replicated. Like a modern-day Christmas Carol, Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a charming and profound reminder of the true spirit of the holidays.
8. The Santa Clause (1994)
Every generation has a version of Santa Claus that becomes theirs. If you are an 80s or 90s kid, chances are Tim Allen’s Santa became yours. This fanciful film is hilarious and heartwarming, has a beautiful production design, and a touching story and performances.
This story revolves around Scott Calvin, a divorced toy designer who shares custody of his son Charlie with his ex-wife Laura and her husband, Neal. Preoccupied with work, Scott and Charlie have grown apart. But when he stays with his father on Christmas Eve, Scott and Charlie are in for one adventurous night. Santa falls off the roof, disappears, and Scott steps into the role of Father Christmas himself, much to his son’s delight.
The humor in this film is undeniable as Scott slowly transforms into Santa, surrounded by people who worry about his mental state. That is, except for Charlie, who believes in his Dad. And the two help Laura and Neal rediscover the magic of Christmas. Amusing as the movie is, with lovely Holiday feels and colors, the affecting and touching story of a father and son connecting with each other is the film’s true heart.
7. White Christmas (1954)
Although this holiday classic can be considered underrated, it is still an undeniably iconic film. The visuals alone make this the most stunning Christmas movie ever made, with oversaturated colors of red, green, and blue, giving the film a gorgeous sheen and unique look thanks to the Vista Visa film process of the 1950s. But the music, story, and performers also infuse White Christmas with unparalleled beauty.
The story follows the musical duo Bob Wallace and Phil Dais, two former soldiers who meet another musical team, the Haynes Sisters. All are traveling to the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont. Upon arrival, Bob and Phil discover the owner of the Inn is their former commander in the Army, General Waverly. With the Inn in financial straits but the General too proud to ask for help, the quartet of singers have an idea. Put on a Christmas-themed musical show to entice guests to the Inn and hopefully save the establishment from ruin. But the real surprise for the General is a touching idea that is too heartfelt to spoil.
There’s romance, comedy, a sweet story, and stunning musical sequences. All are made exemplary thanks to the direction of Michael Curtiz and the superb cast Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. As gentle as Crosby’s dulcet tones and as seminal as the song the film is inspired by, White Christmas is a perfect representation of old-fashioned holiday charm.
6. Elf (2003)
“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” Or so says Buddy the Elf, the man who crawled into Santa’s bag as a baby and was adopted and raised as an elf at the North Pole. When the sweet-natured and enthusiastic Buddy discovers the truth, he travels to New York City to meet his birth father. While his stepmother and brother are welcoming, his father is a tougher nut to crack, like the wry woman he meets at a department store where he gets a job.
Elf is so equally uproariously funny and endearingly heartfelt that it became an instant favorite. Will Ferrell’s Buddy is so earnest that it feels impossible not to be charmed by his character. Moreover, there is an exceptional cast that includes James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, and Zooey Deschanel, as well as outstanding direction by Jon Favreau. Combined with the whimsical production design and costumes, much of which was inspired by Rankin and Bass shorts, Elf is not only delightful, endlessly quotable, and hilarious but has become a quintessential holiday favorite.
5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Perhaps the most relatable Christmas movie ever, the Chevy Chase classic has become iconic for its particular blend of irreverent humor and heartwarming cheer. In this National Lampoon holiday fest, Clark Griswold wants nothing more than a good old-fashioned family Christmas at his home, with the caveat of announcing his plans to put in a pool with his Holiday bonus. But, of course, nothing seems to go his way.
The in-laws bicker, annoying relatives arrive uninvited, his dream Christmas tree is too big for the house with a rogue squirrel invading the branches, and the massive amount of Christmas lights he puts on the house don’t work. Of course, when everything goes wrong, it makes that Hallelujah moment when things go right that much sweeter.
What makes this film so joyous and iconic is how we can relate to the desire for something sweet and straightforward and the inevitable complications that arise. Moreover, the script and performances are hilarious, with many quotes and images entering our collective hearts and minds. And the film gets bonus points for perhaps the catchiest introduction song for a movie of its kind. There is no such thing as the perfect Christmas. But for the Griswold family, theirs may be the funniest.
4. Home Alone (1990)
Not only a modern-day Christmas classic but a modern-day family classic, Home Alone was a tremendous success upon initial release. And its place in Christmas movie history has only grown over the years. You know you’ve created an iconic film when a single moment becomes a global phenomenon, like the way Kevin burning his face with after-shave lotion did. But that is just one of the many moments that make the film the hilarious and heartfelt enduring movie it is.
In the story, the extended McCallister family plans a holiday trip to Paris. When they all oversleep, it is a rush through the airport, hoping they have not forgotten anything. And they do- their son Kevin, who they leave at home. While mother Kate is determined to get home to her son, Kevin enjoys his time alone doing whatever he wants. That is until he begins to miss his family and then is forced to defend his home from two burglars.
The scenario of Home Alone is definitely of its time, yet the film still has a timeless feel. The humor remains hilarious, and the touching moments are tender and poignant. For as funny as the traps Kevin leaves for robbers Harry and Marv are, the true heart of the film is the quieter moments about family and forgiveness. And the scenes Kevin shares with his mother and the older neighbor he learns is not someone to be feared will warm the heart of many a viewer, especially combined with the glorious John Williams score. Home Alone is an evergreen film in heart and humor that remains a favorite somewhere in our memory.
3. A Christmas Story (1983)
“Fra-gi-le. It must be Italian,” You’ll shoot your eye out,” “Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense,” are just a handful of the many memorable quotes from this 1983 beacon of joy. For those who love this film (and there are many), A Christmas Story is more than a film. It is a lifestyle. Movies only have infamous 24-hour marathons on television every year if they are iconic and much-beloved gems.
The story is set in 1940s Indiana, where young Ralphie Parker desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. And he tries to find the right avenue to obtain one, including his parents, a school essay, and finally, Santa Claus. Of course, A Christmas Story is much more than what Ralphie wants for Christmas. The film is one of irreverent and relatable humor, sweet and old-fashioned nostalgia, and moments that give you that warm and fuzzy holiday feeling.
But what gives the film its unique and memorable flair is its narration. It gives us an accurate and hilarious glimpse into the inner monologue of what it’s like to be a kid, whether they are dealing with bullies or wishing for the perfect Christmas present.
The period details are exceptional, and the performances are natural and believable from the children and adults. Moreover, the number of scenes that have become iconic is too numerous to count, such as the sticking of a tongue to a frozen pole, a pink bunny suit Ralphie gets as a present, and the leg lamp the father wins as a major award. A Christmas Story is a hilarious and sweet-natured window into a childhood of the 1940s and yet feels ever timeless.
2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
One of the loveliest holiday films ever, Miracle on 34th Street is the greatest depiction of Santa Claus ever brought to screen, and a film whose heart and natural performances have made it one of the most iconic for the Holiday season. With an incredible cast which includes Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), the performances infuse the film with its authenticity. Young Wood, at the time, even believed Gwenn was the real Santa Claus.
The plot involves single mother Doris, who is kind but hardened by circumstance. She no longer believes in fantasy and fairy tales and instills this into her young daughter Susan. To replace an incapacitated Santa for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, she hires a man who calls himself Kris Kringle and says he is the actual Santa Claus. After a psychiatrist deems him insane, Doris’ neighbor and beau, who is also an attorney, is determined to prove Kris is the genuine article.
Miracle on 34th Street has endured over the years because of its winning cast, pristine direction and script, and above all, gentle and authentic tone. There is never one false note. Earnest and sincere, this holiday film also gives us a profound lesson about faith and belief. Even when common sense tells us the contrary, we must still believe in people and ourselves. In the end, the real miracle isn’t Santa winning his trial. It is Doris and Susan learning to believe.
1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
One of the most enduring films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life is also, without a doubt, the most iconic Christmas film ever made. Director Frank Capra brilliantly and poignantly brings to life the story of George Bailey, a man who always held lofty ambitions and dreams. But instead of adventures in the great unknown, he lived a simple life, marrying a college friend named Mary, raising a family, and always being a steadfast, generous, and true neighbor to his fellow townsfolk in the small town of Bedford Falls. This includes doing his part to thwart the malicious and greedy Mr. Potter from overtaking the town.
When his Uncle Billy loses a large sum of money, and George feels responsible, he feels defeated and contemplates ending his own life. That is until prayers send him the guardian angel Clarence to show George what life would be like without him. And that would be a grim fate for Bedford Falls and George’s loved ones.
It’s A Wonderful Life is the most exemplary and seminal Christmas film for many reasons. The cast is superb, especially James Stewart, in one of the most beautiful and moving performances of his career. In the capable hands of director Capra, the story exudes poignancy and profundity. The story is about faith, family, and love. And the moment George realizes he wants to live and returns home to be greeted by his family and neighbors is one of the most classic and touching scenes in film history. But above all, It’s A Wonderful Life shows us that every one of us is worthy of life and grace.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Marianne Paluso is a freelance artist and writer inspired by her favorite films, television, theme parks and all things pop culture. She especially loves Disney, classic films, fairy tales, period dramas, musicals, adventures, mysteries, and a good rom-com. She also partakes in the occasional Disneybound, cosplay, and YouTube video.