Every year at this time the internet once again tackles the pressing question: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? I remember the first time I heard this question, the answer was so self-evident in my mind: of course it’s not a Christmas movie. But a lot of people argue that it is—including most of the young adult men who populate the campus ministries I’ve been involved with.
So why is it that I think it’s not? Given the number of people who disagree, fairness and open-mindedness dictate that at least some inquiry be made into the question beyond my knee-jerk reaction. Spoilers follow.
Why Some Folks Think It Is
Supporters of the notion that Die Hard is a Christmas movie will make a number of points in defense of the position:
- The movie takes place on Christmas Eve at a Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza.
- John McClain (Bruce Willis) whistles Jingle Bells walking through the airport.
- After killing one of the terrorists, McClain sends him strapped to a chair in an elevator back to the other terrorists with a Santa hat on and a message written on his shirt: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.”
- The last words McClain speaks in the movie are “Merry Christmas, Argyle.”
- Argyle, his limousine driver, closes the film saying, “If this is their idea of Christmas, I’ve gotta be here for New Year’s.”
- Beethoven’s Ode to Joy plays as the terrorists open the vault and the lead safecracker says, “Merry Christmas!”
- Let It Snow! plays over the closing credits.
That could be considered a fairly substantial amount of evidence, but I remain unconvinced. This doesn’t settle the question—and indeed the fact that there are plenty of individuals who agree that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie suggests that the movie is neither self-evidently so nor is this list of points dispositive.
What Makes a Movie a Christmas Movie?
It becomes clear in my thinking that “Christmas movie” does not simply mean a movie that is in any way connected to Christmas. And as I reflected on this question, two basic criteria came to mind:
- Christmas must be an intrinsic part of the plot of the movie, without which the movie would be fundamentally altered.
- The movie must have something to say about Christmas, e.g., what Christmas means, what is important, what the central values of the holiday are, etc. Of the two criteria, this one is the more important one.
So let’s take these in turn.
Christmas Must Be Intrinsic to the Plot
First, is Christmas so essential to the plot of Die Hard such that without it the film would be substantially different? No. The party could have been a Fourth of July party and the movie would have made just as much sense. In fact, given that it was released in July 1988, it would have made more sense (Christmas movies tend to be released at Christmas time). The Christmas setting is merely an excuse to have a party and to bring John McClain out from New York to visit his estranged wife Holly. It provides some interesting background and setting, but is not intrinsic to the plot. In fact, at times, the presence of Christmas can be somewhat distracting. When Die Hard premiered in theaters, the audience tended to laugh with surprise when Let It Snow! began to play over the credits, as if everyone had either forgotten that the movie took place at Christmas time or found the sudden interjection of the Christmas holiday into an orgy of violence somewhat incongruous.
Indeed, would the movie suffer at all if instead of the incidental “Merry Christmas” people said, “Happy Fourth!”? Or if John McClain had written on the dead terrorist’s t-shirt: “Now I have a machine gun. Enjoy the fireworks!” Not at all. In fact, almost any reason could be given to change the holiday featured in the movie and the movie would not suffer at all.
In addition, it doesn’t even appear the producers and marketers of the film think of it as a Christmas movie: the movie poster included above makes not a single mention of the holiday.
The Movie Has to Say Something Meaningful about Christmas
Second, does the movie have anything to say about Christmas? I suppose you could say that it says something (something?) about the importance of family in the way that John McClain takes extraordinary measures to save his wife. But John McClain is also a cop. Are we to imagine that if this were the Fourth of July, he would not have taken those same actions? That it’s only because the Christmas holiday reminded him of the importance of family that he decided to take on a building full of terrorists?
Beyond that, there is not a single major theme of the Christmas holiday that is featured in the movie. Now, perhaps there’s a missing gospel in which the Baby Jesus hunts down all the soldiers who murdered the innocent children of Bethlehem, but otherwise, there’s little about the plot or themes that bears any substantial connection to Christmas.
In looking deeply at the movie, it becomes clear that the presence of Christmas is entirely superficial and incidental—it is neither intrinsic nor essential to the movie, nor does it have anything meaningful to say about Christmas.
Unlike Children of Men.
A Hidden Christmas Tale
This 2006 Alfonso Cuarón film takes place in a dystopian future in which women have not been able to get pregnant for decades. This catastrophe has led to other catastrophes: the collapse of most nations into lawlessness (except Britain), a terrorist attack on New York with a nuclear weapon, religious extremism, and a police state in the UK. The youngest person on earth—Baby Diego—is eighteen years old and, as the film opens, is murdered by a fan, causing the entire planet to mourn the death of its youngest member.
The film’s protagonist, Theo (Clive Owen), is a disillusioned activist who numbs his nihilistic pain with alcohol. He is approached by his ex, Julian (Julianne Moore), about getting some transit papers for a refugee to get her out of the country. When Theo later meets this refugee, he discovers an astonishing thing: she’s pregnant. He gets involved in trying to get her out of the country to a group known as the Human Project who are somewhere offshore attempting to save the human race.
A number of things occur throughout the film that give us a clue that we’re watching something other than your run of the mill dystopia. (Warning: spoilers ahead)
- Clive Owen’s character is named Theo, usually short for Theodore, which means “Gift of God.”
- When Theo meets Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the refugee, and she reveals that she’s pregnant, Theo exclaims, “Jesus Christ!”
- Kee reveals her pregnancy to Theo in a barn surrounded by animals.
- When Kee’s time to deliver comes, Theo and Kee are in a bombed-out building without any resources. Theo, a drinker who pockets travel-sized bottles of alcohol, remembers that he has such a bottle on him, and uses it to sterilize his hands.
- When the baby is born, Theo takes the baby and Kee out of the building as a fight rages outside between the military and insurgent groups in the refugee camp. When they emerge holding the baby, all the fighting stops and for a time, there is an incredible moment of peace as everyone stares at and beholds the first baby anyone on earth has seen in eighteen years.
- Having made it onto a boat with Kee and the baby, Theo succumbs to his injuries as the ship from the Human Project arrives out of the fog.
When we look closely, we find that what we’re watching here is an astounding retelling of the Nativity story. Theo is the Joseph figure, caring for a child not his own, who represents the hope of the world. Around him rage war and violence, machinations by those who wish to use the child as a symbol to launch revolution, and all manner of personal ambition. In the end, he loses consciousness on the sea, in a boat—a historic symbol of the Church.
All of this is to say, that a movie like Children of Men, that does not take place at Christmastime (although it was released in December), that has no Santas, no “Merry Christmas!”, no “Ho-Ho-Ho” is substantially more of a Christmas movie than Die Hard is, because it speaks meaningfully to the meaning of Christmas—the birth of a child, solidarity, sacrifice, providence, and hope—in a way that Die Hard never does.
What We Mean When We Say “Christmas”
In the end, what makes a movie a Christmas movie or not is what makes anything Christmasy or not: whether it embodies something meaningful about the holiday. This goes far beyond films and goes to every aspect of our lives.
It may be, that, when we really consider it, the rampant consumerism, the militant insistence on greeting people with “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays,” the pursuit of status purchases, the competition to out decorate our neighbors, and so on, all have about as much to do with Christmas as Die Hard does—bearing the superficial marks of the holiday without any of the real substance.
And we may find that it is in the renunciation of that same consumerism, in embracing compassion toward people of other faiths or of no faith, in making the commitment to community, justice, and genuine human relationships, that we find something more Christmasy—and Christ-like—than anything bedecked with green and red ever could be.