The holidays are full of food, fellowship, and for many, watching holiday favorites on TV. But what makes something a Christmas movie? On this week’s State of the Arts, we talk with an expert on the subject.
TV and film researcher Joanna Wilson has a special kind of holiday spirit.
"I specialize in Christmas entertainment."
With nearly 20 years of holiday research, Wilson has written several books on holiday movies, TV and animated specials.
Her book "Tis the Season TV" is an encyclopedia with more than 3,000 entries on "everything that we would watch through television. That includes the holiday movies like 'It’s a Wonderful Life' and 'A Christmas Story' and everything in between."
Much like the Grinch's heart, her list is growing. Wilson said her expanded edition that's due out next year will feature more than 6,000 entries.
What is a Christmas movie?
"I use a criteria," Wilson said. "(It) must be set at Christmas or include significant Christmas scenes. I also want to know how much this program has influenced other Christmas programs. Is it out in the culture?"
"Do people return to it year after year to recapture their holiday spirit? This is an important part of how we watch Christmas entertainment and we watch Christmas entertainment differently than we watch anything else."
Annual scrutiny is applied to certain genre films that some see as outside the scope of the holidays, like the 80s action classic "Die Hard."
Is the Bruce Willis cop-versus-international-terrorists-blockbuster a Christmas movie?
Wilson's take: "absolutely."
"I love this conversation and I love that people are so heated about this."
"There are consistent scenes throughout the movie which include holiday content and people return to this movie, year after year, to recapture their holiday spirit. Even if it's an action film, it’s something that people love to turn back to."
Wilson said there's holiday programming in every genre, from children’s TV episodes to cult horror films like "Black Christmas."
“There really is Christmas entertainment for every viewer out there.”
And it doesn’t stop at Christmas movies, Wilson researches Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and winter solstice stories.
"Holiday celebrations actually have their own unique definitions and their own celebrations that are distinct. In the stories that we tell on television and in movies, there’s an awful lot of overlap (with other holiday traditions), so I cover them all."
But many Christmas classics are complete with sexist and flat-out racist content.
"These are very important conversations," Wilson said.
"We need to look back at them and call them out when they have outdated values. A movie like 'Holiday Inn', with Bing Crosby, that has some blackface scenes in it. It needs to be discussed. It continues to be relevant only when we confront those sorts of insensitivities that are no longer acceptable."
If your traditions include watching "White Christmas" or "The Apartment" every year, Wilson said they can be jumping off points for frank discussion about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
"We need to call these things out. I consider that an important part of what I do as a historian, is to point out these moments and how this is no longer ok."
Holiday movie patterns
Television networks and streaming services, like the Hallmark Channel and Netflix, turn into veritable Christmas factories every year, airing a massive catalog of beloved holiday content and producing new movies, episodes and animated specials by the dozens.
"These Christmas TV movies do have a formula. This is also an important culture conversation that many of us are having," Wilson said.
When it comes to holiday content, that formula is key.
"(Often) it’s a woman’s story. About a woman who's drawn back to a small hometown, usually. She comes from a big city. She has career challenges. She’s looking for love."
That formula is so ingrained that Saturday Night Live spoofed it this year.
But the formula is rigid for a reason.
"And yet it is these formulas that make these movies successful. This is exactly the point. This isn't a criticism that people should be making of these movies. This is actually its selling point."
Wilson said people crave predictable stories at the holidays.
"Escapism is important, fantasy elements and romance. Nobody wants to be alone at Christmas. People want to see others coming together. And this is part of the formula that makes these movies really popular."