Christmas movies tend to trod familiar ground. That's the nature of tradition, after all. We rightly love the ritual of watching movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story or White Christmas. These are all fine films (to varying degrees), but rare is the Christmas movie that captures the truth of Christmas, the—dare I say it—true spirit of the holiday: the coming of the Christ.
The following films, which are either lesser known Christmas fare or aren’t usually associated with the season, capture that truth in unique and deeply artistic ways. All of them, in their own way, contemplate the coming of the Prince of Peace to a world that doesn't readily accept him. Perhaps they can provide new, meaningful, and thoughtful traditions for your family.
John Wayne and John Ford, who gave us the western classic The Searchers, also collaborated on this rare Christmas western, an adaptation of the story of the three wise men. Wayne plays Robert Hightower, an outlaw who discovers a dying pregnant woman while on the run from the law. Hightower and his partners help her give birth to the baby; before she dies, the woman begs the bandits to save the baby’s life. This is an unusual western, filled with dreams and visions, almost like an Old West It's a Wonderful Life. In the end, the movie is committed to the idea that redemption is possible for all men when peace is substituted for violence.
These films contemplate the coming of the Prince of Peace to a world that doesn't readily accept him.
Children of Men
My friend Joshua Gibbs, editor over at Film Fisher, calls Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 masterpiece the greatest Christmas film of all time, describing it as “timeless in a truly theological sense of the word.” You won’t find Children of Men on most lists of Christmas films because its setting hardly recalls the holiday season: in 2027, women across the world have inexplicably become infertile, sending society into chaos. Yet this becomes the story of how one baby (the last baby, in fact) brings hope when the night is darkest. As Gibbs writes, the birth of this child is a “sign that God has not abandoned us, despite our wishes to the contrary,” that he is faithful even when Herod seems most powerful.
This is the third part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Polish television series, inspired by one of the Ten Commandments (and discussed earlier on TC). In the short film, two former lovers, Ewa and Janus, run into each other during a Christmas Eve mass. Ewa concocts a plan to get back together with Janus, who is married and wants to get home to his family. This is a melancholy film, but also a poignant reminder of the hope-giving value of the harmony, empathy, and intimacy provided by family and community.
Directed by French filmmaker Christian Carion, this film tells the real-life story of three groups of entrenched WWI soldiers (French, Germans, and Scots) who drop their weapons, leave their trenches, and come together to celebrate Christmas Eve in 1914. They play soccer, listen to beautiful music, and even partake in a Christmas mass. It’s a remarkable celebration of peace, a story of transformation and goodwill in the midst of bloody conflict.
Millions is about a young English boy named Damian who suddenly comes into possession of a great deal of money. That is, it literally falls from the sky—and right around Christmas. Knowing there are many people who will spend the holiday hungry and alone, he wants to give the money to them. But his older brother, influenced by the recent death of their mother and the mourning of their father, thinks they ought to keep the money for themselves. While trying to figure out what to do, Damien is visited by several saints, including the famously generous St. Nicholas, who offer various pieces of advice about how to best use the money. I won’t spoil the ending, but only say that Millions is a fitting reminder of Christ’s challenge that we be like little children.