The 12 Best Christmas Movies for Families
A significant portion of the Christmas traditions in our family involve Christmas films. We always watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Christmas Eve. And we always watch Elf and The Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that a significant portion of my childhood Christmas nostalgia is tied up in some of my favorite movies as well.
I actually believe that the best Christmas films and TV specials are responsible for a lot of the magic found in Christmas. Better than any other medium, these films allow us to sit together as a family and celebrate the spirit of Christmas through imaginative works of art.
The very best of these Christmas classics are inspiring on a completely different level. They don’t just inspire me to get into the Christmas spirit, they often inspire me to be a better person. Quite frankly, anytime I’m left pondering the meaning of life - as I often am during Christmas movies - I know I’ve experienced a beautiful work of art.
You can use this list in a lot of ways. You could be hunting for a new Christmas movie for the family to watch on Christmas Eve. Or maybe you’ll be reminded of some of your childhood favorites – movies that you can now share with your kids. Or perhaps you could use it to do your own personal analysis of my psyche. Whatever your purpose, we stand by the greatness of these Christmas classics.
We’ve narrowed our list down to 12 films and TV specials in honor of the 12 days of Christmas. Perhaps you could start from the top and do your very own countdown. At the end of the day, this is a list of our favorite Christmas films - the ones that make us the happiest. And that’s ultimately the best recommendation I can give.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. The links of movie titles and images will lead you to view their listings on Amazon.com.
12. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
When we ranked the best Christmas Carol movies of all time - we put Mr. Magoo in 2nd place and pointed out that it might be the most under-appreciated version of A Christmas Carol out there. The music was written by Broadway composers and it’s incredibly good. And Mr. Magoo makes for a fantastic Scrooge.
The scene in this movie that makes it really stand out for me is young Scrooge alone in the schoolhouse as a young boy when all the other children went home to be with their families on Christmas. The young boy sings a beautiful, sad song - “All Alone in the World” - and the older Scrooge begins singing along. This very sad scene makes me really empathize with Scrooge in a way no other version does. More so than any other adaptation, this one forces me to consider what made Scrooge the way he is, and it makes his desire to help Tiny Tim that much more touching.
And would you believe Mr. Magoo predates Rudolph by 2 years? That makes Mr. Magoo the originator - the grandfather of the made for TV Christmas specials.
11. The Snowman (1982)
The Snowman made our list of the best Christmas picture books as well, and we pointed out that the original book doesn’t include the visit to the North Pole that the movie does. This bonus scene certainly removes the ambiguity between Winter story and Christmas story - and makes this one undeniably a Christmas film, and definitely one of the best.
Another thing that the original book obviously lacks is the stunningly beautiful score. To be honest, this score has a lot to do with why I find The Snowman to be so magical and special. It even makes me love the book more. I can’t get the music out of my head even when I’m reading the story.
Our local symphony plays the score along with a screening of the film every year at Christmastime. This stage production is a relatively new tradition, and one I hope my children remember fondly the same way that I remember some of the other films on this list.
10. A Christmas Story (1983)
Familiarity has not bred contempt with A Christmas Story. Even though it’s played on Christmas Day for 24 hours straight every year, it still most definitely works. In fact, it kind of adds to the charm. Even if you just turn it on as background noise all Christmas - it’s nice to just know it’s there for you.
There are about 1 million things to like about this movie. Like quoting Monty Python, you could spend hours going back and forth with your friends about your favorite parts - the leg lamp, the rabbit pajamas, everybody warning Ralphie that he’ll shoot his eye out, getting wrapped up in so many snow clothes you can’t put your arms down, the kids triple-dog-daring each other to stick their tongues on a cold pole. (As an aside, I remember fondly trying that last trick as a child after watching this movie, and I can confirm that it works.)
Like many of the great Christmas movies, A Christmas Story is about family, and it’s a very relatable family. I even picked up a great parenting trick from them - getting your kids to eat their dinner by acting like a pig and not using their hands. Who would have thought a Christmas movie could turn out to be so practical?
9. Home Alone (1990)
To be quite honest, my children (6 and 2) have only watched an abbreviated version of this film so far. But the picture book version made such an impression on my son, we had to put it on our list of our favorite Christmas picture books. His favorite part was most certainly the booby traps, and he definitely wanted to watch the movie afterwards.
As I pointed out in our list of movies I can’t wait to show my kids, there are a few parts of this film that I’m still waiting a year or two for my kids to see. But it’s definitely easy enough to zip past them for now.
What people tend to forget is how sweet of an ending Home Alone has. Both for Kevin and his family, and for his neighbor Marley. The booby traps are definitely a blast for the kids, and they make this movie a classic for good reason, but never undersell how touching it is to see Marley and Kevin both reconnect with their families on Christmas.
8. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Out of all of the Christmas TV classics, Rudolph is my favorite, and also objectively the best. I say this because it’s really an incredibly original story. The music is great and there are a lot of lovable characters.
Just take a moment and think about all of the wildly different characters in Rudolph - Hermey, Yukon Cornelius, Bumble, the misfit toys. They’re so incredibly random and so endearing it just simply finds a way to work.
I’ve always said to myself, “gosh Santa and Rudolph’s dad are pretty awful in this movie”. But they have nothing to do with what I love about Rudolph. This movie ultimately celebrates being yourself in a world where you sometimes might not feel like you fit in. There is nothing more awesome and random and hilarious than Hermey the elf wanting to be a dentist instead of making toys.
Like The Snowman, this just so happens to be another show that has become a tradition at our local theater - with a live action play. Of course the classic music makes Rudolph a wonderful fit for the stage as well. And I certainly hope it becomes a fond Christmas memory for my kids.
7. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I simply can’t picture any of the major holidays without quickly thinking of Charlie Brown. The Peanuts gang has definitely weaseled its way into our collective hearts and has staked its claim on the holiday game.
Charlie Brown speaks for many people when he voices his concern about commercialism. The Christmas season has become bothersome to him, and instead of being happy, he actually feels depressed.
Lucy, his psychiatrist, plays a vital role in this one since Charlie Brown is having himself an existential crisis. He also talks to his friend Linus about his concerns, and Linus throws back maybe the best line of all time:
“You’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
But, even though he’s the Charlie Browniest, he makes a good point. His search for meaning is the heart of this film. It makes me happy to watch in the same way It’s a Wonderful Life does - with an earnest search for the meaning of life, and a lesson in finding joy in the things we have. Have Charlie Brown climb up on a bridge or have George Bailey chat with his psychiatrist Lucy and who could really tell the difference?
6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
The Grinch is the first of three movies that we annually watch at Christmastime. It’s a tradition from my wife’s family. The whole world definitely loved their Christmas specials in the 60s. It’s remarkable how many of them are still the best and treasured to this day.
The pairing of Dr. Seuss’ story and artwork with the classic song by Boris Karloff gave us a timeless work of art. There’s so many great moments in the movie it’s hard to pinpoint my favorite part. Is it Max with one antler tied to his head? Cindy Lou Hoo climbing out of bed and questioning the Grinch?
And do I love the movie more because it has the best Christmas monster of all time - a creature willing to sneak into your house as Santa and lie to your kids? Or do I enjoy it because of his redemption and the heartwarming ending? It’s really hard to say. At the end of the day it’s great to have both of those things. And then everybody walks away with a deeper understanding of what’s important in life.
“And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
5. Elf (2003)
The second of the three movies we watch every Christmas, Elf is my wife’s favorite Christmas movie.
Will Ferrell is a comedic genius, and it’s pretty cool to have him tackle Christmas and put together a really touching film. Who would have thought?
My favorite part of Elf is how buddy is the absolute epitome of childhood innocence. A lot of the magic of Christmas comes from childhood wonder - and Buddy is full of it - so I definitely have a sweet spot for this movie. And the fact that it’s Will Ferrell acting like a big kid is side-splitting, and it really doesn’t get old.
Even though the song is admittedly incredibly questionable, I love listening to Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. And I will never get tired of Will Ferrell running inside a coffee shop to congratulate them for making the world’s best cup of coffee, or making up a singing telegram about his life story and how he loves his dad.
It’s a completely different kind of Christmas movie, but it has many of the common themes about belief and innocence and the meaning of Christmas. And maybe it’s because of the original delivery that the message comes across so well.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is objectively the best film on this list, seeing as it’s one of the best movies of all time. But it’s objectively the best for lots of non-Christmas reasons too, and this is my list, so it doesn’t quite reach #1.
It’s certainly a great romance and a very well-crafted look at the meaning of life. George has seemingly had a lot of tough breaks, keeping him stuck at the Building and Loan - but certainly this is the best example in cinematic history of showing us all how to appreciate the gifts that we have - most important of all a loving family.
The crafting of this film is genius. I love the framing of the film with the flashbacks to George’s childhood and his courting of Mary. And the concept of seeing what life would be like if you never existed is a brilliant one. It’s led to many copycat films that I always enjoy, because it’s such a great idea. (I actually like Nicolas Cage’s Family Man a lot.) It works because it’s such a beautiful thought to imagine all of the lives one person can touch. And, kind of like Scrooge, it’s nice to see the protagonist get their head screwed on right by the end.
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
In my humble opinion, this is Tim Burton’s masterpiece - and that’s saying a lot. The Nightmare Before Christmas also made our list of the best Halloween movies for families, coming in at number 3 on that list as well.
Allow me to take a moment to ask this question again: Why in the world is The Nightmare Before Christmas not yet a worldwide smash-hit Broadway musical? I’m going to make a pact to ask this question every single time I bring up the film until it finally happens. Why are the powers-that-be dropping the ball on this one so bad?
Strictly analyzing the Christmas elements of the film, we have to point out the amazing songs “What’s This?”, “Making Christmas”, and “Jack’s Obsession”. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record - but once again we have the theme of the true meaning of Christmas. Tim Burton’s hilarious spin on the theme is asking these Halloween characters to try to figure it out. And Jack is obsessed to the point of running scientific experiments on Christmas items. What does it mean!
2. A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1987)
A Child’s Christmas in Wales is similar to A Christmas Story since it tells the tale of Christmastime from the point of view of a young boy and his friends. It places a much greater emphasis on artistic beauty though, and it leaves me feeling much happier.
And, just like A Christmas Story, the greatness of this film is in the collective sum of dozens of memorable moments and funny one-liners. I particularly love the boy’s assessment of his preference for “useless gifts” vs “useful gifts”. One of the useless gifts was a packet of candy cigarettes (remember those?):
“And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it.”
I personally find the dialogue to be hilarious - like this moment when a neighbor’s house is on fire:
"Let's call the police as well," Jim said. "And the ambulance." "And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."
The film is a wonderful adaptation of the book by Dylan Thomas, and it’s framed with a grandfather telling Christmas stories of his childhood to his grandson. Having a narrator preserves Thomas’ beautiful words, and it works perfectly in this nostalgia-filled movie. Ultimately, it’s a tale of nostalgia and a celebration of a simpler time. But most of all it’s a reminder that Christmas is a very special time for a child.
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Muppet Christmas Carol is the final non-negotiable Christmas tradition in our house, and the most important one for me. The Muppets are cast absolutely perfectly in every single tiny role in the film. And Michael Caine is a treasure and adds the perfect amount of seriousness and prestige to the movie.
The music in this movie is amazing, and it absolutely makes it the best family Christmas movie ever. I legitimately look forward to hearing them each year. If the local radio just played these songs instead of the usual classic Christmas carols, I wouldn’t complain.
The Muppets are hilarious, the movie is spooky, and it definitely makes me cry every year more than once. It features the saddest breakup scene with the love of his life (with old Scrooge joining in on the singing just like he did during the sad song in Mr. Magoo), and I challenge you to find a more heartbreaking portrayal of the effect of Tiny Tim’s death than the one given by Kermit’s Bob Cratchit. It’s hard to watch the behavior of Kermit and Ms. Piggy trying to stay strong for their other children.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite Christmas movie of all time, and I plan on this magnificent film remaining a household tradition for many Christmases to come.
Did we miss your family’s favorite Christmas movie? Let us know what you insist on watching every year in the comments. Merry Christmas from our family to yours! Unless you’re reading this article in July. In which case, I like your style.