People have always used the holiday season to celebrate and delight in the wonders of Christmas, from singing carols to decorating the home, to gatherings with family and friends, and drinking hot cocoa and egg nog. Most who celebrate would also add watching classic Christmas movies to that list.
Audiences have modern favorites like Home Alone and Elf and love animated television specials like Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But for anyone wanting true classic Christmas movies in every sense of the word, the golden age of cinema from the 1930s to the 1980s provides viewers with an abundance of films brimming with Holiday cheer.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s perennial Christmas film embodies the term classic in every way. The story follows George Bailey (James Stewart), a man on the brink of ruin, contemplating ending it all. Mercifully, an angel trying to earn his wings visits George, giving him a glimpse of a world where he doesn’t exist. This thoughtful, beautiful, profound film features faith, family, and community spirit themes, guided by Capra’s fine direction.
With exceptional performances, It’s A Wonderful Life showcases how every life has value, every act, no matter how grand or small, matters, and that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” The movie’s final moments will bring even the most stoic viewer to tears. This film also stars Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchel, and Henry Travers.
2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Besides It’s A Wonderful Life, no other film epitomizes classic Christmas movies like Miracle on 34th Street. The film shows Santa Claus getting a job at Macy’s Department Store in New York, bringing joy and remembering what the holiday season should embody. However, the real test comes from convincing a guarded woman, her young daughter, and the state who put him on trial of his true identity.
Miracle on 34th Street exudes a cheerful, intelligent, and rich spirit about believing in the things that “common sense tells you not to” thanks to the outstanding screenplay by George Seaton and performances from Edmund Gwenn (who won Best Supporting Actor), Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, and John Payne.
3. A Christmas Story (1983)
Hilarious and heartwarming, A Christmas Story brims with nostalgia for a simpler time and features exceptional 1940s period fare. And yet, the film remains relatable to multiple generations because of the humorous narration, terrific cast, and engaging story about childhood. Almost any viewer celebrating Christmas can relate to wishing for one specific gift. Moreover, anyone can resonate with the realities of adolescence, which include bullies and mischief, as well as the hope of something extraordinary. A Christmas Story feels equally sentimental, sweet, funny, and sharp- something few films–even other classic Christmas movies–can claim.
4. White Christmas (1954)
White Christmas holds the distinction as the most gloriously beautiful Christmas film ever made. The rich colors, dazzling musical numbers, and Irving Berlin songs give the film a glossy sheen. But the story also delights to no end. It follows two WWII veterans who head to Pine Tree, Vermont, with a pair of singing sisters. There, they discover their former commanding general owns and runs an inn on the brink of failure. Together, the four decide to put on a show to help save the struggling establishment.
As comforting as a cup of hot cocoa, when viewers imagine cozy classic Christmas movies, White Christmas will come to mind. This iconic film, directed by Michael Curtiz, stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.
5. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Modern faith-based films should take a page out of The Bishop’s Wife’s book as it showcases themes of spirituality, reconciliation, redemption, and love without ever feeling heavy-handed or self-righteous. This poignant film follows an angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) who answers the prayer of a harried bishop (David Niven) looking for guidance. Dudley provides a particular sort of assistance, including charming the bishop’s wife, Julia (Loretta Young), and everyone he meets. In this tender movie, the black-and-white cinematography adds to the film’s beauty. At the same time, the engaging story reminds viewers of the importance of faith in fellow humans.
6. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Christmas in Connecticut feels like the embodiment of the “Jingle Bells” lyrics “making spirits bright.” This romantic screwball comedy follows Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a writer who’s made a living depicting herself as a wife, mother, and incredible chef, living on a farm in Connecticut. Truthfully, the unmarried Lane lives in a small apartment and uses her uncle Felix’s recipes for her articles. When her editor wants her to host a war veteran for Christmas, she must scramble to keep up the ruse.
Christmas in Connecticut radiates warmth, lovely romance, and light humor to create a cozy film. Combining unabashed romantic moments with zany scenarios and genuine laughs creates a heartwarming holiday atmosphere. The film also stars Dennis Morgan, S.Z. Sakall, and Sydney Greenstreet.
7. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Modern audiences will know the story of The Shop Around the Corner through its remake, You’ve Got Mail. But the original version shines just as brightly with a more traditional and somber undertones.
This film follows the Montaschek & Company gift shop employees in Budapest, Hungary. Two workers, Klara Novak and Alfred Kralik (Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart), bicker constantly without realizing they are each other’s anonymous pen pals. Set during the holidays, The Shop Around the Corner feels old-fashioned and timeless with its tender story about love, forgiveness, and integrity.
8. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation holds the title of the most laugh-out-loud among classic Christmas movies. Clark Griswold dreams of having an old-fashioned family Christmas at his home, but things do not go as smoothly as he hopes. The tree takes up half the living room, the lights he puts on the house don’t (initially) turn on, the in-laws bicker, his irritating cousin arrives uninvited with his family, and his Christmas bonus fails to live up to expectations.
Of course, that creates all kinds of shenanigans, pratfalls, and comedic gold while remaining heartfelt. The brisk, quotable, hilarious movie deserves to sit alongside its comedic counterparts like Home Alone and Elf.
9. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Set in 1904, Meet Me in St. Louis follows a close-knit St. Louis family awaiting the World’s Fair. The oldest siblings deal with the pangs and joys of love while the younger kids get into mischief. Charming, wholesome, and winsome, the songs, primarily performed by Judy Garland, radiate joy.
Although the movie takes place during an entire calendar year, the Christmas season features prominently and significantly in the film. Indeed, these moments highlight the Victorian era’s beauty and the importance of family. The seminal holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” originates in this film during one of the most gorgeous moments in the canon of classic Christmas movies–and in cinema history.
10. Bachelor Mother (1939)
Engaging, witty, and heartfelt, Bachelor Mother follows Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers), a lonely shopgirl who witnesses a baby left on a foundling home’s doorstep. Believing she’s the mother, Polly becomes a parent overnight despite her protests. She also grows close with her charming boss, David Merlin (David Niven). Set during the holiday season, most would classify Bachelor Mother as more of a New Year’s Eve film, but it still features that classic holiday charm and a story ahead of its time about found family.
11. Holiday Affair (1949)
Holiday Affair tells the sweet-natured story of Connie (Janet Leigh), a widow, mother, and comparison shopper who meets a handsome stranger, Steve (Robert Mitchum), and inadvertently gets him fired from his job. As the two grow close, he also connects with her young son, Timmy. Already in a long-term relationship with a stable man, Connie’s confusing feelings create a complicated Christmas for all.
This romantic, understated film feels genuine and authentic in the situations and feelings expressed. At the same time, the holiday setting creates a charming atmosphere. Holiday Affair may be underrated but remains a favorite for fans of classic Christmas movies.
12. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941)
Based on the stage play of the same name, The Man Who Came to Dinner revolves around the chaos surrounding a sarcastic man who stays with a family during the holidays after he slips and breaks his hip on their doorstep. With no regard for anything but his own needs, Sherry Whiteside (Monty Woolley) must learn that his propensity for giving unsolicited advice, his eccentricities (one day penguins arrive), and his selfish ways have consequences that profoundly affect people.
His actions affect his secretary, Maggie (Bette Davis), the most when she falls in love with a charismatic reporter. This witty, thoughtful film will delight viewers looking for a less conventional Holiday film but with an undeniably classic feel.
13. Remember the Night (1939)
When audiences picture a Christmas movie, especially an older one, chances are few imagine somber, melancholy films. But this attitude disregards gems like Remember the Night, which more than deserves remembrance.
The story centers on a woman accused of shoplifting during Christmas time. Out of mercy, the prosecutor takes her home with him on the pretense that he’ll bring her back for judgment after the holidays. Remember the Night may have a more severe tone. Still, the tender, grounded performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and the perennial holiday themes of redemption and compassion warm the heart.
14. Never Say Goodbye (1946)
A holiday film reminiscent of The Parent Trap, Never Say Goodbye follows a divorced couple, Phil (Errol Flynn) and Ellen (Eleanor Parker), who share custody of their seven-year-old daughter, Flip. Sadly, over the situation, Flip and Phil want the family back together. Naturally, complications arise, and hilarity ensues. The charm of this film comes from the lighthearted performances and creative moments, including a Santa-themed Marx Brothers homage. S.Z. Sakall essentially plays the same character as his Christmas in Connecticut role, earning his nickname “Cuddles.”
15. It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
It Happened on 5th Avenue tells a meaningful story about a group of strangers who take up residence in an opulent mansion while the owner vacations in his winter home. Unbeknownst to them, the owner joins them, learning much-needed lessons in humility. The others find love, friendship, and a sense of family previously unknown.
A truly underrated gem, It Happened on 5th Avenue features understated but lovely holiday fare and profound lessons in gratitude and compassion. The films stars Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, and Victor T. Moore.
16. I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)
A lesser-known film, I’ll Be Seeing You features one of the most melodramatic and melancholy plots in any holiday film. But it also gives viewers a profound story that will still resonate with a modern audience. In the movie, a woman on furlough from prison for Christmas meets a soldier plagued with PTSD, then known as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” These lonely, sad souls find a genuine connection as they celebrate the holiday with her family. But she fears growing too close because of her reality.
Although from the 1940s, its themes of sensitivity and empathy remain as impactful. The film’s tone may be somber, but filmmakers also imbue the movie with a tremendous sense of hope. I’ll Be Seeing You stars Ginger Rogers, Joseph Cotton, and Shirley Temple.
17. Meet John Doe (1941)
It’s A Wonderful Life may be Frank Capra’s crowning achievement, but Meet John Doe deserves to be on a list of classic Christmas movies too. The movie centers on a reporter who creates a fictional figure to save herself and the failing newspaper she works for. She composes a letter “written” by a man who finds the state of the world hopeless. Taking the world by storm, they hire a man to be John Doe. But while he creates a sensation, some ruthless individuals want to tear him down and all the good he stands for.
Meet John Doe proves Capra’s ability to engage and captivate audiences with deep-seated truths about humanity. And the performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper will astonish and bring many to tears.
18. By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)
Doris Day and Gordon MacRae delight in this wholesome turn-of-the-century set musical. A sequel to On Moonlight Bay (which also deserves a watch), this movie sees sweethearts Marjorie and Bill in love and ready to get married. But Bill wants to be more established in his career and wants to delay their nuptials. Meanwhile, misunderstandings lead Marjorie and her young brother Wesley to believe that their father is involved with a glamorous French actress.
By the Light of the Silvery Moon charms viewers with wholesome and sweet-natured period fare. The film feels like a warm blanket and features lovely, winsome songs and scenes set during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ice skating and singing around the piano never felt more delightful.
19. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
Bing Crosby reprises his role as Father O’Malley in Going My Way for this equally touching, thought-provoking drama. In the film, O’Malley goes to help a struggling Catholic school. There, he and Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) work together to save the rundown institution and guide the children, often disagreeing and engaging in friendly arguments. Their varying methods cause significant clashes. But they find common ground, imbuing the movie with hopefulness. Spiritual viewers will enjoy The Bells of St. Mary’s most acutely, especially the children’s wholesome, funny, and heartwarming re-telling of the Biblical Christmas story.
20. We’re No Angels (1955)
Those looking for unconventional classic Christmas movies that retain the seminal themes of holiday films need to look no further than We’re No Angels. The movie centers on three escaped convicts from Devil’s Island. They stumble across a family-owned general store with plans to rob them. But in no time, these criminals with hearts of gold change course and decide to help this unsuspecting family with their personal and financial struggles.
We’re No Angels proves that classic Christmas movies do not need snowfall and sleigh ride scenes to feel cheery. This funny, good-natured film succeeds because of its timeless themes of redemption, goodwill, and friendship, in addition to the fantastic performances from Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray.
21. In the Good Old Summertime (1949)
This musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner epitomizes old-fashioned charm and holiday cheer. With the advantage of over-saturated colors, the Christmas-y feeling abounds. Despite the title, most of In the Good Old Summertime occurs during the holidays. It follows the same basic plot as the original.
This version trades the leather goods shop for a store that sells instruments, which allows for musical interludes for stars Judy Garland and Van Johnson. The Shop Around the Corner reigns as the superior film, but In The Good Old Summertime will still enchant viewers.
22. A Christmas Carol (1938,1951)
Movies have retold A Christmas Carol numerous times, with each giving audiences something unique and memorable. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who receives visits from four ghosts, awakens his sense of compassion, kindness, and the spirit of Christmas. And it remains as timeless, resonant, and impactful as ever. Some love the Muppets take on the Dickens tale, while others enjoy the 1990s musical.
The 1938 and 1951 adaptations follow the book faithfully for classic movie fans. But each stands out for its beautiful cinematography and the actors who portray Scrooge. Reginald Owen and Alastair Sim each make the character their own.
23. 3 Godfathers (1948)
Westerns and Christmas movies do not typically go hand-in-hand. But 3 Godfathers delivers a different story than the traditional Western. In the film, three thieving cowboys on the run stumble across a woman, alone and ready to give birth. She delivers a beautiful baby boy but perishes, leaving the men in care of her child.
This moving, engrossing film takes inspiration from the three wise men. It gives viewers unconventional Christmas fare that exhibits holiday themes and tropes. It stands out with rich performances and a story that tugs at the heartstrings more than the usual Western narrative. 3 Godfathers stars John Wayne, Pedro Armendàriz, Harry Carey Jr., and Ward Bond.
24. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
The brilliance of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles comes from the perfect blend of outlandish comedy and genuine emotion. The story takes place during the Thanksgiving weekend. Strait-laced Neal (Steve Martin) wants to get home to his family in Chicago, and the annoying but lovable Del (John Candy) latches onto him.
Their wacky misadventures include every travel problem imaginable, resulting in endless hilarity. But the film surprises the audience when it gets honest, deep, and heartwarming, elevating what could be merely a silly comedy to a holiday classic.
25. Die Hard (1988)
The debate about whether Die Hard should qualify as a Christmas movie still rages, with each camp providing solid arguments. The premise does not entirely scream holiday cheer. A group of European terrorists takes partygoers hostage. But police officer John McLane thwarts their plans with quick thinking and bravery. This solid action film will surely make any “best thrillers” list. But it’s also become an annual holiday movie for simple reasons.
The plot occurs during an office Christmas party, showcasing holiday decorations and songs. Moreover, the story involves a reconciliation for a couple and a redemptive arc for McClane, who’s lost his way, a staple for many holiday films. It may not be the traditional Christmas film, but it deserves a spot on any classics list. Die Hard stars Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, and Reginald VelJohnson.
26. The Apartment (1960)
Set during the Christmas season, The Apartment follows an insurance clerk who lends his apartment out to higher-ups in the company for their affairs and liaisons. One night, he returns home and finds a woman alone, distraught, and on the verge of ending her life. He saves her life, lets her stay with him, and the two grow close.
This romantic drama delivers on every level, from its nuanced, emotional performances to the moving script and outstanding direction by Billy Wilder. The holiday feeling takes a backseat, so the cozy warmth one may expect lacks. But it provides an appropriate backdrop for the thoughtful story. The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray.
27. Holiday Inn (1942)
Holiday Inn follows an accomplished dancer and an affable singer who own an inn. But they only open it on holidays throughout the year. As they entertain their guests with lively numbers, the two also try to win the heart of a beautiful singer they hire.
Chock full of old-fashioned entertainment, the songs enchant viewers thanks to the incomparable Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. One said performance involves the outdated and insensitive use of blackface, so be fair warned. But the rest of the film charms, especially hearing the first rendition of Crosby’s perennial song “White Christmas.”
28. Come to the Stable (1949)
In this poignant film, two nuns travel to the small town of Bethlehem in hopes of building a children’s hospital. Needing funding and assistance, they recruit various townsfolk. But one man throws a wrench in their plans, not wanting anything made near his home. Come to the Stable embodies the spirit of the holiday season with its themes of goodwill and charity. The soft and serene film stars Loretta Young, Celeste Holm, Elsa Lanchester, and Hugh Marlowe.
29. Desk Set (1957)
One of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s best films sees the pair clashing over the research methods for a television network. Richard enters Bunny’s department with a secret: a plan to add computers. But as they bond and engage in witty banter, things grow complicated.
Christmas provides a festive backdrop for this romantic comedy, so the holidays do not dominate the film. Still, the overall feeling makes this a worthy addition to a classic movie fan’s annual rotation of films.
30. Bells are Ringing (1960)
Set during the holiday season and ending with a New Year’s party, Bells are Ringing follows a sweet, empathetic woman who works for a New York answering service. Because of her big heart, she gets involved too closely with her clients, including a struggling playwright she falls in love with.
Stars Judy Holliday and Dean Martin shine brightly in this utterly charming musical. The colorful, comedic, heartwarming movie gives the audience a delightful film for the end of the year.
31. Young At Heart (1954)
Young At Heart follows the romantic entanglements of three sisters and the men they love. One sister finds herself torn between two musicians, the stable, charming Alex and the stoic and sad Barney.
The romance and drama dominate this poignant movie. But the film’s conclusion, set at Christmas, ends it on a beautiful, emotional note filled with holiday spirit. Young At Heart stars Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Gig Young, Dorothy Malone, and Ethel Barrymore.
32. One Magic Christmas (1985)
The 1980s often gave audiences more somber classic Christmas movies than any other decade. One Magic Christmas fits into that category. In the movie, a family gets dealt a heartbreaking hand during the holidays with financial struggles and the death of their father. But with a bit of Christmas magic from the angel Gideon, things can be reversed if the mother, Ginny, learns to believe again.
While darker than most expect from a Disney film, it should not deter viewers. A dash of whimsy and faith creates a moving tale for families to enjoy. One Magic Christmas stars Mary Steenburgen and Harry Dean Stanton.
33. Scrooged (1988)
This adaptation of A Christmas Carol feels more adult and PG-13 than other versions. With Bill Murray in the titular role and a darker tone and sense of humor, Scrooged will appeal to the more cynical viewers who, deep down, still have hope in their hearts. This funny and ultimately heartfelt movie also stars Karen Allen, Carol Kane, John Forsythe, and Robert Mitchum.
34. Prancer (1989)
Prancer follows a little girl who discovers a wounded reindeer in the woods. Lonely but loving, she believes the deer is Santa’s Prancer and tries to nurse him back to health. In the process, her despondent father heals his heart, as well. Prancer’s sorrowful tone feels of the era in this grounded holiday tale that stars Sam Elliott and Cloris Leachman.
35. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
The origins of Santa Claus get a whimsical treatment in this oft-forgotten film. In the movie, Nicolas, his wife, and two reindeer get lost in a snowstorm, and a miracle occurs. A group of elves come to their rescue, saying they’ve been waiting for them- and thus Santa and his workshop begin. The story also revolves around a greedy toymaker, his precocious niece, and a homeless boy who befriends Santa. This fanciful film stars David Huddleston, Dudley Moore, and John Lithgow.
36. Fitzwilly (1967)
With the stars of Mary Poppins and Get Smart at the height of their fame, Fitzwilly brings viewers a tale of good-intended criminal activity and deception. The story centers on the staff of a once-wealthy older woman. Led by the butler Fitzwilliam, her employees derail items from their deliveries and stop check payments to maintain her way of life, which she unknowingly cannot afford anymore. Though not as Christmas-infused as others, the themes still embody the season’s spirit.
37. The Holly and the Ivy (1952)
This British-made film feels like a 1940s movie and portrays a repressed family coming together at Christmas. The three children fear they can’t tell their parson father their truths, each facing difficult personal trials. The film’s slow pace and lack of significant plot movement for the first hour may deter some viewers. But this melancholy film ends strongly and on a hopeful note.
38. Babes in Toyland (1961)
Walt Disney hoped Babes in Toyland would captivate audiences, creating a staple among classic Christmas movies. Unfortunately, the movie feels more like a cult favorite. But that doesn’t mean it lacks charm. The storybook look and exaggerated characters will only appeal to some, primarily children. Still, the stop-motion animation and affable presence of Annette Funicello, Tommy Sands, and Ray Bolger offer viewers harmless holiday fun.