Of course, lists of favorites are subjective, but I’m listing a few of my favorite holiday movies and music CDs, in the hope that the DDF community will continue the conversation. Obviously, the movies are about stories. But it’s no surprise that some of our most loved Christmas songs are stories, too.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, director Frank Capra)
There have been various other movies doing some version of this story, but you really can’t do better than Jimmy Stewart. And although it’s an old movie, the script is really quite good. The theme is timeless: Each one of us adds something to this life that only we can add, and so we do matter, very much, to the community.
A Christmas Story (1983, director Bob Clark)
This was set about a decade before I was born, so I recognize many little details, and the neighborhood looks similar to the one I grew up in (in Kansas, not Indiana). The mother is somewhat stereotypical (although fairly authentic for that time), but in many ways she is really a smart woman and a good mother. And you can’t help but like the dad, who can seem bumbling and grumpy but who is actually wise and knows how to make things work.
A Christmas Carol (1984, director Clive Donner)
Yes, there are earlier and later versions, even musical ones, of this classic tale by Charles Dickens. But George C. Scott is as gutsy as Scrooge gets, and he’s convincing, and I never tire of this story. The theme: it is possible to change your life and bless the world.
Scrooged (1988, director Richard Donner)
You either like this movie or you don’t. You either like Bill Murray or you don’t. I happen to like both. It’s the right tone of comedy on a serious theme—a comedic remake of A Christmas Carol. And Murray does take me in when he does that out-of-control, heartfelt speech at the end. Also a good satire on Hollywood.
The Family Man (2000, director Brett Ratner)
I confess that I’ve had a crush on Nicolas Cage since I was 40, and, yes, this is yet another angle on It’s a Wonderful Life, but this is a nicely done family story. How can you not like Téa Leoni—she’s practically an archetype of the good wife: sensible, enthusiastic, playful, loving. And Cage is the archetype of the man whose life is driven by ego and the capitalist dream; in a way this is also a remake of A Christmas Carol, with Cage’s character a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge.
The Nativity Story (2006, director Catherine Hardwicke)
I always cringe when someone does a movie based on Scripture—so few of them are any good. And I didn’t expect to like this one. But it pulled me in. It’s the first mainstream film to make clear that Mary was pregnant out of wedlock and ruined her reputation by saying yes to the angel Gabriel. Even the main characters are not very pretty and are far from perfect—no idealized people here. And, having lived about 30 miles from Jerusalem years ago, I think the depiction of their journey to Bethlehem was pretty realistic. Except probably there would have been rain and fog.
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971, pilot episode for the television series, The Waltons)
My grandparents lived through the Depression, and so a lot of the Waltons’ story touches on my memories of grandparents’ conversations about how people related to faith, family, food, poverty, and national stress during that time. The script for this movie—and later, for the series—was well done, taking into account complex characterizations, which is always refreshing when it comes to material made for TV.
The Polar Express (2004, director Robert Zemeckis)
The first time I saw this, Jim and I took grandkids to see it in the theater. After that, I had to buy a copy to watch at home. What can I say? Visually stunning, it’s magical, a lovely representation of a child’s imaginative experience. It has the quality of a vivid dream, the kind that has something important to tell you.
Every year I collect one or two new Christmas CDs, but I’ll list here only the handful that I truly savor year after year.
Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration (1992, Word Entertainment)
I believe Quincy Jones helped pull together all these marvelous musicians to produce this special rendition of Handel’s classic baroque masterpiece, using various musical styles of the African American experience and employing some of the best talents in the industry. I like to listen to it while doing the holiday baking, so I can dance as I work.
Celtic Celebration (1998, North Star)
Numerous CDs carry some version of this title, but the one I’ve owned for nearly two decades features Steve Schuch and the Night Heron Consort. Celtic and classical instruments perform standard Christmas carols and hymns in a lovely and understated way.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (2012 remastered and expanded, Fantasy Records)
Pianist Vince Guaraldi, whose compositions and performances set the tone for all the Peanuts television shows, gives us 16 piano pieces, including the Peanuts melodies but also Christmas carols and other standards. Nobody else sounds like this, and few CDs make me happy as this one does.
Judy Collins: Come Rejoice! (1994, Rhino / Wildflowers / Mesa)
This is probably my favorite Christmas album of all time. Collins’s voice is clear as a bell, her choice of carols and popular tunes is familiar and pleasing, and I still cry every time I hear her original piece, “Song for Sarajevo” with the St. Thomas Boys Choir. And several of the songs she has chosen tell stories.
I’ve not included Handel’s traditional Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and various other classical pieces that are in my library and get played every Advent and beyond.
A Christmas musical performance available on DVD that I discovered just a couple years ago: Sting: A Winter’s Night, Live at Durham Cathedral. Exquisite music, tastefully done in an intimate setting. Settle in on a cold evening with hot cider for this one.
All right, time to hear from the DDF community. What are some of your favorite Christmas films and songs?