5 classic Christmas movies to watch with the family this year

It's a Wonderful Life movie Scene from "It's a Wonderful Life" | Credit: RKO Radio Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fire up your favorite streaming service, and there’s no shortage of Christmas movies for you to snuggle up with this year. But if you’re a Catholic parent looking for a classic Christmas movie — especially a classic that’s appropriate and enjoyable for the entire family — here are some ideas:

1. It’s a Wonderful Life

Does this movie really need an introduction? Severely underappreciated in its day but gaining status as one of the most perennially rewatched Christmas movies of all time, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the epitome of classic Christmas movies.

It's the story of a smart and ambitious small-town guy, George Bailey, who for a variety of reasons never manages to escape his provincial life and travel the world like he had always planned. When a seemingly insurmountable disaster besets George on Christmas Eve, he wishes he had never been born — a wish that, thanks to a friendly angel named Clarence, suddenly comes true. It's only after this heavenly intervention that George realizes how important and yes, wonderful, his “ordinary” life truly was. (Try not to shed a tear during the final scene. I dare you. I always do!)

George’s lesson is a lesson for us all.

The director, Frank Capra, was Catholic and his faith shines through in this film (even if some elements, like the depictions of angels, are more poetic than they are theologically sound).

A famous quote is attributed to Capra: “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”

Rated: PG

Where to watch: Streaming on Prime Video, or available to rent from iTunes, Google Play, and others

2. A Muppet Christmas Carol

It hasn’t been around for quite as long as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but if at this point you still haven’t seen this beloved movie… What are you waiting for? This is, quite simply, the definitive film adaptation of a classic novel, and in the 30 years since it came out, it has itself become a classic.

This movie features the fun and witty Muppets you know and love playing Dickens’ characters with colorful gusto alongside a stoic Michael Caine, who turns in a genuinely compelling performance as the miserly Scrooge. Despite some predictably silly shenanigans throughout, few adaptations of Dickens’ work contain so many direct quotes from the book, and it makes for a genuinely moving film. 

Of course, the story of “A Christmas Carol” contains few, if any, explicit mentions of Christ’s birth as the reason for the season. But the themes contained in Dickens’ ghostly tale — including care and concern for others, especially the poor — are vital to meditate on this time of year.

Be warned: You’re sure to be singing the songs from this movie for many Christmases to come! (“It’s in the singing of a street corner choir…”)

Rated: G

Where to watch: Streaming on Disney+, or available for rent from Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play, and others

3. A Charlie Brown Christmas

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Commissioned by the Coca Cola Company, most of the people involved in creating the Peanuts Christmas special — the first TV adaptation of Charles M. Schulz’s smash-hit comic strip — thought it would be a total failure. Instead, they created a classic. Vince Guaraldi’s music alone is enough to make this worth an annual rewatch.

The special’s use of humor to lampoon the “commercialization” of the holidays serves as a great reminder to all of us to step back from the nonessential elements of the Christmas season and to focus on what truly matters: Christ’s birth.

Even in the 1960s, public displays of religion on network television were rare. But the Nativity story, recited in all its glory by the cerebral Linus, is the crux of the special and fills the melancholic Charlie Brown with a radiant — and infectious — joy.

Good grief!

Not rated

Where to watch: Streaming on Apple TV (for free Dec. 22 through Dec. 25 only)

4. White Christmas

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A true Christmas family classic, “White Christmas” is about as old-school cinema as you can get, if you’re into that kind of thing. The musical numbers are witty and memorable, the dance routines are impressive, and the nostalgia factor — well, that’s off the charts. Featuring the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby and the hilarious Danny Kaye, the movie follows the pair — old war buddies turned entertainers — as they fall in love with a pair of singing sisters and follow them to a Pine Tree, Vermont, inn for the holidays. There they plan and execute a special Christmas event as a surprise to offer love and support to their former commanding officer, who now owns the floundering inn.

“White Christmas” may not be spiritually deep, but it has many positive themes throughout. Kids may not understand all the intricacies of the plot, but they’ll enjoy the Technicolor and the dancing. 

Rated: TV-PG

Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix, or available for rent from Prime Video, iTunes, and others

5. The Sound of Music

This may seem like an unconventional choice, but hear me out. This timeless classic, packed with some of the best and most singable songs in all of cinema, takes place in summer, that’s true, and there’s no mention of Christmas. But it’s packed with joy and positive themes — including familial love, obedience, and resistance to evil. Plus, I’m certainly not the first person to point out that lyrics like “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” and “brown paper packages tied up with string” can’t help but conjure images of Christmas.

Beyond that, here is a movie that truly celebrates the Catholic faith. True, much of the storyline revolves around Maria leaving her life as a religious sister — but she does so because she’s found a new vocation as a mother to the Von Trapp children and as a loving companion to the formerly strict and jaded Captain Von Trapp. The scene where the couple wed in a beautiful Catholic cathedral is awe-inspiring unto itself.

Admittedly, part of the reason “The Sound of Music” stands out in people’s minds as a Christmas movie is the fact that ABC has aired the movie on cable close to the holidays every year for the past 20 years. The movie’s “universal themes of love, family, and overcoming hardship in the face of adversity are exactly what we’re all thinking about over the holiday season,” according to the channel’s programming executive. I’m inclined to agree!

Rated: G

Where to watch: Streaming on Disney+, or available for rent from Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play, and others. Airing on ABC Dec. 18 at 7/6 Central.

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