Maybe it's the memory of snow days and long winter breaks with little to do or the reality of freezing temperatures and harsh conditions that make the holidays so well suited to taking in a movie. And so, among the many traditions that set in this season, curling up on the couch with old favorites or catching the current blockbuster has become an American ritual in its own right.
As such, holiday movies often carry a special significance. In terms of content, they may reinforce particular themes of the season, but they are especially distinguished by context, explains Skip Dine Young, professor of psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and author of "Psychology at the Movies."
"The viewing of them is extremely ritualized," he says. Just like the holiday itself, movie-watching on Christmas has become its own tradition, he adds. In his research, Young found that many families not only watch a specific movie for the holidays, but some even organize elaborate rituals around the screening – on the Saturday before Christmas, for example, just before decorating the tree. These movies carry all kinds of associations for people, who will watch their family's movie of choice – even if it's in July – to summon the nostalgia and feelings that come with it, Young says.
Even for those who don't observe Christmas, going to the movies on Christmas has become the standard ritual for Jews throughout America – that and Chinese food. It's what's open.
In any case, the spirit of holiday movies often revolve around a theme that's central to what Young calls the "winter solstice holidays," and that's hope. "It's a time where the weather and the land are not very hospitable, living is hard" – especially "in more distant times, but still even today," he says. "[Hope] has a particular power during this barren time of the year and, therefore, many of the Christmas movies kind of pick up on that spirit of hopefulness."
Then again, some people find the classic Christmas movies shmaltzy – if not downright depressing when the idealized version of the season is at odds with their current circumstances.
"I like movies that subvert the notion of what a holiday movie is supposed to be about," says Christy Lemire, former Associated Press movie critic, contributor to rogerebert.com and co-host of the YouTube movie review show "What the Flick?!" One of her personal picks? "Bad Santa," the dark comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic sex-addict con artist ripping off the mall where he works as Santa Claus.
"I like movies where the people aren't perfect, and they're not happy and they have to figure it out together," Lemire says. That could be said of another of her holiday favorites, "Die Hard," the 1988 thriller starring Bruce Willis as a New York cop who tries to free his wife and others held hostage at the office Christmas party. "Yes, there is redemption, and there's hope, and there's optimism and there's victory," she says, but it's also "really violent and bloody."
[See: 8 Ways to Become an Optimist.]
Still, Lemire concedes that the happy holiday tale responds to a certain longing. "The year is ending, and there's this promise of renewal right around the corner," she says. "A lot of emotion and expectation is wrapped up in this time of year, and these movies often reflect that." In delivering that heart-warming happy ending, "the comfort food element of these kinds of movies is sort of universally irresistible," she says.
But no matter what kind of emotional destination you're after, there's a holiday movie that can help get you there.
Want a classic Christmas tale? It doesn't get more life-affirming than the aptly-titled "It's a Wonderful Life." In the 1946 film, James Stewart's despondent George Bailey gets a new perspective, literally, when a guardian angel blocks his plans to commit suicide and shows him all the good his life has brought to the world. "As somebody watches a movie like this, what it does is affirm what they already want to believe, but they see it kind of concretized in a story," Young says. Such a movie can anchor a belief in families, despite the ambivalence and complicated feelings that can go with the territory, he explains.