Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?
Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? To answer that we have to answer another question: what is a Christmas movie?
Every Christmas the same debate returns about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. People who say it is a Christmas movie argue that it must be because it is set on Christmas. People who say it isn't a Christmas movie claim that Christmas has actually nothing to do with the plot--it's just an accident that it takes place on Christmas. Both sides have high-profile advocates: people who are in the "yes" camp include Die Hard's writer, Steven de Souza, and people in the "no" camp include Die Hard star Bruce Willis. Channel Awesome, Craked, and Fuller House, insist it is Christmas movie, but on the other hand, we have this tweet:
So what does it take to be a Christmas movie? Is being set on Christmas all it takes, or does it mean something more. And if it does, does Die Hard make that cut?
To figure this out, I sat down and listed to myself all the movies everyone agrees are Christmas movies and tried to find what they all had in common. It's really easy to list examples of Christmas movies because we watch them every year: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause, Bad Santa, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Home Alone, Jingle all the Way, White Christmas, A Christmas Prince and every Hallmark Christmas movie every made. There are others, to be sure, but that's a pretty solid sampling.
So what do these films have in common? They all have to do with Christmas, yes. But that's not all. After all, look at the movies that aren't on that list: Batman Returns and Iron man 3, Gremlins and L.A. Confidential, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon, The Apartment, etc. Those movies take place on Christmas or have Christmas necessary for the plot (such as getting the Gremlins as a Christmas present). But we still don't consider these Christmas movies.
So what do they have in common?
1. We watch them to celebrate Christmas
2. The story
Might sound obvious, but a Christmas movies is a movie we watch to celebrate Christmas. We watch them for the same reason we decorate a Christmas tree or buy gifts for our loved ones or sing Christmas carols or go to evening service or build snowmen or help the needy or eat with relatives even if we don't like them. These are yearly activities that either involve praising the values of Christmas (carols) or living out those values (giving). We watch Christmas movies as one of those activities. So a Christmas movie seems like it has to be one that helps us do that. Christmas movies don't just have Christmas as part of the plot, but actually celebrate Christmas in the movie.
So what is it about these movies that help us do that?
All these movies involve a hero who uses the values of Christmas to save broken people. Elf is about Buddy, a man who grew up living in Santa's village and goes to cynical New York City to meet his birth father, where his childlike love and optimism warms the heart of his workaholic father, brings joy to his dysfunctional family, restores hope to his jaded lady love and changes the city for the better. It's a Wonderful Life follows Geroge Baily who's about to commit suicide before an angel comes to show him that his simple family life really does matter. How The Grinch Stole Christmas follows The Grinch as his heart is changed by the love and generosity of the people in the town he stole from. A Christmas Carol is about a miserly banker who gets visited by spirits who change his heart to be more generous and loving. A Charlie Brown Christmas is Charlie Brown feeling depressed about the Christmas season until Linus reminds him of the true meaning of Christmas. Miracle on 34th Street is about a man who claims to be Santa Claus coming to a cynical and greedy New York and brings hope and generosity back to Macy's department store and a single mother and her child. All these stories involve broken people in a broken world, whether it's broken families in a cynical New York (Elf, Miracle on 34th Street) greedy people and poor people in 19th Century Britain (A Christmas Carol) or fantasy creatures and a fantasy world still filled with bigotry and hate (Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer). A hero comes, usually from outside that broken environment (Bad Santa, Miracle on 34th Street), often from outside our known world itself (It's A Wonderful Life, Elf, A Christmas Carol), and redeems the hearts of the people they meet, not through power, but through the values of Christmas: Love, generosity, faith, family, and childhood.
By now this story should sound familiar: it's almost exactly the story of Jesus. According to Christians, God sent his son to be born as a human so he could save broken humans by changing their hearts through his love. (Also by dying. But that has it's own holiday.) This shouldn't surprise us. For centuries the birth of Jesus has been at the heart of Christmas. Sure, before Christianity took over The West there was a winter solstice and now Christmas is both a religious and secular holiday, but that still leaves a few hundred years where celebrating Christmas has meant celebrating the birth of Christ. Charles Dickens figured out how to capture this Christian narrative in an original story, A Christmas Carol, which, I think it is safe to say, set our expectations ever since.
This also explains why non-Christmas movies with that same story get released on Christmas and do huge numbers: La La Land, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, The Greatest Showman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and this year's Mary Poppins Returns. They follow the same story of heroes (or board games) with childlike optimism and love bringing those values to redeem broken people and broken places. Some even have the agents of change be supernatural--increasing its link to The Bible. A Christmas movie works to help us celebrate Christmas because the story walks us through why we all love Christmas so much. Just like a Christmas carol lyrics are all about how great Jesus or the holiday season is, and gift-giving causes us to act out the values of Christmas, Christmas movies play out a scenario with characters where Christmas values are challenged and a hero comes to show why those values--and celebrating them at Christmas--are still great.
So, given all of this, we return to our original question: is Die Hard a Christmas movie?
Die Hard really is about a hero who uses the values of Christmas to save broken people. The movie is almost a checklist of everything we expect from the Christmas film narrative: 1) The movie has a broken family that needs to be put right. (The lead John McClane and his wife are separated.) 2) Christmas is front and center in the film. (John McClane comes to see her on Christmas Eve to try to reconcile and walks into a Christmas party at her office. The movie features lots of Christmas aesthetics in it's biggest moments, from a Santa outfit to a "Christmas miracle" highlighted by a rousing chorus of Handel's Messiah.) But most important, 3) John McClane embodies Christmas values and uses those values to save the day and reconcile with his wife. John McClane is a man driven by childlike faith in the heroes of his childhood like Roy Rogers. It's that faith that gives him the foolhardy courage to fight and defeat the terrorists against the warnings of all the "adults" in the film, including cops, businessmen, and the FBI. The villain even directly mocks John Mcglane explicitly for trying to act like TV Western heroes he must have watched as a kid. And he even gives credit to the divine--acknowledging that his fate is ultimately in the hands of " the big man". The problem is that Die hard celebrates Christmas values but doesn't give Christmas credit. An agent of Christmas like Santa or an angel isn't the hero, or someone explicitly inspired by Christmas, and people aren't changed by engaging in the holiday activities. John Mcglane is driven by his childhood heroes, yes, but those childhood heroes aren't tied to Christmas at all. The film takes place on Christmas and celebrates Christmas values but doesn't ever connect the two.
Does that matter? I don't know.
This is why I think Die Hard occupies a weird middle-space and causes so much debate. Does it matter If it celebrates Christmas values during Christmas but doesn't give it credit? Does it celebrate Christmas or simply Christmas values. And does that distinction matter? I'm tempted to think "no", but then it's a lot harder to justify saying anything else is not a Christmas movie to the degree that it would make the term almost meaningless. (Such as Batman Returns.)
Perhaps Die Hard is like a tomato. It's a fruit, but it's eaten "as a vegetable". (I'm not kidding. That's in the official definition. Look it up.) Die Hard is an action movie that is watched as a Christmas movie, because--even if it didn't intend to--it does help us celebrate Christmas.
As I think about this I realize I don't know whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. But I also realize something else.
I want it to be a Christmas movie.
I want Die Hard to be a Christmas movie because it does help me celebrate Christmas. Die Hard's messages about family and childhood resonate more deeply with me than almost any other Christmas movie because in my own childhood I was obsessed with characters just like John McClane. Just like the boy in Jingle all the Way I would always ask on Christmas for superhero action figures and superhero movies. Because part of being a child is wanting to be a big strong adult who can stop bad guys. There aren't really any other Christmas movies that speak to that side of me. In fact, most Christmas movies involve, to some degree, humiliating strong adult men, whether it's Scrooge, Grinch, George Bailey, Arnold Schwartznegger (oh stop you don't remember his character's name either) or the crooks in Home Alone. Ironically in a holiday celebrating childhood the one dream all children have does not seem to be represented in its stories. But Die Hard shows us we can both be the strong adult that fights evil as well as the loving husband who flies across the country to apologies to his wife and celebrate Christmas with his family. When I watch Die Hard, the child in me that dreamed of being that kind of a hero can, for the first time, celebrate Christmas too. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. How else do you explain the sheer number of people who are so invested in everyone accepting that this movie is a Christmas movie? Because all of us little John McClane's want to know that we have a part in Christmas too. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll be joining thousands of others across the land in watching one of my favorite Christmas movies. Even if I'm not totally sure it is one.