The Cardinal Virtues in Christmas Movies

Hannah Crites

The Cardinal Virtues in Christmas Movies

One of my favorite holiday traditions has always been settling on the couch with my family to watch Christmas movies. Every year, after we finished dragging boxes out of the storage room to transform our living space into a winter wonderland, my family would watch Elf starring Will Ferrell, quoting the whole thing from memory earned after countless rewatches. 

The classic Christmas movies bring about childhood nostalgia for most of us, however, there are also lessons in virtues that we can find in many of these stories we all know and love. 

What are the Cardinal Virtues? 

Cardinal Virtues is a buzzword I’ve heard over and over again, whether it be in a homily, a spiritual book, or a Catholic blog like this one! The best resource we have to understand the Cardinal Virtues is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

It defines them as, “Four pivotal human virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith.” (CCC 1805, 1834) 

The virtues are a gift from God, meant to help us draw near to Him and imitate Him. We are meant to challenge ourselves to grow in virtue every day. Let’s dive into the cardinal virtues through the lessons that can be found in Christmas movies. 


“The virtue which disposes a person to discern the good and choose the correct means to accomplish it….Prudence provides the proximate guidance for the judgment of conscience.” (CCC 1806)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947, 1973, and 1994)

Despite his grumblings about the commercialization of Christmas, Kris Kringle accepts a job as a department store Santa Claus in New York City. To everyone’s surprise (and disbelief) he claims himself to be the real Santa Claus. Particularly unconvinced is his boss, Doris, and her young daughter Susan, who has been raised to trust logic only. Hence, no fairy tales, no creativity, and definitely no Santa Claus. 

But, time and time again, Kris proves himself to be Santa Claus; allowing Susan to pull on his very real white beard, speaking Dutch to a newly adopted orphan girl, bringing in more sales to the department store despite his unconventional strategy to send customers to other stores to find what they are looking for, and promising Susan her Christmas wish of a house and a new father. Slowly, Susan starts to learn about the value of imagination and questions whether there is an error in her view of the world. 

However, things turn south when Kris assaults a man who attempts to stand in his way of compassion and is sent to jail. 

Kris’ defense attorney, and Doris’ love interest in the film, is told that in order to win the case, he has to prove that Kris is the real Santa Claus on the basis of “competent authority.” Meanwhile, Susan, who is now convinced that Kris is telling the truth about who he is, writes him a letter, addressing it to Santa Claus at the New York City Post Office. The mail sorter then decides to send Kris all of the mail in the dead letter box addressed to Santa Claus. Thus he unknowingly declares that the U.S. Postal service, a branch of the U.S. government and “competent authority,” acknowledges that Kris is Santa Claus. The case is then dismissed. Doris’ and Kris’ lawyer fall in love, Susan gets her Christmas wishes, and they all live happily ever after. 

Prudence helps us to determine right and wrong. It can help us not just from a moral perspective, but from an intellectual angle as well. Logic told the characters in Miracle on 34th Street that there was no way Santa was real and that Kris could possibly be Santa. But after taking a few steps back to observe the whole situation, they were able to conclude that he was telling the truth about who he is. 


“The cardinal moral virtue which consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and to neighbor.” (CCC 1807)

A Christmas Story (1983)

This coming of age story follows Ralphie Parker, a nine year old boy in 1940, getting ready to celebrate Christmas with his family. His deepest Christmas wish is a Red Ryder BB gun, which is rejected by his mother, teacher, and creepy mall Santa Claus with a mocking, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

It’s a funny movie that allows us to ponder days of old and our own Christmas childhood memories. But what does it teach us about justice? In summary, justice focuses on our relationship with God and neighbor. It’s giving them what they are owed.

Throughout the movie, Ralphie learns the consequences of many irresponsible decisions. Sticking your tongue on a frozen poll results in getting it stuck. Winning a somewhat promiscuous lamp will result in an unhappy wife. Having a neighbor with a lot of dogs results in a lost Christmas turkey. Swearing in front of your father will result in holding a bar of soap in your mouth. And shooting at a metal sign with a BB gun will result in you almost shooting your eye out. 

The cardinal virtue of justice goes beyond our understanding of legal justice. It’s not dealing out of punishment. Ralphie beat up a bully, but his mother didn’t punish him. It’s a beautiful scene where one look from his mother results in Ralphie coming to his senses and breaking down in tears over what he has done. Out of love for him, his mother helped Ralphie recognize who he is and what he is not. 


“The virtue which ensures firmness in difficulties and consistency in doing the good.” (CCC 1808) 

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Perhaps one of the most iconic films of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a small town man with big dreams to see the world, until life gets in the way. George is a beloved man in his small town: as a boy he rescues his brother after he falls through the ice, when his father unexpectedly dies George puts his college plans on hold and takes over the family business, and he uses his honeymoon funds to rescue the townspeople when the Great Depression hits. 

By all counts, he is a good man. But, when disaster strikes on Christmas Eve and $8,000 is misplaced (adjusted for inflation it’s about $100,000), the threat of bankruptcy, scandal, and prison looms. George prepares to take his own life but is rescued by his guardian angel who shows George what the world would be like had George never been born. 

The lesson touches George deeply. His brother is dead, his wife unmarried and lonely, the business is gone, and the greedy Mr. Potter has taken over the town leaving many of the people George had helped on the street struggling to survive. 

George begs for his life back, which is granted. And he returns home to the town rallying to raise the lost money. 

It’s a heartwarming story that teaches us about fortitude through George’s story. Fortitude challenges us to choose what is right even when everything is telling us to run away in fear. George exercises this virtue throughout the whole film. When it mattered most, this practiced skill safely delivered him from himself and back to his family and town. 


“The cardinal virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasure and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the mastery of the will over instinct, and keeps natural desires within proper limits.” (CCC 1809)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

This adaptation of the classic Christmas story by Dr. Seuss tells the story about the Grinch, a mean green creature who lives above Whoville who hates Christmas. On the contrary, the Whos of Whoville celebrate Christmas to the nines with parties, decorations, feasts, and presents. The Grinch has no interest in celebrating Christmas, until a sweet, compassionate little Who named Cindy Lou Who, visits the Grinch in his mountaintop dwelling to invite him to a Christmas celebration in Whoville where she nominated him to be the town's "Holiday Cheermeister." 

The Grinch agrees to attend but is humiliated by his childhood bully who is now the mayor of Whoville. Enraged, the Grinch destroys the festival and races back to his home where he hatches a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville. 

On Christmas Eve, he sneaks back into Whoville and visits the home of every Who, taking their decorations, presents, food for the Christmas feasts, and Christmas trees, leaving every Who with nothing to celebrate Christmas. Or so he thought. 

The next morning, the Whos blame Cindy Lou Who for inviting the Grinch to the festival which led to their Christmas being stolen from them in the night. But Cindy Lou and her family help the townspeople understand that Christmas isn’t solely about the presents and decorations. They all join hands and begin to sing carrols. 

Meanwhile, the Grinch hears the Whos singing and realizes that despite his efforts, he failed to rob their Christmas. He has an epiphany that Christmas is so much greater than the things he stole from them the night before. He returns to Whoville with their stolen items and a changed heart (literally). He then joins the Whos for their Christmas celebrations. 

Temperance, in the most basic terms, is “the virtue which moderates in us the inordinate desire for sensible pleasure, keeping it within the limits assigned by reason and faith.” (Divine Intimacy). It requires self mastery and the ability to deny ourselves the pursuit of pleasure. 

In the story of the Grinch, the Whos went wild with their Christmas celebrations, causing envy and greediness to navigate through the hearts of the Whos. It’s not until they were stripped of the things bringing them those emotions that they were able to see the error of their ways and celebrate Christmas in the way that it was supposed to be celebrated. 

In turn, the Grinch learned about the error of his ways. Instead of seeking revenge on the Whos, he sought their forgiveness and was inspired by their joy, even in their sadness. He could have just counted his losses and returned to his cave, bittered by the whole experience. But he didn’t. He was changed for the better. 


While this was all a fun reason to sit down and watch some of my personal favorite Christmas movies, it was a wonderful exercise. Consider your own go to Christmas movies not included in these four. What virtues are they teaching you as you celebrate Christmas with your loved ones? How can you embrace the virtues more in your life as we get ready for the new year?

To learn more about the cardinal virtues, check out this article from the Cora Evans Blog! The Cardinal Virtues in the Lord of the Rings.