The Top 12 Christmas Movies for Your Family to Watch

John Kubasak

The Top 12 Christmas Movies for Your Family to Watch

With Christmas arriving in less than a week, it's a great time to settle down together as a family, a watch a feel-good holiday movie. Here is a list of family Christmas movie suggestions—rent a movie, pop some popcorn, and grab the kids!

Holiday Inn (1942; starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Virginia Dale)

This classic movie stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, with Virginia Dale playing their mutual love interest.  Bing Crosby’s character, Jim Hardy, retires from the stage to run a farm in Connecticut.  After a year working on the farm, Jim decides to turn the main house into an inn that would only open on holidays.  The movie features musical numbers for New Year’s Eve, Lincoln’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and climaxes with Christmas Eve and the debut of one of the most popular Christmas songs: White Christmas.  The song won an Academy Award that year for best original song.

The movie is family friendly, albeit with the inclusion of the racially-insensitive blackface during the musical number for Lincoln’s birthday.  With Bing Crosby’s magnificent baritone voice and Fred Astaire’s incredible dancing talent—watching them, I’m amazed at how effortless they look while singing and dancing.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

White Christmas (1954; starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

Although Bing Crosby returns in a starring role, this movie is not a sequel to “Holiday Inn.”  Opposite Crosby is the entertainer and comedian Danny Kaye, playing Phil Davis, and a good foil to Crosby’s serious Bob Wallace.  Both men are veterans of World War II, and find themselves staying at an inn in Vermont run by their former general.  “White Christmas” is a fun, family-friendly movie that revolves around the love stories among the four stars, with lots of musical numbers in between.  Any veteran or family of veterans will love the final rendition of the song “The Old Man.”  And, the grand finale features the titular song.

Watch it on Netflix or rent it on Amazon Video

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992; starring Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Rizzo)

Michael Caine acts opposite a troupe of Muppets telling Dickens’ famous story “A Christmas Carol.”  Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat act as narrators throughout the story.  Don’t let the presence of the Muppets mislead: alongside the comedy they naturally bring, the movie stays close to Dickens’ novel.  The Christmas season is well-known for concentrating on what’s really important.  “A Christmas Carol” perfectly fits that bill.  Ebenezer Scrooge unwillingly receives visits from ghosts (sometimes ghosts who sing and dance) from his old business partners, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.  Scrooge’s cold heart is thawed by the memory of his past love, and by compassion for those who are suffering.

Scrooge illustrates two great, simple truths in the spiritual life.  First, while we breathe, it is not too late to change course in life.  This is the message of Divine Mercy, as passed onto us by St. Faustina.  There is no such thing as a lost cause when it comes to grace.  Second, that gift of grace can bring about incredible healing!

Rent it on Amazon Video.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966; animated TV special)

The original Grinch movie came out as a TV special in 1966, and it’s worth watching the original for Boris Karloff’s iconic narration alone.  It’s since been remade several times, with Jim Carrey among those donning the green Grinch fur.

As the story commences, the Grinch has already hated Christmas for 53 years.  He had a heart “two sizes too small.”  Finally, he’d had enough and decided to steal all the Christmas trees, presents, stockings, and decorations in the nearby town of Whoville.  Thinking this would ultimately crush their holiday spirit (misery wants company, after all), the Grinch is initially disappointed on the lack of wailing and crying in Whoville.  He only hears the sound of singing.  His heart converted, it grows three sizes and he returns everything to the residents of Whoville.  The Grinch even joins in the holiday feast.

This movie teaches a lesson that can’t be repeated often enough.  Christmas isn’t about the parties, presents, goodies, or baking—as good as those things are.  Christmas doesn’t depend on material things.  The value of Christmas is in the reason for the season: the abounding love of Christ Who became one of us in order to save us.

Rent it on Amazon Video.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946; starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers)

It took me years to watch this movie; I only knew it as that-one-movie that got played for 24 hours straight on a cable network.  Once I watched it, I could see why it’s such an enduring classic.  James Stewart plays George Bailey, a man who constantly put others before himself—to the point of exhaustion.  The burdens of life crushed him to desperation, considering suicide and speculating that the world would’ve been better off without him.  Clarence the angel enters and shows George a vision of what his town and the townspeople would be like if George had never been born.  The experience fishes George out of his crisis of faith in a remarkable way.

Does despair ever get the better of you?  Employ every ounce of your stubbornness (some of us are more naturally gifted than others) to hold onto the lesson that George Bailey learned: you are a unique, unrepeatable soul, loved and treasured by God.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

The Fourth Wise Man (1985; starring Martin Sheen)

This lesser-known film came from a short novel by Henry Van Dyke, telling the fictional story of a fourth Magi named Artaban.  Set in biblical times, Artaban (played by Martin Sheen) sees the Christmas star and wants to join the caravan of the three other magi.  Artaban has three precious jewels to give to the newborn king but is always one step behind.  First, he misses the caravan to Judea; then, he misses the Holy Family when they flee to Egypt.  Artaban never stops searching for the king, spending the rest of his life in pursuit of him.  

The Christmas story plays a large role in it and is only superseded by the charitable works of Artaban.  No matter what misfortunes befell him, Artaban always sought to help those less fortunate than himself.  The jewels did become gifts to the king, though not in the way Artaban expected: “‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:37-40)

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

Elf (2003; starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

Will Ferrell’s playful personality makes him the perfect fit for this role: Buddy the elf, landing in New York City during the Christmas season.  He finds out from his elf-dad in the North Pole that he was adopted.  Buddy seeks out his biological father (James Caan), meets his new stepmother and stepbrother and turns around the lives of everyone he meets.  One of the best parts about this movie is that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously.  The story is about the joy and love of the Christmas season; how an infusion of love can make a nice family into a great family.  This movie is a great fit for all ages, from children to adults to child-like adults.

Rent it on Amazon Video.

The Nativity Story (2006; starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac)

Even though this movie tells the Christmas story, parents should preview the first fifteen minutes of the film to make sure it’s okay for their kids to watch.  The slaughter of the Holy Innocents opens the movie; an animal is shown being sacrificed in the Temple; a girl is taken away from her family by the Romans because her parents could not pay their taxes.  With that said, this movie tells the Christmas story through the eyes of ordinary life in the first century A.D.— if nothing else, the movie has great merit in that.  Most of us have heard the Christmas story our whole lives.  Artists and theologians have reflected on Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the Magi, and the shepherds for centuries.  There are so many beautiful works with bright colors, halos, and the like.  Movies like this are a great reminder that Mary and Joseph were real people—unlike us in many ways, but very much alike as well.  They suffered, endured hardship, experienced joy, and were presented with tough decisions.

A good family exercise would be to read the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke after watching this movie.  Does the depiction of the Annunciation or Visitation match how you/your kids pictured it?  Use this movie as a tool to open up the Scriptures.

Rent it on Amazon Video.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947; starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven) or The Preacher’s Wife (1996, starring Denzel, Whitney, Courtney B. Vance)

These two movies follow the same story, with slightly different adaptations.  Cary Grant and Denzel Washington play an angel, Dudley, sent to an Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) and a Baptist Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance).  Both churchmen have become so enmeshed in their ministries & projects that their spiritual life and family life is suffering as a result.  It’s a matter of taste as to which movie fits your family – the original classic with the consummate gentleman, Cary Grant, or the remake with the considerable vocal talents of Whitney Houston. 

Either rendition reminds us of the importance of faith and family.  It’s an awfully trite thing to say during the Christmas season, but we do need reminders of even the simplest things.  Those things closest to us—like faith and our family—are often the things we take for granted. 

Buy The Bishop's Wife on Amazon Video.

Rent The Preacher’s Wife on Amazon Video

A Christmas Story (1983; starring Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Peter Billingsley)

This family comedy tells the story from the perspective of the main character, Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) about Christmas when he was nine years old.  We learn from later sequels that the movie took place in 1940.  I can’t think of any spiritual insights from the movie; its main superpower is nostalgia.  We can remember Christmases of days gone by, wishing for a toy, dealing with the quirks of family members, and getting unwanted presents (though none so spectacularly unwanted as Ralphie’s bunny suit).  Sitting down to watch this movie is like taking a step back in time to what it was like to be a kid at Christmas.

Rent it on Amazon Video.

Miracle on 34th Street (original 1947, starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne; 4th remake 1994, starring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Mara Wilson)

The original movie was shot in 1947, and multiple remakes followed.  The most well-known remake was done in 1994.  This is a great Christmas movie that on the outside focuses on the person of Kris Kringle/Santa Claus.  What if he lived among us?  The movie answers with a stark but nuanced view of human nature.  In the movie, skeptics assume Kris to have mental issues.  Yet even the skeptics were charmed by him, and despite their misgivings, could not overlook all the good that he did.  Though humanity’s fallen nature may look askance at goodness, truth, and beauty, the foundational goodness of human nature cannot ignore it.  Turn on this movie and be enraptured by the spirit of the Christmas season!

Rent the 1947 version on Amazon Video.

Watch the 1994 version Hulu or rent it on Amazon Video.  

The Santa Clause (1994; starring Tim Allen)

Comedian Tim Allen stars in the first of three Santa Clause movies as Scott Calvin, who unintentionally takes on the red & white mantle of Santa Claus.  At first, he struggles with his new calling.  When Scott has to don the suit again the following Christmas, he is less hesitant.  Unfortunately, Scott’s new job tangles things with his ex-wife over the custody of their son.  Still, this is a light-hearted Santa movie that’s perfect for watching during the Christmas season.

Rent it on Amazon Video