Christmas Movies and the Religious Dimensions of Story Structure

Can religion help settle the debate about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie?

By Russell P. Johnson|December 2, 2019

The holiday season is a time to spend time with friends and family, to give gifts and express thanks, and of course, to reflect on the complex relationship between religion and culture.
Max Weber’s 1905 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism remains a touchstone in the study of religion, not just for its conclusions, but for its methodology. Weber argued that Calvinism could be discerned not only in the pious practices and confessions of many modern Western countries, but also in people’s everyday attitudes toward work. Weber’s work stands as a reminder to not limit the scope of religion to doctrines and rituals, but to recognize how religious ideas suffuse cultures even when many in those cultures have abandoned explicit religious commitments.
Christmas movies provide a handy way to illustrate Weber’s thesis. Of course, some Christmas classics have explicitly Christian elements—think, for instance, of Linus van Pelt quoting the Gospel of Luke to a beleaguered Charlie Brown. But even Christmas movies that don’t quote the Bible tend to share a story structure that relies on—or at the very least suggests—Christian influence.
This story structure begins with a character who is preoccupied with work, money, and competition. The character isn’t always greedy and one-dimensional—audiences still relate to them—but they prioritize career and profit to the neglect of those close to them. They have, in Charlie Brown’s words, “gone commercial.” Buddy the Elf’s father in Elf (2003) is a good example, as are the urban workaholic protagonists of innumerable Hallmark Christmas films
Through a series of unexpected events, these characters realize that what’s truly important is the relationships they have with others. The most famous example is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, in which four ghosts guide skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge on a path from greed to gratitude and generosity. The story is fundamentally one of conversion, specifically conversion from seeing one’s value as wrapped up in one’s work and achievements to finding life’s meaning in relationships of giving and receiving love. As Michael Caine sings at the end of the Muppet version, “If you need to know the measure of a man, you simply count his friends.” The character’s priorities have been reshuffled by the Christmas spirit, and whether or not their heart grows three sizes, their attitude toward success and material gain has been transformed forever. The typical Christmas movie ends, as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) does, with the main characters hugging one another with a newfound gratitude for the time they share together.
Though there is nothing exclusively Christian about this sort of story, it echoes key Protestant themes: that what ultimately matters cannot be earned, that people are in need of conversion to a more other-oriented way of thinking, and that this awakening is the result of a miracle of some sort, an interruption—often supernatural—into the workaday world. As Linus would remind us, this interruption has a great deal in common with New Testament stories of the Incarnation of Jesus. Buddy the Elf has just as much right to be called a Christ figure as the self-sacrificial heroes of more dramatic films. 
In contemporary Christmas movies, then, we find a version of the Christian message that challenges the “spirit of capitalism” Weber theorized about, but we also find echoes of a troubling tendency to project a materialistic mindset onto Christianity’s other, which since the early middle ages has often taken the form of anti-Jewish caricatures. We also find in Christmas movies a focus on family that is marginal at best in the New Testament, but reflective of more recent developments. So we can say that Christmas movies are the product of centuries of Christian history, reflecting a combination of civil religion and American filmmaking.
The Christmas movie genre draws on Christian themes, to the point where filmmakers with no religious commitments or intentions find themselves relying on these conventions to tell stories, unaware of the Protestant resonances. The prevalence of this story structure in holiday movies suggests that Christian ideas permeate American culture even in secular media that make no explicit references to the story of Jesus’s birth. The term “cliché” refers to an expression or trope that has been so overused that it has lost some of its original meaning. If the holiday movie genre has become cliché, it’s largely a Protestant version of Christianity that was the original meaning. And, as Weber reminds us, religious influence in a culture lives as much in the clichés as in people’s conscious beliefs.
In conclusion, while not all Christmas movies share this story structure, many do. By tracing how the Christian story of the Incarnation gets translated and re-translated until we end up with Jack Frost (1998), we can see the cultural staying power of religious ideas. We can also, for what it’s worth, weigh in on the most hotly debated question surrounding the Christmas movie genre, that is, whether or not Die Hard (1988) is a Christmas movie. Bruce Willis’s John McClane begins the film prioritizing his job over his family. When asked by his driver why he didn’t move out to L.A. to be with his wife, McClane responds, “I'm a New York cop. I got a backlog of New York scumbags I'm still trying to put behind bars. I can't just go that easy.” A series of circumstances over the film compels McClane to do the right thing even when it’s the risky thing. He also learns a lesson about regret, when fellow cop Al tells him, “When you're a rookie, they teach you everything about being a cop except how to live with a mistake.” Through his ordeals, McClane realizes how much his family matters to him, acknowledges his mistake, and is able to reconcile with his wife Holly. (Is it a coincidence that Holly shares her name with a plant that has been used since the middle ages to illustrate the story of Jesus? Probably.) 
Of course, Die Hard isn’t a perfect representation of the peaceable kingdom of Jesus Christ, but it perhaps does tell us something about American civil religion. ♦

Image: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) featuring Miss Piggy, Michael Caine, Fozzie Bear, Kermit, and Gonzo. (Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection | Walt Disney Co.)

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


Russell P. Johnson

Columnist, Russell Johnson (PhD’19), is Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Religious Studies Program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research focuses on antagonism, nonviolence, and the philosophy of communication.