Winter is the perfect time to hit the video store, throw a log in the fire, pop some popcorn and enjoy a holiday movie with your family. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, these films can be a terrific way to enjoy the spirit of the season. Not wanting to play favorites, we’ve listed these flicks in random order.
"A Christmas Story" (1983)
Since its release in 1983, ‘A Christmas Story’ has almost overtaken ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for sheer number of cable airings over the holiday season. There was one network last year that showed this film for 24-hours straight. Why all the fuss? This film perfectly captures Christmas through a child’s eyes. Yes, as adults we can all pretend that Christmas is about giving rather than receiving, but only children can really indulge in that pure hunger for the perfect gift. Peter Billingsly stars as Ralphie, the boy whose heart is set on a Red Ryder BB gun. And with the refrain, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid” a holiday classic is born. Darren McGavin is terrific as the gruff dad who cherishes his ‘leg lamp’ and Melinda Dillon plays the mom who can’t help but laugh as her youngest son (Ian Petrella) does his best imitation of a pig at the dinner table. The best moment of the film is Ralphie’s visit to an overworked department store Santa, who just wants the kids to say what they want and move along as fast as possible. There’s no way Ralphie’s going to let that happen.
"Christmas Vacation" (1989) If you’ve ever watched your dad struggle to put up the Christmas lights, you’re sure to get a laugh out of this movie. Chevy Chase stars as Clark, the not-so-bright patriarch of the Griswald family who wants more than anything to have an old-fashioned Christmas with the whole family, despite the fact that his wife (Beverly D’Angelo) thinks that might not be such a good idea. Randy Quaid is back as cousin Eddie, the only family member who seems slightly dimmer than Clark himself. Ray Ramono’s mother-in-law Doris Roberts plays Chase’s mother here. ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ don, William Hickey plays the cigar-smoking, toupee-wearing Uncle Lewis. Juliette Lewis, two years before her breakthrough role in ‘Cape Fear’ plays Audrey Griswald and Jonathan Gilecki, years before his turn as David on ‘Roseanne’ plays Rusty Griswald. If you’ve ever had a not-so-fun Christmas with your family where everything seemed to go wrong, you’ll be comforted by the Griswalds — who have to deal with everything from flammable raw sewage to an angry squirrel hiding in the Christmas tree.
"Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) This story of a department store Santa who thinks he’s the real Kris Kringle will tame the resident cynic in any household. Edmund Gwenn stars as Kris, the Santa who’s willing to send Macy’s customers to Gimble’s if they can get their gifts there for less. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris Walker, a woman who’s afraid to believe in what she can’t see and who prefers logical discourse to romantic musings. She passes along this philosophy to her daughter Susan (a seven-year-old Natalie Wood), who refuses to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny and has no idea how to pretend at all. One of the best scenes is between Wood and Gwenn as he tries to teach her how to pretend to be different animals — a completely foreign concept to this logical little girl. After a store psychologist decides that Kris would be better off at Bellevue, it’s up to idealistic lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) to prove that not only is Kris sane, but that he is the real Santa. Gene Lockhart is a hoot as the caught-in-the-middle judge and ‘I Love Lucy’s’ William Frawley plays the judge’s friend Charles, who wisely advises him that it’s probably best not to be known as the man who brought down Santa.
"Holiday Inn" (1942)
The first film to feature Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas,” this film is also better than the one that bears that song’s name. “White Christmas” may have Crosby, but it doesn’t have Fred Astaire and there’s nothing that will put you in a warm holiday mood faster than watching Astaire take the floor. Crosby stars as Jim Hardy, a man who, after Astaire’s stolen his girl, decides to move to the country and open an inn that’s closed every day but the 15 holidays a year. Who wouldn’t want that schedule? Marjorie Reynolds plays Linda Mason — a talented singer who starts working at the inn and falls for Crosby. But will Astaire come and try ruin Crosby’s day yet again? Of course, he will. In the midst of all this action, you’ll get to celebrate multiple holidays — Easter, July 4th, and even President’s Day. In a very un-PC-like irony, the tribute to Lincoln is done in blackface — which has about the same cringe factor as watching Mickey Rooney play Asian in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Nevertheless, this is still a fun holiday treat, and when you hear Crosby sing “White Christmas” everything else will drop away.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965)
A better cure for the materialism of the holiday season than Buy Nothing Day, this made-for-TV movie features Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas. The classy Vince Guaraldi jazz score is unlike anything you’ll hear in a kid’s movie. And this is one of the few animated films that uses actual children’s voices. Classic moments include Charlie Brown falling for the scrawniest tree in the Christmas tree lot — one that quivers and loses needles the second an ornament is hung on it — and Snoopy’s full-throttle dive into the season, as he decks out his doghouse with lights in order to win money at a local contest. As the rest of the ‘Peanuts’ gang argue their way through a rehearsal of the Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown is left wondering, What’s the meaning of Christmas, anyway? When Linus reminds the whole gang that Christmas is actually a celebration of the birth of Jesus, it may become clear why this special almost didn’t make it to air in 1965. Religious content like this was foreign to animated specials — and still seems risky, even today. But whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you’ll appreciate the pure heart of this special and its attempt to de-commercialize Christmas.
"The Year without a Santa Claus" (1974)
Just watching stop-motion animation may put you into the holiday spirit. There are so many good examples, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” but one of the most fun is this 1974 gem that tells the story of a disillusioned Santa Claus and how his wife, with the help of a couple of elves, helps him regain the spirit. Suffering from a cold and convinced that the kids don’t care about him anymore, Santa decides he’s going to sit this Christmas out. Mrs. Claus sends two elves Jingle and Jangle Bells along with Vixen to find some kids who still believe in Santa and the spirit of the season. Things get complicated when they don’t find much spirit and, in disguise, Santa takes off after them. Along the way the elves meet up with the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser, not to mention Mother Nature. The songs will stick in your head — you’ll be able to annoy your coworkers for weeks. Mickey Rooney provides the voice of Santa Claus and ‘Hazel’s’ Shirley Booth voices Mrs. Claus.
"Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)
From the twisted mind of Tim Burton comes one of the best holiday films around. Halloween Town’s Jack Skeleton is bored with doing the same old spooky Halloween thing every year. One day he stumbles on Christmas Town and is delighted by the Yuletide celebration and decides that the residents of Halloween Town can do Christmas even better than “Sandy Claws,” as Jack calls him. So they decide to kidnap Santa and take over the Christmas duties themselves. The town’s Halloween spirit can’t help but infect their version of Christmas, and they end up unwittingly putting Santa in danger and threatening to ruin Christmas. Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman provides the voice of Jack; he also wrote the 10 songs on the soundtrack. This one may be a little bit scary for small kids, but it’s a lot of fun for the big kid in the rest of us.
"It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)
In the weeks that make up the holiday season, you can bet that somewhere in America, someone is watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And not just because it gets shown incessantly on television — so does the film “Cocktail” and that doesn’t make it a classic. What’s surprising about “It’s a Wonderful Life” is just how good it really is. Frank Capra’s holiday masterpiece tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who has big dreams but continually has to put them on hold because of his ever-mounting responsibilities to his business, his family and primarily to the town of Bedford Falls. One night, full of frustration, he makes a wish that he never existed, and an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if he’d never been born. Even though we’ve been trained to think of this film as a saccharine-laced treat, it’s the darkness — Potter’s greed, the town’s poverty — that really makes the heart of the story shine through. Donna Reed plays Mary Bailey, the woman who lassos George’s heart. The early scenes of the two of them falling in love are the definition of on-screen chemistry.
"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966)
Forget the Ron Howard-Jim Carrey confection from 2000, if you need a bit of good old-fashioned Grinching in your life, the only way to go is the 1966 TV special. Not only does classic horror actor Boris Karloff give voice to the creature “as cuddly as cactus,” it’s directed by Bugs Bunny cartoon-helmer Chuck Jones, as well as the long-eared rabbit’s animator Ben Washam. Based on the children’s book by Dr. Seuss, this is the story of a Christmas curmudgeon who decides to steal the holiday away from the residents of Whoville. After dressing in a Santa costume and tying deer antlers to his dog Max’s head, the Grinch proceeds to rob the Whos as they sleep. But perhaps Christmas decorations aren’t what give the Whos their holiday spirit. Whoville Christmas cheer may be just the thing to warm a Grinch’s cold heart. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” is a classic holiday tune. Who can resist lyrics like, “You’re a nasty, wasty skunk. Your heart is full of unwashed socks. Your soul is full of gunk. Mr. Grinch”? We certainly can’t.
"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944) Directed by Vincente Minnelli (“Gigi”), this story of the tight-knit Smith family on the eve of the World’s Fair in St. Louis stars Judy Garland as Esther Smith, a girl who’s fallen for the boy next door (Tom Drake). Margaret O’Brien is the film’s standout as little Tootie — the girl, who wants to prove she’s as tough as the boys on Halloween and who can also spin a good tale for the right amount of ice cream. Mary Astor (“The Maltese Falcon”) goes for the mother of the year award as the loving family matriarch. The family’s picture-postcard perfect life is turned upside down with their father’s (Leon Ames) announcement that he’s moving the entire crew to New York. Will the Smiths have to leave their beloved St. Louis home? The film features Garland singing a slew of wonderful tunes, including, “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.” And to get you into the holiday spirit, Garland also croons, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
"The Santa Clause" (1994)
You wouldn’t expect the death of Santa to be the start of a heart-warming holiday movie, but in the case of this Tim Allen (“Home Improvement”) film, that’s just the way the tale begins. Allen plays Scott Calvin a divorced father whose son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) seems unenthused to spend the holiday with him. But when Scott inadvertently takes out Santa, he and his son find themselves left with a Santa suit and a sleigh that whisks them up to the North Pole. Allen decides to take on Santa’s duties for the night but is alarmed to find out that he’s Santa’s permanent replacement. He goes back to his life hoping to forget about the ‘Santa Clause’ but his body begins thickening into a very Santa-like shape. The fun thing about this film is the insider’s guide to Santa that it gives you. If you’ve ever wondered how fat Kris Kringle gets down those chimneys or what he does when there is no chimney, those questions will be answered for you.
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964)
This stop-animation tale of the famous reindeer combines a good lesson for the kids about being proud of who you are with enough goofy elements to keep it from becoming too much of a pedantic lesson. The best of these are Hermey the elf, who actually would rather be a dentist, Yukon Cornelius (who seems a bit like a distant cousin of Yosemite Sam) and the Island of Misfit Toys (it may remind you of any office you’ve ever spent too much time in), which includes the train with the square wheels and a spotted elephant, among other things. Santa isn’t the jolly elf you usually get in Christmas specials; in this one, not only is he a bit cranky, he’s also skinny — in this film it’s his coat that makes him round. The core of the story is Rudolph’s realization that the same quality that makes him an outcast also makes him special and useful to Santa. Just the sound of Burl Ives’ Sam the Snowman crooning “Silver and Gold” may be enough to put you in the holiday spirit.
Paige Newman is the Movies Editor at MSNBC.com