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61 of the best Christmas movies to watch for instant holiday cheer

'Tis the season!

When is the right time to start celebrating the winter holidays? Sure, you might send cards and wishes closer to the big day — but there’s no shame in pressing play on Christmas movies long before the 25th of December. Think of it as a cozy gift from you to you.

For many, sitting down for a movie (popcorn and hot toddy optional) is the optimal December tradition. Each viewing of “Elf” or “Home Alone” is a bridge back to a sense of the holiday spirit, as effective as a Christmas song. 

With so many famous Christmas movies out there, the question is, where to begin? We've gathered an array of options, ranging from family-friendly watches to holiday romances to old black-and-white classics to dysfunctional family comedies to Black Christmas movies to Christmas horror movies for adults (yes, we meant options).

Also expect animated movies beyond "The Nightmare Before Christmas," though that's on here too, and Disney classics and hidden gems on Disney Plus — not to mention others on Netflix, Hulu (where romantic holiday movies abound) and Amazon Prime ... and Hallmark's huge oeuvre, now streaming on Peacock.

So warm up that eggnog and put on those onesie pajamas — Christmas awaits!

'Arthur Christmas' (2011)

"Arthur Christmas" is like the "Love Actually" of Christmas movies, in that it's full of British greats. The cast consists of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton, among others, helm the animated movie, which follows Santa's son Arthur trying to fix a present delivery gone awry.

'Meet Me in St. Louis' (1944)

You can thank this classic movie for the classic song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Judy Garland stars in the period piece set in St. Louis before the World's Fair. The movie came out, however, amid WWII, giving the melancholy song extra resonance for people missing loved ones.

'The Princess Switch' (2018)

Watch "The Princess Switch" and then its two, increasingly ridiculous (and fun) movies. Vanessa Hudgens plays identical women – of no relation. One is a baker from Chicago, the other is royalty in a small, fictional European country. They come together during the Christmas season and then decide to switch places, just for the thrill.

'Last Christmas' (2019)

With a title that pays homage to the popular Wham! song, "Last Christmas" will keep you guessing and swooning until the very end. Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding play a couple who fall in love during the holiday season — but there's something Golding's character isn't saying.

'The Perfect Holiday' (2011)

Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard play angels who narrate the action of this moving Christmas romantic comedy, and sometimes intervene. Nancy (Gabrielle Union) puts her three children before herself, over and over. This Christmas, she gets to be the main character in her life, thanks to a bit of romance.

'Carol' (2015)

Adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" come up multiple times on this list — but the Carol in question in this Todd Haynes is of another variety. Cate Blanchett plays a bored, wealthy New Jersey housewife in the 1950s who forms a connection — a deep connection — with a department store clerk (Rooney Mara) while Christmas shopping.

‘Klaus’ (2019)

“Klaus” shows that, no matter how many Christmas movies there are, there’s still a chance to make something wholly original. With beautiful animation, this fairy tale reimagines Santa as a gruff woodworker. In the movie, a postal worker assigned to a far northern town befriends him, and they hatch a plan to deliver presents to the children of the community, divided by a petty rivalry.

'Bridget Jones' Diary' (2001)

Say you don't want a Christmas movie, but a movie that gets the stakes of the season — and what it's like to feel alone at a time of togetherness. "Bridget Jones' Diary" is the rom-com for you, teeming with ugly Christmas sweaters, genuine charm and unforgettable leading men.

'Scrooge' (1970)

Scrooge is an incorrigibly grumpy old man. For him, Christmas is nothing but one long, "Bah, humbug!" Then, at an inflection point inspired by an employee and his struggling family, three ghosts convene to give Scrooge a change in attitude. Beyond this movie, the classic tale, first written by Charles Dickens, has been interpreted in Muppet movies, one-man shows and more.

'Unlikely Angel' (1996)

Dolly Parton is one of the reigning queens of Christmas specials. In this made-for-TV movie from the '90s, she plays a country singer-turned-angel who, after her death, helps people down on earth.

'Spencer' (2021)

Yes, this movie about Princess Diana is grim — but it's also definitely a Christmas movie. The Pablo Larrain biopic imagines three days at the end of Princess Diana and the then Prince Charles' marriage, as they celebrated the holidays at Balmoral. If your days aren't feeling merry and bright, then this might be the movie for you.

'The Family Stone' (2005)

Joining a new family isn't easy, especially when they're the Stones. When Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) heads to her boyfriend's town for the holidays, she hopes for a warm reception and gets, instead, a new set of personalities (and challenges) to face.

'Christmas with the Kranks' (2004)

After decades of over-the-top celebrations, two empty nesters decide to skip Christmas and go on vacation instead — only to immediately backtrack when their daughter surprises them for the holiday.

'Noelle' (2019)

As Santa's son, Nick Kringle was groomed to take over the family business. The only issue? He doesn't much want it. At the start of this Disney Plus original, Nick (Bill Hader) leaves the North Pole abruptly. His sister, Noelle (Anna Kendrick), is determined to find him and bring him back home in time for Christmas. Turns out the holidays are a stressful time for the Kringles, too.

'A Snowglobe Christmas' (2013)

A TV executive (Alicia Witt) is busy working on Chritmas movies, but has none of the spirit herself. After an accident, she wakes up in a picture-perfect world much like the snowglobe she had just been playing with. Meg is cynical and thinks dreams do not come true, but this adventure (whether real or imagined) may help her change her tune.

'The Christmas Chronicles' (2018)

Santa is cooler than ever in this Netflix series, which stars married couple Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn as Santa and Mrs. Claus. In the first installment, two kids catch Santa in their house, so — naturally — they sneak onto his sleigh to leave with him, disrupting his process.

'Office Christmas Party' (2016)

The title event in "Office Christmas Party" will make or break tech company Zenotek in Chicago. It's facing closure and is trying to win over a new investor to stay afloat, but the investor wants proof it's a healthy company with happy workers. Zenotek throws a flamboyant office Christmas party to woo the investor — but everything ends up going wrong, of course.

'A Castle for Christmas' (2021)

"A Castle for Christmas" is a romantic comedy starring Brooke Shields as romance author Sophie Brown and Cary Elwes as the Duke of Dunbar. Following a petit scandal, Sophie flees to Scotland to get in touch with her roots. While there, she visits a castle where her grandfather used to work, and ends up clashing (and having chemistry) with its aristocratic owner.

'A Boy Called Christmas' (2021)

"A Boy Called Christmas" is a fairy tale-infused take on the origins of Christmas. Come for the family-friendly, imaginative vibes that will make you long for a sleigh ride; stay for the performances by the all-star cast, including Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Michiel Huisman and Henry Lawfull in the starring role.

'Dear Secret Santa' (2013)

Jennifer (Tatyana Ali) manages to find time in her busy schedule to travel back home and visit her dad after he has a hard fall. While back home, she starts getting love letters from someone who died three years prior.

'Santa Hunters' (2014)

Be careful what you wish for. The kids in "Santa Hunters" devise a scheme to get photographic proof that Santa exists — and it works. But then they learn that Santa loses some of his magic every time he's seen, so they set out to destroy all the evidence before Santa completely vanishes away.

'Ghost of Girlfriends Past' (2009)

"Ghost of Girlfriends Past" is a rom-com version of "A Christmas Carol." Matthew McConaughey plays a committed bachelor haunted by the "ghosts" of his past — his ex-girlfriends. Their appearances might be enough to inspire him to change his ways.

'Christmas Inheritance' (2017)

The daughter of millionaire has her world shaken up in "Christmas Inheritance." She's living the high life in New York City, ready to take over her father's company, but has one last test to past: living in the middle of nowhere with limited resources. There, she gains a newfound appreciation for her privilege and a new perspective on life.

'Frozen' (2013)

It wouldn't be Christmas without "Frozen," Disney's hit about sisterhood, magic and reindeer. While not holiday-themed, the wintery vibe fits the season. Princesses Anna (Kristin Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) were close as kids, but following the death of their parents, retreated into their own worlds — Elsa, alone with her magic, and Anna looking for a replacement. When a dashing prince comes to their remote kingdom, she thinks she's found one. In the end, Elsa and Anna's relationship is restored in an unconventional way, and a loveable snowman remains their best friend.

'12 Dates of Christmas' (2011)

Kate Stanton (Amy Smart) has 12 chances to get it right in romantic comedy "12 Dates of Christmas." After blowing off a blind date with a good guy, Miles (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), she becomes stuck in the same day until she can grow up a bit. Team Miles!

'The Search for Santa Paws' (2010)

Dogs are Santa's best friend, too. "The Search for Santa Paws" is a family-fun comedy in which Santa and his pup travel to New York City to visit a friend, only Santa has an accident and ends up separated from his crew without any memories. Two of his elves leave the North Pole to look for him in New York in a nonlinear path full of adventure.

'Soul Food' (1997)

Longstanding family traditions are put to the test in "Soul Food" when the family matriarch dies and her kids are left to keep things together. But, of course, their efforts are interrupted by arguments, work and other distractions they blame each other for. "Soul Food" is a classic family movie starring Nia Long, Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox and Mekhi Phifer.

'Holiday in the Wild' (2019)

Kate Conrad (Kristin Davis) unexpectedly ends up divorced from her husband just before the Christmas season. She goes on a solo trip that they were supposed to take together and ends up starting over with someone new, pilot Derek (Rob Lowe), as they nurse back to health animals in the wild jungle.

'The Nutcracker and the Four Realms' (2018)

"The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" is a new — and by "new we mean dreamy, ethereal and star-studded — spin on an old story. On Christmas Eve, a dad gifts his three children presents their deceased mother left them. One of the kids, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), gets a locked, egg-shaped box and spends the movie searching for the key to open it. What follows is a delight for the senses, just like the ballet (and real-life ballerina Misty Copeland makes an appearance).

'Elf' (2003)

“Elf” is a classic starring Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human raised by Santa's elves. When he outgrows his world (literally), Buddy travels to New York to meet his biological father and get some answers. Leaving the North Pole is hard, but so is bringing its culture to the Big Apple. Buddy has to decide who he is in this new city.

‘The Preacher’s Wife’ (1996)

This classic Christmas romcom starring Denzel Washington and the late Whitney Houston shows what can happen with a sprinkle of divine intervention. Houston plays Julia, the wife of a local pastor who is far too busy for her. Washington plays Dudley, an angel God sent to restore their marriage. Along the way, Dudley falls in love with Julia, which ironically ends up pushing the married couple back together.

‘Best Man Holiday’ (2013)

Christmas is a time for reuniting with old friends — including fictional ones. "Best Man Holiday" brings the cast of the 1999 movie "Best Man" back together. Secrets are uncovered and wounds are healed. Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Harold Perrineau, Monica Calhoun and Melissa De Sousa all appear as their characters.

'The Holiday' (2006)

Living on opposite sides of the world, Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz) and Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet) need a change of scene, so they agree to a house swap. Amanda moves into Iris' English cottage; Iris moves into Amanda's L.A. pad. In new cities, they explore new adventures and, of course, new connections.

'The Mistle-tones: A Musical' (2012)

"The Mistle-tones: A Musical" features a Christmas-themed pop group auditioning new members, but it rejects the late founder's daughter. So the daughter, Holly (Tia Mowry), looks for other opportunities to sing and becomes a rival of the pop group.

'Let It Snow' (2019)

"Let It Snow" is a Christmas romcom adapted from a book of the same title by Maureen Johnson. In the movie, a famous pop star and a good samaritan he mistakes for a fan end up falling in love.

‘Home Alone’ (1990)

As his family prepares for a Christmas vacation to Paris, Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) gets accidentally left behind. While home alone, Kevin outsmarts two criminals trying to ransack his family’s house. Kevin was initially criticized for his mischievousness — but it ultimately saves the day.

‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ (2000)

Based on the beloved Dr. Seuss children's books, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is a fan favorite to see. The Grinch (Jim Carrey) hates Christmas and vows to make it as miserable as possible for everyone else, so he steals all the presents throughout the city. But the town people celebrate Christmas anyway, and the Grinch realizes he could never stop Christmas ... and doesn't want to anymore.

‘Jingle Jangle’ (2020)

If you're looking for something genuinely different, look no further: "Jingle Jangle" features gorgeous set design, a unique plot and original music. Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) is a toy maker whose most famous designs were stolen by a former apprentice (Keegan-Michael Key). Jeronicus' long-lost granddaughter is on a mission to get his work back.

‘Holiday Inn’ (1942)

"Holiday Inn" is an oldie but a goodie. Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) opens an entertainment venue only open on holidays after his long-term girlfriend breaks up with him for their mutual friend. The trio performed singing and dancing acts together before the drama and find a turbulent way to keep the act going at Jim's new place.

'So This Is Christmas' (2013)

"So This Is Christmas" is a coming-of-age story for a teenager (Lexi Ainsworth) headed in the wrong direction. To get back on track, she volunteers for a local Christmas play for children and has her eyes opened to being more grateful and humble.

'One Christmas Eve' (2014)

The late Anne Heche plays a recently divorced mom trying to make the first holiday without dad as special as it can be. For all her good intentions, the many hiccups threaten the Christmas celebration altogether.

'A Bad Moms Christmas' (2017)

"A Bad Moms Christmas" gives the four mothers from the original movie a taste of their own medicine when their mothers visit for Christmas. Suddenly, the group's raucous approach to parenting makes sense.

'A Christmas Story' (1983)

Everyone remembers the best Christmas they ever had. In "A Christmas Story," a grown-up Ralphie tells the story of his, and it involves a BB gun and a very famous leg lamp. The Christmas comedy loosely based on two books by Jean Shepherd, "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" and "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters."

'Nothing Like the Holidays' (2008)

The far-flung Rodriguez family gathers in their family's Chicago home for the holidays. The adult children think they'll encounter the usual drama, but get a whole lot more. The movie stars Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo and more.

'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946)

George Bailey (James Stewart) is battling himself in "It's A Wonderful Life," Frank Capra's Christmas masterpiece. An angel named Clarence shows him what a different place the world would be if he wasn't in it, giving him the perspective he was missing: He matters. Life-affirming and faith in humanity-restoring, "It's a Wonderful Life" might give you a perspective shift, too.

'Deck the Halls' (2006)

"Deck the Halls" is a family comedy movie in which passive aggressive neighbors end up in a house decorating competition. Locked in a kind of suburban war, they pull out all the stops: Santas on sleighs, reindeers in snow and lights on every corner. The film stars Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito.

'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993)

Some may say "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a Halloween movie, not a Christmas movie — but we say it can be both. The Tim Burton film follows Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of a Halloween-themed town. Grown tired of scaring, he lands in nearby Christmastown, but brings some of his mischief with him. He plots to kidnap Santa Claus and assume his role for unfettered access to new scare victims.

'This Christmas' (2007)

Sibling rivalries are on full display in "This Christmas" when the Whitfield Family gathers for their annual Christmas fest, toting the secrets that will eventually be revealed. The film stars Idris Elba, Loretta Devine, Regina King, Lauren London, Delroy Lindo and Chris Brown.

'Last Holiday' (2006)

Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) is a reserved, cautious sales clerk in "Last Holiday" who moves across the globe for a new adventure after receiving some life changing news. The movie stars LL Cool J, Giancarlo Esposito and Timothy Hutton, and a young Chloe and Halle Bailey.

'Polar Express' (2004)

"Polar Express" is follows a group of kids on a train to the North Pole for a special visit. The journey teaches the kids about the magic of the holiday season, when anything is possible. It's an adventure they'll never forget, and neither will you.

'Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer' (2000)

Poor grandma! She literally is mowed own by a reindeer while walking home one evening (or so they think). The incident turns into a court trial against the reindeer, but her grandson finds a way to prove them innocent and uncover who was actually responsible for the accident.

'Frosty the Snowman' (1969)

"Thumpity, thump thump" along with "Frosty the Snowman" as the lovable titular character and his friends try to find a way to keep him alive after temperatures start to rise and the magic hat that brought him to life is at risk of being stolen.

'Happiest Season' (2020)

The title of "Happiest Season" is misleading. It's not quite the happiest season for Abby (Kristen Stewart) and her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis). How come? Because Harper's parents don't know she's in a relationship with a woman, and Abby doesn't know if she can't date someone who won't come out of the closet.

'Black Nativity' (2013)

"Black Nativity" is an intergenerational musical drama about a teenager being sent to spend the holidays with his pastor grandparents and their strict rules. The journey teaches him faith and the power of healing and family. The star-studded cast includes Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore.

'A Christmas Carol' (2009)

Let's collect all the "Christmas Carol" movie remakes, shall we? "A Christmas Carol" is an animated version featuring the voice of Jim Carrey, who also plays the Scrooge-like main character of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

'Almost Christmas' (2016)

The Meyer family is having their first Christmas get-together after their matriarch died the year before. Walter Meyer (Danny Glover) invites his four adult children home for Christmas only to find their bickering is the most spirited moment of all. He decides the new goal, instead of partaking in traditions, is to simply make it under the same roof for five days.

'We're No Angels' (1955)

Prison fugitives hide out in a local shop they plan to rob in "We're No Angels." But then the next day is Christmas and the shop's owners invited them to stay for dinner. The experience changes the fugitives' outlooks on life to the point they start doing good deeds around the town to raise money for the financial hole they learn the owners are in.

'Love Actually' (2003)

"Love Actually" lays out nine intertwined stories that offer an authentic look at what love is, actually. A cultural mainstay, the love stories remain conversation starters. In case you need a refresh, Hugh Grant plays the prime minister falling for a junior staffer; Colin Firth is a writer who has a connection with the Portuguese woman hired to clean his cottage; and Laura Linney is a graphic designer whose love life is derailed whenever her sick brother needs something.

'Black Christmas' (2019)

The song goes, "May your days be merry and bright." But if they're not, then a Christmas horror movie might hit the spot. Just as winter break is set to start, a group of sorority sisters in horror film "Black Christmas" begin to receive anonymous, lascivious phone calls. When one of the women goes missing, they realize these aren't just phone calls — they're threats, and the culprit is closer than expected.

'Holiday Affair' (1949)

Turn to a classic starring Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum. In "Holiday Affair," a charming department store clerk catches a shopper in a fraudulent scheme. This is a rom com, so don't worry: Law enforcement doesn't swoop in. After learning Connie is a war widow and single mom, Steve takes pity on her and begins to learn about her — and likes what he finds out.

'A Christmas Tale' (2008)

The family matriarch in this French film, earns she has leukemia, so she asks her family at the Christmas gathering to see if they are eligible bone marrow donors. Her potential death sets off a string of arguments and friction between her kids who are not ready to say goodbye.