Every year around the holidays, there is a spike in the viewership of Christmas movie classics. According to the American Film Institute, Frank Capra's 1947 heartwarming drama It's A Wonderful Life tops the list of all-time Christmas favorites.
The story centers on George Bailey, a generous man driven to bankruptcy. When George, played by Jimmy Stewart, wishes he'd never been born, an angel named Clarence comes to Earth and fulfills his wish. Suddenly George is able to view how life in his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been if he had never existed.
His wife, played by Donna Reed, is a single, lonely woman. His mother has been made bitter by the loss of her only son, Harry, who drowned as a child because George was not there to save him. The town, once peaceful and flourishing, now seedy and sad, is ruled by a ruthless businessman.
When George realizes how precious life is, he recants his wish and Clarence returns him back to life, where friends and family pull together and bail him out.
When the film was first released, it did not do well in the theaters, said Todd Hitchcock, director of programming and associate director at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. But it saw a revival through yearly television broadcasts during an era where there were only three TV networks and about 30 million people were tuning in.
"By the time that my generation comes around in the '70s and '80s, it's grown year by year into this institution, this traditional screening that you watch at least once in the lead-up to Christmas with your family, and now it's just taken for granted that it's this established Christmas classic," he said.
A Christmas message from Santa
Nostalgia and tradition are important factors in the making of a classic, but so is the message of a film. An example is Miracle on 34th Street, by George Seaton.
In this favorite, also from 1947, a man who goes by the name Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn, takes a job as a department store Santa in New York City. He tries to remind the store's events director, a single mother played by Maureen O' Hara, that Christmas is more than just gifts and spending. It's a frame of mind.
The stress from Christmas commercialization is also the theme of animated holiday films produced for TV in the 1960s, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas; The Grinch that Stole Christmas, based on the Dr. Seuss book; and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. These productions became so popular, they launched franchises of further installments. Eventually, Hitchcock said, they joined the pantheon of Christmas classics.
"Number one, they are really good. Number two, repetition, repetition, repetition. They did well the first year, so they bring it back the next year," he said. "The viewership is huge and it remains consistent year to year. One generation grows up on it, they have children, the next generation grows up on it."
In 1983, another classic was born. Set in the 1940s, Bob Clark's comedy A Christmas Story focuses on young Ralphie, who tries to convince his parents, and Santa, that a Red Ryder BB gun really is the perfect Christmas gift.
"That film directly engages with nostalgia and gently tweaks it," said Hitchcock. "There is a lot of '80s comedy sensibility woven into it that looks at this sepia-tone, '40s-'50s growing-up period. And it works fantastically well with A Christmas Story, and as you know, it has become just as much of an institution."
Not just carols and lights
Throughout the years, more film genres have been incorporated into the Christmas favorites list, such as horror and action films. Hitchcock offers the 1988 action flick Die Hard as an example. He said the film was a success because it was well done, and because of its Christmas scenes, many viewers connected it with the Christmas season, though it was not made exclusively for the holiday.
"So I think a great definition about a Christmas classic is the film I like to watch on Christmas, whether or not it is explicitly a Christmas film," he said.
As TV and online broadcast platforms multiply, so does competition for viewership, making it difficult for many of these films, especially the oldies, to reach the wide audiences they could boast of in the past. Hitchcock said curating these films in art theaters such as AFI Silver is one of the ways to safeguard their staying power, starting with It's A Wonderful Life.
"For many people, seeing it on the big screen is a novelty because they grew up with it as a television thing," he said. "And they are surprised how much more impactful it is when they come to see it in the theater on the big screen, and they cry. Some people know they are going to cry. Some people are surprised when they cry. It's that kind of movie."
It's a Christmas classic.