Movies that put me in the holiday spirit


 Each year in mid-November, I start feeling the first whispers of yuletide spirit, and before I know it, I want to cuddle up with a holiday movie. But with so many to choose from, where to begin? Personally, I’m drawn to holiday stories about complicated family relationships, 19th-century life, and heartwarming plotlines that can make me laugh and cry at the same time. So I wanted to share a few of my favorites, some of which are bona fide holiday movies, and some of which have just a scene or two set at this time of year.

One features a resident of Sullivan County, two feature the actor Clare Danes, and all are perfect to kick off your own holiday season.

“Home for the Holidays”

(1995, director Jodie Foster)

When Chicago art restorer Claudia (Holly Hunter) spends Thanksgiving at home with her aging parents, she and her adult siblings (Robert Downey Jr., Cynthia Stevenson) fight the urge to revert to their childhood selves. Director Jodie Foster has a keen eye for the subtleties of this very American family celebration.

Fun fact: Aunt Glady is played by Geraldine Chaplin, the daughter of Charlie Chaplin.

Where to watch: STARZ

Bonus viewing: Also starring Robert Downey Jr., “Less Than Zero” is the intense story of a college freshman returning home for the holidays to discover that his best friend has become an addict.

“Little Women”

(1994, director Gillian Armstrong)

With their father fighting in the American Civil War, Jo (Winona Ryder) and her three sisters are holding down the homestead with their mother (Susan Sarandon), and trying to find their place in the world. Based on Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical account of her life in 1860s Massachusetts, “Little Women” is a story about family love, with two of the film’s biggest scenes taking place during the Christmas season. The warm glow of 19th-century New England, complete with pine wreaths and ice skating ponds, instantly puts me in the mood for Christmas carols and mulled wine.

Fun fact: This was Clare Danes’ feature film debut.

Where to watch: HBO Max

Bonus viewing: Equally excellent and steeped in old-fashioned Christmas sumptuousness is the 2019 “Little Women” directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan.


(2003, director Jon Favreau)

A human raised by elves at the North Pole, Buddy (Will Ferrell) is all grown up, and travels to New York City to meet his biological father (James Caan). In the process, he brings a much-needed dose of Christmas spirit to the Big Apple. This smart family comedy is a love letter to Christmastime in New York, featuring such iconic locations as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and ice skating rink.

Fun fact: The elf Ming Ming, who appears early in the film, is played by Peter Billingsley, who starred as Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”

Where to watch: HBO Max

Bonus viewing: The classic 1964 stop-motion “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a stylistic inspiration for the elf costumes and North Pole sets.

“Christmas at Plum Creek”

(1974, director William F. Claxton)

For their first Christmas in Walnut Grove, everyone in the Ingalls family secretly plans what to get each other – and how to afford it. Laura (Melissa Gilbert) selflessly trades her beloved pony for a present for her mother, while the rest of the family also finds creative ways to give gifts from the heart. Watching this episode from the first season of “Little House on the Prairie” with my kids and parents has become an annual tradition. And now that Melissa Gilbert lives in our community, we have even more reason to enjoy it.

Fun fact: This episode originally aired on Christmas Day in 1974.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Bonus viewing: If you want more Christmas on the prairie, check out the episode “The Blizzard” from Season 3 of “Little House.”

“Our Vines Have Tender Grapes”

(1945, Roy Rowland)

Set in an agricultural community in Wisconsin, this film chronicles a year in the life of a Norwegian farmer (Edward G. Robinson) lovingly raising his seven-year-old daughter Selma (Margaret O’Brien). Watch for Selma’s speech at the church Christmas program. This simple story has a special place in my heart, as a Scandinavian cheesehead myself.

Fun fact: Selma’s mother is played by Agnes Moorhead, whose final screen role was as Endora on the 1970s television show “Bewitched.”

Where to watch: Available for purchase on Amazon.

Bonus viewing: Produced three years later in 1948, “10th Avenue Angel” centers around a poor family in Hell’s Kitchen at Christmastime. Like “Our Vines,” it was directed by Roy Rowland and stars Margaret O’Brien.

“Holiday Affair”

(1949, director Don Hartman)

Just before Christmas, a single mom (Janet Leigh) is torn between her boring attorney boyfriend (Wendell Corey) and a charming but penniless department store clerk (Robert Mitchum). In this non-traditional holiday film, the acting style is toned down and the plotline is believable. Only 22 years old at the time, Leigh is well-cast in the role of a young widow balancing life as a mom and a woman.

Fun fact: In 1949, Janet Leigh had starring roles in six other films, including “Little Women,” in which she plays Meg (and Margaret O’Brien plays Beth).

Where to watch: Turner Classic Movies

Bonus viewing: Another Christmas story about a single working mom in a New York City department store, the 1947 “A Miracle on 34th Street,” starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood, would make a great double feature.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

(1966, directors Chuck Jones and Ben Washam)

In this movie, which is based on the Dr. Seuss book of the same name, a grumpy hermit hatches a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville. I watched this 26-minute TV special every year as a kid. But I think I love it even more as an adult. Boris Karloff is perfect as the voice of the Grinch.

Fun fact: The book’s drawings are in black and white, so it was here that the Grinch was given his signature green color for the first time.

Where to watch: Available for purchase on Amazon.

Bonus viewing: The 1965 TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” makes the perfect nostalgic companion.

Note: there are some gold-standard classics—namely “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “White Christmas” (1954), and “A Christmas Story” (1983)—that I deliberately left off this list. Each year, I save these for later in December, once I’m in full Christmas mode.

holiday movies, Home for the Holidays, Little Women, Elf, Christmas at Plum Creek, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Holiday Affair, How the Grinch Stole Christmas


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