If you’re going to talk Die Hard, you cannot avoid the meme/debate over whether or not it’s a Christmas movie. We discuss why it is (and okay, a few reasons why not), but more importantly, why we care about the question in the first place. What does Christmas mean to us, and how do pop culture traditions factor in?
- Alamo Drafthouse – San Francisco, Big Screen Science: Die Hard
- A Die Hard Christmas: The Illustrated Holiday Classic by Doogie Horner
- Die Hard: The Authorized Coloring and Activity Book
- AV Club, Have a Lethal Gremlins French Connection Christmas: 21 non-holiday holiday movies
- Dazed Digital, Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? We find out once and for all
- Huffington Post, The Debate Is Over: New Trailer Makes ‘Die Hard’ An Official Christmas Movie
- Huffington Post, Yes, Virginia, ‘Die Hard’ Is A Christmas Movie
- Independent, Die Hard screenwriter says it is a Christmas movie: ‘A woman about to give birth features prominently’
- Insider, Why ‘Die Hard’ is definitely a Christmas movie
- LA Weekly, Why Are People Still Debating Whether Die Hard Is a Christmas Movie?
- Mental Floss, Surprise! 62 Percent of People Say Die Hard is Not a Christmas Movie
- Mental Floss, How It’s a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Accidental Christmas Tradition
- Mind the Screen, Classical / Post-Classical Narrative (Die Hard)
- Morning Consult, No, ‘Die Hard’ Isn’t a Christmas Movie, Most People Say
- Nerdist, Does Die Hard Really Qualify as a Christmas Movie?
- Stephen Follows, Using data to determine if Die Hard is a Christmas movie
- The Atlantic, The Cheesy Endurance of the Made-for-TV Holiday Movie
- The Guardian, Yippee ki-yay, turkey plucker … how Die Hard became a classic Christmas movie
- Time, The Die Hard Writer Just Settled the Christmas Movie Debate Once and For All
- Variety, ‘Die Hard’ Gets Christmas Treatment in New Trailer
- Washington Post, Is ‘Die Hard’ a Christmas movie? Bruce Willis finally has an answer.
- Katie Walsh
- Ed Grabionowski
- Sasha Perl-Raver
- Jeremiah Friedman
- Scott Wampler
- Adam Sternbergh
- Reed Fish
- Shannon Hubbell
Get In Touch
Full Episode Transcript
Welcome to the podcast, pal.
My name is Simone Chavoor, and thank you for joining me for Die Hard With a Podcast! The show that examines the best American action movie of all time: Die Hard.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays! This is our sixth episode, and the most inevitable. You really can’t have a discussion about Die Hard without talking about the meme/debate over whether or not it’s a Christmas movie. I’ve been enjoying talking about all the other aspects of the movie, but I know I can’t leave this topic out, so apologies to the folks who are tired of talking about it. I get it, I do. But I am looking forward to talking about what does actually interest me: why we care about this question in the first place. And I must admit: Die Hard is one of my favorite movies of all time – it’s certainly my favorite action movie of all time – but while I do think it’s a Christmas movie, it’s not my favorite Christmas movie. I’m sorry to disappoint, although I can’t actually say what is my favorite Christmas movie. I guess I actually don’t care that much about Christmas as a film genre?
Before we go on, I wanted to thank the San Francisco Alamo Drafthouse for hosting a screening of Die Hard for their “Big Screen Science” series. Hosts Kishore Hari and Jeff Silverman came up on stage to explain everything including how the C4 explosion in the elevator shaft would really go, how to safely walk on broken glass, and whether a terrorist’s falling body would crush a cop car. Their talk was funny and informative, and now my friends and I want to start a band based on one of their quotes: “Big German Terrorist Energy.”
I’d also like to thank one of our listeners, Saint Even, for sending along a delightful gift of Die Hard: The Authorized Coloring and Activity Book. I think my red coloring pencil is going to get the most use of them all…
Okay, a few more pieces of business:
You can always contact me and share your thoughts on Die Hard and this podcast by
There’s also a Patreon for the show – it takes an incredible amount of time to put this together, so any contribution helps me to offset the cost of creating it, and is a real vote of encouragement.
Shout out to our new contributors, Miles and Brendan. Thank you so much!
You can also support Die Hard With a Podcast by leaving a review on iTunes. With more starred ratings and written reviews, the show becomes more visible to other potential listeners, so please share the love and let me know what you think!
All right. On to our main topic.
So. I’m going to cut right to it: Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
I feel like, at this point, that’s not a controversial statement. Especially not on this podcast. If you like Die Hard enough to listen to an entire podcast on Die Hard, you’re probably in the “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” camp. Hell, you probably have your own bullet-point arguments, including some I haven’t even thought of yet.
I’d be remiss not to go over those arguments, just in case I have some that you haven’t considered. And to maybe, mayyyybe make some anti-Christmas folks reconsider, but at this point in the “War on Die Hard As A Christmas Movie,” I’m not going to be too fussed if folks dig in their heels. Some people, you just can’t persuade.
But what interests me more is not if Die Hard is a Christmas movie, it’s why we care. So, let’s go through the main arguments, then circle back to why this cultural debate even matters in the first place.
WHY DIE HARD IS A CHRISTMAS MOVIE
So six months ago, I was inspired by a friend to write an essay about whether or not Die Hard was a Christmas movie. It was pretty much a goof, but I enjoyed writing it and it’s what led me to starting this podcast in the first place. This section of today’s episode is going to mirror a lot of that essay, but since I’ve started doing this show, I’ve done a LOT more research on the movie, talked to more people, and parsed my own thoughts on the matter more carefully.
Die Hard is a Christmas movie because of four factors: plot, setting, theme, and perception.
Let’s start with the most obvious: the plot.
You all know the story, so let’s bang this out.
John McClane comes to Los Angeles to see his family for Christmas. There’s been a familial rift that, on some level, he’s hoping to repair. He even comes bearing gifts in the form of… well, a bear. A stuffed bear.
His estranged wife, Holly, however, is stuck at the office for her company Christmas party. Why the Nakatomi Corporation is having their Christmas party on Christmas Eve instead of, say, the Friday night before Christmas when most people take off for vacation is kind of a mystery, but hey, maybe these people are more the type to be married to their jobs. (Erm… as we know.) So John meets Holly there to get a read on her and the situation before heading to the house with the kids.
Meanwhile, Hans Gruber and his gang of thieves arrive to execute their big heist. This night is the most ideal for pulling off this job. It’s after hours, and most people will have gone home – if not early, then at least on time, thereby minimizing the number of people still in the building.
[CLIP – DIE HARD – SECURITY GUARD – THEY’RE THE ONLY ONES LEFT IN THE BUILDING]
Because the gang’s escape plan hinges on having hostages to distract law enforcement, it’s the perfect time to seize an isolated group of people – all of whom are caught off-guard, some of whom have been drinking – including high-value targets like Mr. Takagi. Remember, Hans’s plan is to get the code from Takagi first, even if…
[CLIP – DIE HARD – HANS – OKAY, WE’LL DO IT THE HARD WAY]
On top of that, Hans is expecting a slower police response the night of a holiday. Although he admits police intervention is both expected and necessary, it still helps to have the B-team as the one responding to their actions. That’s how we get a lone desk jockey, Sergeant Al Powell, as the first to respond to John’s distress call.
Finally, at the end of the movie, as John prepares for his final showdown with Hans, he spots a gift wrapping station complete with tape, perfect for adhering a hidden gun to his back.
Now, could the movie take place at any other time of year? Yeah, but it’s a stretch. Christmas is the time when all of these elements organically occur at the same time. Could John have been visiting for Thanksgiving? Sure. But then would there have been a party at Nakatomi? Unlikely. Could the Nakatomi Corporation have had a summer Fourth of July picnic? Of course. But it would have likely been held outside, away from the office and away from the vault, and you know John wouldn’t have come all that way just for some hot dogs.
I’ve heard it suggested that it could have taken place on one of the McClane children’s birthdays, which happens to coincide with an office party celebrating the company’s success. Seeing Lucy or John Jr. for their birthday is a pretty good reason to make the cross-country flight, and Nakatomi could also be celebrating closing a big deal that same day, but that scenario actually relies more on coincidence. It needs to be explained, and it feels more forced. (Plus, how much notice would Hans have to plan his heist for a day-of deal closing party?) The Christmas holiday lets all of these elements be present, naturally.
Katie Walsh, film critic for the Tribune News Service and LA Times.
And it is like sort of significantly part of the plot – he would not be in LA if he wasn’t visiting his kids for Christmas. And then you know there’s like Christmas music playing, there’s like a weird Christmas song when they on the score when they open the vault for the first time. All those people wouldn’t be in that office building at that time wasn’t Christmas. So I think it’s very self-consciously a movie that is in some ways about Christmas, not necessarily the spirit of Christmas, but the way that people’s lives are you know affected or disrupted or something when it’s Christmas. You know there’s travel, there’s parties, there’s all of these things going on. Like, “we don’t want to cut the power grid ‘cause it’s Christmas Eve” and all of the stuff. So it’s like Christmas please a really big role in that movie, so I think it’s actually very much a Christmas movie.
Ed Grabianowski, pop culture writer and horror and fantasy author.
It is a Christmas movie, it takes place during Christmas, which is not some kind of weird tangent, it actually drives the plot because it’s the whole reason he’s flown across country to try and reconcile with his family, and it’s the whole reason this Christmas party’s happening in Nakatomi Plaza, which sets up the strange situation in which the building is almost entirely empty, except for this one particular group of people. So yes, like, by any conceivable measure it is a Christmas themed movie? Yes, I mean like John McClane doesn’t escape Nakatomi Plaza on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, okay, it’s true. But whatever, you make your Christmas traditions out of whatever you want. You know for my family like the Harry Potter movies are Christmas movies, although they’re very, very tangentially related to Christmas happening at all. So if you want Die Hard to be a Christmas movie, then it absolutely is a Christmas movie. In terms of like, thematic analysis, it’s definitely a Christmas movie.
Finally, let’s not forget that the Christmas setting is carried over from the source novel of Die Hard, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. In the book, retired detective Joe Leland travels to Los Angeles to see his daughter, Stephanie, and his grandchildren for Christmas. We certainly can’t say that the Christmas timeframe was tacked on for the movie. It’s been an integral part of the plot from the story’s inception.
Now let’s talk about the setting, the visual and audio clues that anchor the film to a place and time.
Nothing in a movie happens by accident. Films are such huge endeavors that take hundreds of people, millions of dollars, and months or even years to create. If you see it on screen, it was placed there on purpose.
The trappings of Christmas are sprinkled throughout the movie. Visually, we have a Christmas tree in the Nakatomi lobby, Christmas lights in the police dispatch station, even a crudely spray-painted “Merry X-mas” on the wall of a still-under construction office.
There are also sound cues, as characters walk around humming carols to themselves…
[CLIP: DIE HARD – AL POWELL HUMS “LET IT SNOW”]
[CLIP: DIE HARD – HANS HUMS “JINGLE BELLS”]
… and play more modern tunes on the limo stereo.
[CLIP: ARGYLE – THIS IS CHRISTMAS MUSIC / RUN DMC’S “CHRISTMAS IN HOLLIS”]
Director John McTiernan’s biographer, Larry Taylor, tells Dazed Digital: “McTiernan did want to emphasize the iconography of Christmas, so he and (Director of Photography) Jan de Bont made sure to capture background lights, small Christmas trees in the 9-1-1 control room, and the Christmas packaging tape which became key in the film’s climax. [McTiernan] wanted the characters and the music to carry the Yuletide tone through. He made sure composer Michael Kamen sprinkled jingling bells and brief hints of Christmas songs within his tense score. It’s all a way for him to make Christmas the canvas for his action movie.”
The Christmastime canvas creates a perfect juxtaposition for the violence in the movie. Instead of peace on earth or innocent kids opening presents beneath a Christmas tree, we get the corpse of a dead terrorist in an elevator wearing a Santa hat, ho ho ho. John putting that hat on dead Tony’s head isn’t necessary to the plot, but it’s a visually striking, memorable scene that makes Die Hard unique.
The Christmas setting also gives us just a hint of the feeling of magic in an otherwise decidedly un-magical story. At the end of the movie, John and Holly emerge from the building, showered by snow. Snow that’s actually $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds falling from the sky, but hey, it’s Los Angeles – that’s more snow than you can usually expect out there. In the distance, John lays eyes on who can only be his friend from the other side of the walkie-talkie: Al. Al is framed center screen, bathed in white light and falling snow. According to screenwriter Stephen E de Souza, McTiernan deliberately shot Al this way to call to mind the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife, which revolves around an angel character and also ends on Christmas Eve.
Finally, there are a few silly, stray connections that I think are kinda bullshit, but are fun to note anyway. John’s wife, Holly, has quite the Christmassy name. Screenwriter Steven E de Souza also notes that “a woman about to give birth features prominently” in the story. (That’s pretty generous, but I do like Ginny.) And my favorite is that John, like Santa, has to use a kind of air vent to get back into the building.
But arguably, the plot and the setting of Die Hard are just window dressing. The story isn’t about Christmas, you might say. Christmas movies have specific themes. This is quite true, but even here I’d say that Die Hard fits in with some very common Christmas themes.
Christmas movies, besides the time of year in which they’re set, often are designed to make us feel a certain way, to trigger specific emotions associated with the holiday. In The Atlantic article, “The Cheesy Endurance of the Made-for-TV Holiday Movie,” Megan Garber defines Christmas movies this way: “Christmas isn’t a religious observance or even a seasonal festival; it functions, often, simply as a deadline: the day by which, in the framework of the film, it is no longer tenable to keep putting off the thing that will bring joy, whether it’s a declaration of love or an apology or a reunion or the rediscovery of one’s Christmas Spirit. The genre, the snow globe in video form, offers its own kind of reassurance: of order, of ease, of predictability itself. Within its contained universes, happy endings are not only possible, but also insistently inevitable.”
John McClane uses Christmas as a kind of self-imposed deadline for reconciliation with his family. He’d managed to hide in New York for six months, avoiding confronting his estranged wife over her decision to move the family to Los Angeles. But it’s not a declaration of love that comes – John’s struggle against the gang triggers a change within him that brings forth instead an apology to Holly – an apology that leads to their reunion and their happy ending.
Sasha Perl-Raver, writer, correspondent, and the host of FX’s Movie Download.
My only issue with it being set at Christmas is that when he lands and he’s at LAX and he’s getting his bags, the baggage claim is completely empty – which would never happen EVER. Especially not a Christmas! That’s my one little like editor’s note that makes me crazy every time. But exactly – Christmas is about family, it’s about togetherness. There’s a sense that in the end, everything will be okay in a Christmas movie and that’s why the entire time you’re watching Die Hard you’re on the edge of your seat, because you’re like, “But everything has to be okay ‘cause it’s a Christmas movie!” And it’s about like the coming together of all, you know, peace on Earth and goodwill toward man, and all of that traditional stuff, which you obviously do not get with Die Hard, and that’s why your brain is doing this back and forth of, “Oh, summer blockbuster, wait, no family-everybody-has-to-say-love Christmas movie, and that’s what’s so smart about it.”
I mean, every Christmas movie has some alienated person rediscovering the importance of some traditional value, typically their family, which like that is 100% what Die Hard is about. I was going to say a lot of Christmas movies are focused on a sense of selflessness and giving.
Family is, after all, one of the predominant themes throughout Christmas films. I like how one Twitter user put it. @mcclure111 said this: “Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie because it occurs on Christmas, it’s a Christmas movie because it’s about a social obligation with a family member that you didn’t want to participate in but spirals more and more into an unending nightmare.” Yeah, I think we’ve all been there.
Whether you’re looking at Home Alone, Elf, The Santa Clause, even Jingle All the Way, the main character realizes that they’re disconnected from their family, and is inspired by the season to try to reconnect, no matter the personal cost.
That personal cost can be great. George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge have to face the demons – well, angels and ghosts, more accurately – of their past and their likely futures. Other characters let go of their attachments to money and material things. Those who stay greedy end up learning their lesson.
[CLIP – DIE HARD – ELLIS – WHAT AM I, A METHOD ACTOR?]
ED: For instance in a Christmas movie, Harry, instead of getting killed by Hans would I don’t know, sell his Rolex watch and give the money to orphans or something, I don’t know.
SIMONE: They’d turn it into the Gift of the Magi.
ED: There you go. He would sell his Rolex to get gifts for orphans, and the orphans bought him a new band for his Rolex. It was really ironic and tragic.
Those who do choose to do the right thing find themselves redeemed on this magical night. As John lets go of his bitterness over his split with Holly, he’s opened up to a revelation about Hans’ plan that allows him to save the day.
Jeremiah Friedman, screenwriter.
JEREMIAH: Yeah, it’s like the whole celebration night kind of thing, and the idea of the second chances, the redemptive quality – the redemption of Al, the redemption of McClane, the redemption of Holly and John’s marriage. All feels like Christmas. And Argyle – like the whole ending feels like a fairytale –
SIMONE: Yeah they got those bearer bonds, like, snowing…
JEREMIAH: Yeah, snowing down on everybody, and then get that beautiful shot of Al beaming at John, and their like bromance which is great and unexplored. But yeah, totally a Christmas movie. And a very fun movie to go see on Christmas. More fun I would say than seeing, like, you know It’s a Wonderful Life, which is a great movie but a very sad movie.
[CLIP – DIE HARD – AL POWELL – THEY CAN TEACH YOU EVERYTHING EXCEPT HOW TO LIVE WITH A MISTAKE]
Al Powell has his own storyline of redemption, although it doesn’t play as well today as it did back then. Al’s greatest regret is accidentally shooting a child who was holding a toy gun; he is wracked with guilt and rendered unable to use his weapon, landing him on desk duty. But inspired by the events of Christmas Eve 1988, Al successfully defends John from a resurrected Karl, shooting him dead without hesitation. It’s… weird, to say the least, to have the storyline of a cop killing a child treated as a simple mistake, and to have a renewed capacity for violence treated as a triumph, but… that’s what we’ve got in this movie.
Many Christmas films also find resolution with the help of some deus ex machina – you know, a Christmas miracle, just like the one that happens on 34th Street. Hans himself riffs on this idea after being told the locks on the vault are nearly unbreakable.
[CLIP – DIE HARD – HANS – IT’S CHRISTMAS, THEO]
[CLIP – DIE HARD – HANS – YOU ASKED FOR MIRACLES, THEO]
Yeah, 100%. I mean the core, I’d say, focus of the movie – I mean I don’t think it’s kind of accidental or incidental that it’s set at Christmas. I think that while it gives you a good plot element, that he’s there for the Christmas party – that could have been any other kind of party – but the idea of a special night where everything’s going to change and by morning or dawn, you know, when they get out of the building, it does feel like there’s this little miracle that’s been pulled off. This one guy has managed to stop all these terrorists and reunite with his wife and do what the LAPD and the FBI couldn’t do, and he’s done it by jumping off a building and breaking through the glass. You know a helicopter got taken down and all this stuff, and then it’s just him and her riding off into the sunset with Argyle the lovely limo driver. And that feels like, you know, a perfect holiday movie.
There’s also something that’s just emotionally escalating about setting a movie around the holiday.
But you know, it is it’s interesting because I interviewed Shane Black a couple years ago and I was like, what’s the deal with Christmas, man? Because he, all of his movies are set at Christmas too. And he like gave me this like very beautiful, eloquent answer about how, when it’s Christmas, like a hush comes over everything, and it just makes everything much more poignant, and you can find little bits of Christmas you know everywhere you look, even if you’re not in like a winter wonderland type of setting, which is like, you know what we know as Christmas. If you’re in LA, you can still find little pieces of Christmas and so it was a very beautiful answer, and you understand that how, as a screenwriter, like setting something at a specific holiday, even if it’s just in the background, like offers a more heightened emotional sense to what’s going on.
I think it’s fun, but I think it’s interesting that so many movies in the 80s were Christmas movies. Die Hard is a Christmas movie, Lethal Weapon is a Christmas movie, obviously. I think that it’s part of “make it the the thing that everybody knows.” Everybody knows Christmas! Families come together at Christmas! Stakes are high at Christmas! If it’s a Christmas movie, it’s a little bit more important than if it’s just a regular old everyday time. But I love that it was a Christmas movie released in July. That’s what’s so brilliant about the Die Hard. It’s that pure summer action, but by adding in the Christmas theme, you just upped the ante a little bit. The stakes just become that much higher.
Scott Wampler, news editor at Birth. Movies. Death., and host of the Trying Times podcast.
I think that’s the difference between a movie that feels like Christmas, and a movie that’s a Christmas movie. You know? Of course around Christmas you think of family and forgiveness and generosity and all these things, but I don’t think those those things are movies that feel like Christmas. I don’t think they necessarily make Christmas movies. I can point to a number of films that have those qualities that have fuck-all to do with Christmas. I think those elements are contained in Die Hard to some degree, but I also I think it takes place at Christmas for a reason and you know – several plot points hinge on the fact that it’s Christmas, so I don’t even think it’s I don’t even think it’s up for debate. The writer of the movie says it’s a Christmas movie. I mean, what else do you need to hear?
So what about the screenwriters and other filmmakers? Yep, writer Stephen E de Souza is in the “Yes Christmas” camp. On Twitter, when someone asked him directly if he thought it was a Christmas film, de Souza joked, “Yes, because the studio rejected the Purim draft,” adding the hashtag #DieHardIsAChristmasMovie to his post.
De Souza also told Dazed Digital in an interview: “One of our producers, Joel Silver, had made Lethal Weapon the previous year, which was also set during the holiday, and he had decided he liked all his movies to take place at Christmas, as they would then very likely be played on television every December and we would all get residual cheques. Obviously, he was right!”
Indeed, Christmas is good business. This is where we get into the outside perception of the film – where we go beyond just the content of the movie’s run time. The studio, theaters, TV networks, and other industries have leaned into Die Hard being a Christmas movie, recutting the trailer to proclaim the movie “the greatest Christmas story of all time…”, packaging the DVD set in a fake ugly Christmas sweater, and releasing the “children’s” book, “A Die Hard Christmas,” with violent illustrations that are definitely for parents, not kids. You might say that that’s an obvious, crassly commercial attempt to goose profits, and to that I say – is that not completely in line with the modern spirit of Christmas?
Of course, when the film was released, it was a different story. 20th Century Fox did not include any references to Christmas in its early marketing for the film. Stephen Follows, a film researcher, screenwriter, and producer, took a very data-driven look the movie. His piece, “Using data to determine if Die Hard is a Christmas movie” is very thorough and really interesting, and I wanted to note his section on the first-run marketing of the movie. He says: “None of Die Hard’s contemporaneous theatrical posters featured any Christmas elements, instead sticking to explosions, guns and a big picture of Bruce Willis’ worried-looking face.” Follows analyzes the Die Hard posters and taglines, noting, “Not a Christmas reference in sight, whereas most true Christmas movies highlight how important the holiday season or festivities are to the plot. To conclude the commercial perspective, it’s abundantly clear that 20th Century Fox did not see Die Hard as a Christmas film.”
But the intentions of the story, the filmmakers, even the studios can be overpowered by the audience. Each viewer comes to the movie with their own life experience and their own perspective on the holiday. And they each form their own associations between everything from smells to food to music to other entertainment with their holiday traditions.
This explains how the movie came to be more closely associated with Christmas than it was perhaps originally intended. After all, what holiday taps into comforting memories of childhood more than Christmas? Die Hard’s Christmastime setting created a tenuous connection to the holiday, allowing it to essentially double down on those nostalgic feelings. As the film replayed during the holidays, it created a feedback loop that strengthened those associations. Die Hard is now fixed in audiences’ minds as a Christmas movie, no matter what its actual content.
This seasonal self-perpetuating cycle is borne out when looking at Google Trends (which goes back to 2004). Die Hard’s first spikes in popularity aren’t surprising: they center around the release of two sequels, Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). Let’s face it, those movies were… bad. But they were enough to remind young adult audiences of the original film. Starting in 2014, spikes in Google Trends began to appear every December, increasing with each passing year. In response to this growing interest, savvy networks and movie theaters replayed the original during the holidays. The internet, the ultimate nostalgia engine, took it from there with memes, articles, and videos that celebrated and over-analyzed the film. (And obviously, I’m right there with ‘em.)
This isn’t the first film that has happened to. Surprisingly, the film perhaps considered to be the most traditionally Christmassy of them all, It’s a Wonderful Life, is another constructed classic.
According to Mental Floss, director Frank Capra’s production company Liberty Films’ first project was to be an adaption of a short story titled “The Greatest Gift,” which would also appear in Good Housekeeping under the title “The Man Who Was Never Born.” When the movie was released as It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, audiences and critics were lukewarm on the picture. In a strange twist, decades after it was first released, a clerical screw-up turned it into the holiday mainstay we know today. In 1974, the movie entered the public domain after the film’s copyright holder simply forgot to file for a renewal. This meant that TV stations everywhere could play It’s a Wonderful Life all day and all night and not have to pay a cent for it. While a post-World War II crowd may have rejected the movie’s sentiment, subsequent generations seem to revel in the opportunity to visit the nostalgic whimsy of it all. (Where have we heard that story before?)
“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told The Wall Street Journal. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
That’s a point film historian Matthew Sweet makes to UK newspaper The Guardian, suggesting that films associated with some special childhood event get associated with Christmas, because Christmas is the most special time: “You might find some Christmas films were really Easter films, you just saw them when you were off school,” he says. It’s why we might associate The Wizard of Oz with Christmas, or The Ten Commandments with Easter, or the show The Twilight Zone with New Year’s.
Adam Sternbergh, novelist, contributing editor to New York Magazine, and pop culture journalist.
To me it’s never really been a question. If you want to call it a Christmas movie, then you can, and if you don’t want to, it’s okay, you can still enjoy it. I was a teenager when the film came out so I saw it in the theater, so I think it’s a bit more of a question – the Christmas question and the Christmas movie question is more for a generation that discovered later in like different formats. ‘Cause I just associate it with the time when I saw it in the theater, which was in the summer. But I also can see the argument that it’s Christmas movie: there’s Christmas music in the movie, there’s a Christmas tree in the movie, they’re having a Christmas party in the movie – I don’t know what other Christmassy qualifications you would need to have. So if someone were to put a gun to my head – like Hans Gruber – and force me to to make a proclamation, I would say of course it’s Christmas movie.
As Michael Hann of The Guardian says, “Christmas is about routine, about doing things the same way every year, about being able to slip into familiar roles with barely a thought. A film as boundlessly familiar as Die Hard slips into that same part of the mind. It makes no demands: once seen, it is a film one can begin watching at any point without the slightest trouble. It almost doesn’t matter whether or not Die Hard is actually on at Christmas: the very certainty of it makes it seem as if it should be.”
SO, WHY DOES IT MATTER?
After all of that, I feel like the argument that Die Hard is a Christmas movie is very, very strong, from a logical, evidence-based standpoint. Inarguably strong, although there are people out there who still argue that climate change isn’t a thing or that kids shouldn’t be vaccinated, sooo…
Now, I have tried not to let politics and other personal beliefs enter into this podcast too much. But as we enter a discussion about values, they’re going to come up. I’m not trying to sway anyone to my belief system, but I feel like I need to be honest about my larger beliefs to give context to my feelings about this movie.
I’m actually not a person who likes to argue for argument’s sake. If I perceive from the get-go that the person I’m arguing with is not open to receiving new information and reevaluating their stances, I usually don’t want to bother. Now I know there’s something to be said for performative argument, where you continue to have a debate with an intractable opponent solely for the audience’s sake. The audience might be more open to changing their minds, so the idea is that you have the debate in front of them anyway so they can hear your points. Maybe someone in the audience will learn something and come over to your side, and it will be worth it.
That’s probably a tactic worth trying for issues that are more important. It’s not really worth doing for a movie.
That’s not to say I can’t still be sucked into a Die Hard debate. It happens. It happens when I think we’re having an actual exchange of ideas and I realize too late I’m talking to a person who has already made up their mind and can’t be moved. And my personal kryptonite is a person who can’t articulate a cogent reason why they feel the way they do. That’s when I get frustrated. I’m usually happy to let people be, but if we’re already having the discussion, I want to know why you believe the way you do. “That’s just the way I feel” is not-not a valid argument in some matters, but someone saying that always makes me want to dig deeper.
There are absolutely reasons why folks might not consider Die Hard a Christmas movie. The movie came out in July – sure, that’s something. Also, the star of the movie, Bruce Willis, declared that…
[CLIP – COMEDY CENTRAL ROAST OF BRUCE WILLIS – “Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, it’s a Bruce Willis movie.”]
I mean, I personally think those are pretty thin pieces of “evidence,” but they have logic to them. Even reasons that are entirely personal can contain their own logic.
Reed Fish, director and screenwriter.
REED: I can state pretty clearly that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. For me? And maybe we each have our own definition of what Christmas movies are, and that’s fine. But to me a Christmas movie would be a movie I could watch us with my entire family. I would not watch Die Hard with my entire family, ever.
I will not – I mean, you know my daughter is 3 and 1/2 and she’s too young for most movies, so you know. But I will not be watching Die Hard with her when I when she’s 7. So any movie that is actually a Christmas movie, I could watch with her when she seven. Die Hard is an R-rated action movie and is not an appropriate Christmas movie. Despite the fact that it does have thematic Christmas elements, it is in no way a Christmas movie.
SIMONE: Interesting. Okay so your definition of a Christmas movie necessitates that it be family-friendly.
REED: I think so. So my definition of a Christmas movie, yes necessitates that it is family friendly. And I think that you can have other movies that are set at Christmas time and are Christmas themed, but they’re not like, to me, that true definition of a Christmas movie. And you know it doesn’t mean I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about but then this debate pops up and then I don’t know, I think I get angry about the debate then like I have to have an opinion and I thought about, and I realize, oh no, I am never once going to watch this movie at Christmastime. I’ve never once turned this movie on at Christmas time and said, oh I just want to watch this, oh, it’s holiday season, gotta watch these murders.
Yeah I mean I don’t know, if a movie is set in – I don’t know, you know, if a scene in a movie takes place on Flag Day is that a Flag Day movie? You know I don’t know. It’s not a movie I’m going to put on for my family at Christmas. You know, maybe if my kid was 17 and there was no other little kids in the house and we wanted to watch something but, I don’t know.
I might not agree with that perspective, but it’s a perspective that has a clear reason behind it, and I respect that.
And as it turns out, folks who think Die Hard is a Christmas movie are actually in the minority. Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter and Morning Consult took it upon themselves to come up with a definitive answer — or at least a majority one. They surveyed 2200 people and 62 percent said that no, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie.
Only 25 percent of respondents said they would classify Die Hard as a Christmas movie, while 13 percent said they didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion. Men were slightly more likely to deem it a holiday movie than women (32 percent versus 20 percent), and those men were even more likely to say so if they were between the ages of 30 and 44 (37 percent of male respondents in that age group said it was a holiday movie).
Of course, the thing that bugs me is that apparently they did not ask their subjects why they felt that way.
So that outlines how I personally approach this debate. But why do I even care about it in the first place?
It has to do with inclusion.
Stick with me here.
I’m a believer in the big tent. I believe in letting people like what they like. I’m not a believer in gatekeeping. I’m not a believer in the zero-sum game. That’s why I believe that people who think Die Hard is a Christmas movie should be allowed to enjoy it that way, and if you don’t agree, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary to try to deprive people of that enjoyment.
Allowing a movie like Die Hard to be called a Christmas movie does not make your favorite movie less of a Christmas movie. No one’s coming around and slapping your DVD of White Christmas out of your hands.
Not long ago, someone recommended this podcast on Twitter. Another Twitter user responded with enthusiasm at the idea of a show just about Die Hard. “The ultimate man’s movie!” they said. “Count me in!”
I had just released the episode about Holly. I’m sure you can imagine how this went over. I tried to approach it with good humor. I said, you know, it’s the ultimate everyone’s movie. I’m a woman, and I’d just released an episode about the female lead in the film. Now, I’m not going to rehash a fucking Twitter argument on a podcast, but bear with me. The other user dug in and said it’s a movie aimed at men. I argued that didn’t mean it was just for men. And around and around we went.
It’s the same with Christmas. I believe that Christmas is not just one thing. It’s not just for one set of people. Christmas, especially as it is celebrated in the United States, is a mish-mash of cultures and beliefs. Many people enjoy the holiday, for many different reasons.
I – and again, I’m not trying to get too far into my religious beliefs here – but I do not celebrate Christmas for the Jesus origin story. It’s just not my thing. But that doesn’t mean I am automatically excluded from the holiday. I still enjoy decorating a tree. I still enjoy Santa Claus (the modern Santa Claus, not Saint Nicholas). I still enjoy making gingerbread houses and giving gifts and spending time with my family.
But recently, me and folks in my community got some pushback about our wanting to celebrate Christmas too. We were met with incredulity that since we weren’t into the nativity thing that we’d even want to. Some people were actually offended that we wanted to participate.
But again – we weren’t coming around and slapping the angel tree-topper from anyone’s hands. We just wanted to be included too.
For Christmas, and for Christmas movies, the attitude of “this is my thing, you can’t have it” is what bothers me. It’s why I care.
I grew up a huge nerd. That really shouldn’t be a surprise. I loved sci-fi and action films most of all, especially Star Wars. There was a period where I read nothing but the Star Wars expanded universe novels and I wore a Star Wars shirt every day to school.
Most people in the nerd community were actually pretty nice. I think the Star Wars fan fiction writing group I was in was at least half women. But I still encountered some gatekeeping – or at least some expectations – that bothered me.
Here’s a small but illustrative anecdote. I was on the speech and debate team in high school – huge nerd, remember. During a tournament, we had a break room with two TVs playing movies: The Wedding Singer on one and Blade on the other. I was thoroughly enjoying Blade, but had to leave to go to a round. After I finished, I ran back to the room and asked if the movie was over. A guy pointed to one of the TVs and said, “Nah, Wedding Singer still has like an hour left.”
“No!” I said. “Is Blade over yet?!”
And that, I think, explains a lot. I’m not into romantic comedies. I didn’t care about The Wedding Singer. I wasn’t going over there and slapping the Wedding Singer DVD out of anyone’s hand, I just wanted to watch Blade. That’s the kind of movie I like. Defeating evil with lots of fighting and explosions, that’s what I’m into.
So when it comes to Christmastime, that’s still the kind of movie I want to watch. Watching a gauzy Judy Garland singing a sad song about Christmas doesn’t interest me. Watching John McClane put a Santa hat on a dead terrorist does.
Yeah, I’ve gone to the Egyptian right before Christmas and it’s so fun to go and watch it again, and yeah I mean even if it’s on TV – I think the thing is that like, for me if I want to watch a movie at Christmas, like I don’t necessarily want to watch you know some of the sappier movies. Like yeah, we need to have an action movie as well. We need to have something for us to watch on Christmas if we don’t want to watch It’s a Wonderful Life or something. So we need things too. We need a variety of Christmas movies.
Screenwriter Stephen E de Souza told the Washington Post that the idea of Die Hard as a Christmas movie may have started as a tongue-in-cheek pushback to the cheery, G-rated fare found during the holidays, but has since become an unironic way to welcome the holidays.
I guess what I’m ultimately trying to say is that a non-”traditional” Christmas is just as valid as an old-school Christmas.
Now, why do old school Christmas people care about the Die Hard debate? A theory I have that it’s about trying to protect the “purity” of the genre. If you have a narrow idea of what a Christmas movie is, allowing in non-traditional movies will dilute that. It’s a slippery slope argument. If we let Die Hard be considered a Christmas movie, next thing you know Prometheus will be considered a Christmas movie because Idris Elba’s character decorates a tree onboard his ship.
And to that I say, “Fuck it.”
Fuck it. Let Prometheus be considered a Christmas movie. Let Gremlins be considered a Christmas movie. Let The French Connection and Desk Set and The Ref and Batman Returns be considered Christmas movies.
The AV Club recently released a list of “21 Non-Holiday Holiday Movies,” which includes Diner and While You Were Sleeping and more. “Every December it’s the same, as we settle down with classics like White Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Miracle On 34th Street,” the article states. “Frankly, after so many years, these standards have been rerun so often as to absolutely lose all meaning. So this year, we suggest an off-brand breed of holiday film. These cinematic efforts’ pivotal moments take place during the holiday season, but they’re not the ones that necessarily come to mind when you think ‘holiday movie.’ These films may offer a scene or two just as emblematic as ‘Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!’ So curl up with a double feature from the below list for a much-needed new take on the holiday spirit.”
The AV Club has a really great point in there: by accepting new movies as holiday movies, we get to reexamine our ideas about what the holidays mean, and take on new perspectives that might previously have been excluded.
Even movies that have no plot or thematic ties to Christmas can be Christmas movies if that’s what works for you. Every New Year’s Eve, I watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That movie has nothing to do with New Year’s, but it’s my tradition, and so I associate Dr Frank N Furter with ringing in a new year at midnight. You might say that at 11:59, I tremble with antici…
If you want to watch, I don’t know, Clueless every Christmas, then it’s okay to have Clueless be a Christmas movie for you.
Now, I understand why the debate itself is now tired and annoying. At first, people suggesting that Die Hard is a Christmas movie was kinda funny and subversive. But as more and more people suggested it – and as those people continued to act like it was a completely novel idea and that they were geniuses for figuring it out – we hit a saturation point. The lightning speed with which the internet is able to convey the arguments and counter-arguments certainly hastened reaching that point. I understand the exasperation of, “Yes, we know you think Die Hard is a Christmas movie, we get it, shut up!”
It’s maybe not what we think of is a Christmas movie but… meh. The problem with this question is that the idea of “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” has been co-opted by the most boring motherfuckers you’ve ever met, who want to say this as though it’s the most revelatory thing. You know, this is a thing that if you told my parents, like right now if we called my parents and were like hey, technically speaking, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, it would blow their fucking minds and then they’d spend the next six months telling people about it. Like, “did you realize Die Hard was a Christmas movie?” But you know my parents are so far removed from movies or any of pop culture, of course they’re going to think that’s an interesting thought. Whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie is an interesting thought for people who aren’t paying attention to pop culture or just have nothing else to say.
“Hot take” culture can be very tiring, but it’s less to do with what that hot take is about, and more about how we’re inundated with these takes. We can communicate ideas with such speed, and amplify them among so many people that you can be hit with them suddenly and all at once, like an avalanche. It’s overwhelming.
Yeah, yeah, that’s my highly original hot take: the internet is overwhelming.
[CLIP – DIE HARD – AL – SORRY FOR WASTING YOUR TIME]
Interestingly, the internet also plays a different role. “Films now have this other afterlife in tiny clips and gifs,” film historian Matthew Sweet told the Guardian, “so a particular image from a film — like the dead terrorist in the Santa hat in Die Hard — can break free from the film and have this other life online that might be its most vigorous form of life.”
Shannon Hubbell, editor-in-chief of LewtonBus.net.
I mean I guess I’m a descriptivist not a prescriptivist. Like if we as a collective have decided that Die Hard a Christmas movie, it’s a Christmas movie. That’s what it is, you know? I’ve got no beef with anyone who’s saying, this is my favorite Christmas movie. As far as it’s actual connection to Christmas for me, not much there. Not much to hang onto. But it’s also kind of hilarious. It’s great that it’s become a Christmas movie.
So, to wrap up: I do think Die Hard is a Christmas movie. I have pieces of evidence I like to point to in these discussions. That satisfies the logical part of my brain. More than that, it matters to me because people should be allowed to like what they like. It’s okay to feel annoyed and overwhelmed by messages that you don’t agree with (but aren’t actually harmful). But we need to recognize that other people enjoying something doesn’t lessen our enjoyment of the things we like ourselves. And if it does… if someone liking Die Hard at Christmas really ruins your holiday… then you’ve got some soul-searching to do, my friend.
Christmas is for everyone. Christmas movies are for everyone – even for those who’d rather celebrate by seeing Hans Gruber fall off of Nakatomi Tower.
In our next episode…
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Die Hard With a Podcast
Thank you to our guests Katie Walsh, Ed Grabionowski, Sasha Perl-Raver, Jeremiah Friedman, Scott Wampler, Adam Sternbergh, Reed Fish, and Shannon Hubbell. Be sure to check the show notes on the website to learn more about them.
Thanks again for joining me, Merry Christmas, and yippee-kai-yay, motherfuckers!