This past week, noted provocateur Larry Young, of AiT/Planet Lar fame, wrote on Facebook that he couldn’t believe it was 2016 and we were still debating whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. It’s long been the standard answer to “What’s your favorite Christmas movie?” of cool people who hate the schmaltz of actual Christmas movies, so it’s long been accepted as a Christmas movie. I, being a contrarian, wrote that it’s not a Christmas movie, which led to some debate, although no one’s mind was changed (Larry’s least of all – he’s very firm in his opinions, as misguided as they might be). I also noted that this is a perfect debate – it’s very fun and completely meaningless! So the question is: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?
Obviously, it takes place at Christmas, which ought to make it a Christmas movie, full stop. In the comments to Larry’s post, one person linked to their essay about why it’s a Christmas movie, which makes a compelling case. It doesn’t really matter that Die Hard was released in July; yes, Christmas movies are usually released in the month or so leading up to Christmas, but after the original release date, when a movie is released is no longer relevant, and no one today remembers that Die Hard was released in July and wasn’t marketed as a Christmas movie. So we can reject that line of thinking. Price makes the point that Christmas is no longer solely, or even most importantly, about the religious celebration of Jesus’s birth, but a “second” Christmas – “the over-arching calendar season that merges every level of culture (familial, commercial, entertainment, political, and any other level you can think of) into one coherent and hegemonic force.” He’s not wrong at all, nor even original (not that he claims to be original) – it’s long been known that there are two separate Christmases, to the point where I would love to see the “religious” Christmas moved, as everyone ought to know that the religious Christmas is only in December because early Christians wanted to make it more palatable to pagan Romans, who celebrated the winter solstice as a time of renewal and would be more accepting of a miraculous birth representing the a spiritual renewal if it were tied to their current beliefs. No one knows when Jesus was born (or, you know, if Jesus was born), so decoupling the religious aspect of Christmas from the cultural aspect and letting us have a year-end bacchanal of gift-giving and family dinners without any religious aspects and letting the holiness of Jesus’s birth stand alone and not get overwhelmed by Santa Claus would be a smart thing. But that’s neither here nor there – we’re stuck with this weird amalgam of holiness and commercialism, and Price points out that Die Hard deals with the aspects of “second” Christmas – “Greed, commercialism, feeling out of place, overcoming obstacles, dealing with estranged family, even traveling cross-country — these are all thematic references to the cultural Christmas that we all experience removed from the underlying religious dogma.” So far, so good … but then Price goes too far, I think, and nullifies his argument, or perhaps universalizes it to the point of meaninglessness. He writes:
Finally, the fact that DIE HARD was released in July does not discredit its attachment to the movie; it might actually help reinforce the connection. As Jack Santino noted in New Old-Fashioned Ways, “seasonal schizophrenia” is a marker of the power Christmas has in culture. When a movie — or song, or television show, or comic book or any popular culture text — decides to skip more immediate holidays (say, Independence Day) in favor of tying itself to Christmas, it reinforces for the audience that Christmas is the king of holidays — not just in terms of religious power, but economic and political, too.
What this means, to me, is that “Christmas” is such a powerful force that movies with absolutely no connection to the holiday can be considered “Christmas” movies because they deal in the themes of “Christmas” movies that Price identifies earlier in the essay. I know that’s a stretch, but if we consider that John McClane is trying to reconnect with his family, and that’s a “Christmas” movie theme, isn’t, let’s say, Liar Liar a Christmas movie? If we get into the idea of forgiveness, a “religious” Christmas idea, isn’t Pulp Fiction a Christmas movie? Male protagonists in action movies are always dealing with greed, commercialism, feeling out of place, and overcoming obstacles. That makes Die Hard an action movie. It doesn’t make it a Christmas movie.
My point was that you can set it at any time of the year and it would be essentially the same movie, so it’s not a Christmas movie. In my mind, a Christmas movie has to be tied to the holiday in some way. A person reunites with their estranged family, but only because it’s Christmas (John McClane is not really reuniting with his estranged family, just visiting because his wife is successful when he thought she wouldn’t be – that could happen at any time of the year). Christmas, in some way, affects the action of the characters. In Larry’s Facebook post, some people claimed that because it’s a Christmas party and because security is lessened due to the holiday, it’s a Christmas movie. But it could be any party – the boss says they just had a wildly successful day, so it could simply be a celebratory party – big corporations rarely need that much of a reason to celebrate their greed. I haven’t seen the entire movie in a while, but I don’t recall any indications that security is not as strong because it’s Christmas – Gruber and his guys are just very efficient. But maybe I’m wrong. Still, that also seems like something that could easily be explained away without it being Christmas. Practically nothing else in the movie is “Christmas-y” – it’s an action movie that relies on action movie clichés (not to be disparaging at all – I love action movies, and Die Hard would be on a short list of best of all time if I made such a list), but the actual holiday means very little in relation to the plot.
Christmas movies don’t have to be schmaltzy, of course. When people say Die Hard is their favorite Christmas movie because they want to be cool and name a movie that no one – or at least no one until the advent of the Internet – thought of as a Christmas movie, they’re missing an actual great action movie that also happens to be a Christmas movie, one that was released 16 months earlier than it – Lethal Weapon. Like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon was not released during the Christmas season, and like Die Hard, it’s an action movie that happens to take place at Christmas. However, Riggs’s suicidal depression and eventual acceptance by Murtaugh and his family is a redemptive story far more powerful than McClane’s (who, again, is estranged from his wife solely because he was being a douchebag), so it fits the themes of a “Christmas” movie far more than Die Hard does. Another unconventional movie that is a better “Christmas” movie than Die Hard is, of course, Gremlins, which is very much a Christmas movie. The action of the plot is only put in motion because Hoyt Axton needs to buy a Christmas present for his son and he picks perhaps the worst one ever. No Christmas, no gremlins. And despite the fact that I’m writing this on Christmas and it’s sunny and 52 degrees (shockingly cold around these parts for Christmas), the snow in Gremlins really does make it feel more like a Christmas movie, especially because much of the action wouldn’t be possible without the impediments of the weather. So if you want to be cool and not pick a traditional “Christmas” movie as your favorite (and any traditional Christmas movie is acceptable, except Love Actually, which should be killed with fire and never mentioned again), pick Lethal Weapon or Gremlins. Because you can’t argue that those aren’t Christmas movies.
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. Die Hard is a great movie, as close to the Platonic ideal of an action movie as we’re likely to get, and it doesn’t matter if it is a Christmas movie or not (Die Hard 2 is more of a Christmas movie, because much of the plot relies on the fact that it’s Christmas). If your tradition every year is watching Die Hard after you’ve opened your presents more power to you. But it does kind of bug me when people refer to it as a Christmas movie (especially when they’re so smug about it), because it’s not. Or is it? Sound off in the comments if you feel like it! And I hope you’re having a great holiday season, whether you celebrate Christmas or not!
(Other fun links: a theory on Christmas movies, which claims Die Hard is indeed a Christmas movie, and a definitive ranking of the gremlins in the bar scene.)
And hey, here’s Elizabeth Montgomery and Yvonne Craig to brighten your day: