One of the better traditions around the holidays, besides the normal boring yuletide cheer, is to bust out your favorite Christmas movies to watch again after a year on the shelf. A Charlie Brown Christmas, Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and even Elf are all definitive year-end movies that highlight the Christmas spirit across eras and genres. Dusting off these DVDs is extra special since these particular movies can only really be enjoyed on or around December 25th — after all, what sort of loon watches It’s a Wonderful Life in July? They’re the perfect pairing of the holiday with a little slice of pop culture. But for every mention of George Bailey or Kevin McCallister around Christmastime there’s always been a puzzling outlier to me: John McClane. Since when did Die Hard become such a revered Christmas classic, and why? Only asking because, yo, Die Hard is most definitely not a Christmas movie.
What defines a good Christmas movie, anyway? It goes without saying that said movie should take place sometime after Thanksgiving and be set near the Christmas holiday. More importantly, the movie and its themes should have something to do with the fundamental themes of Christmas: family, thankfulness, sentimentality, nostalgia for the year that was. A bit of violence is permissible, to offset any schmaltz. A Christmas movie by definition should notice the holiday, and the characters should care about their relationship to it.
Die Hard may look like it covers all of these bases, but nah. Despite all of the nice Xmas signifiers that Die Hard throws out there, it’s only a half-assed backdrop to the gunfire, explosions, and Twinkie-based comic relief. This is not to say that Die Hard isn’t a rad action movie. In fact, Die Hard is one of the best action movies of the 1980s, which makes it de facto among the GOAT. This is to say, however, that the narrative of the movie taking place on Christmas Eve and into Christmas morning is arbitrary to the plot: a group of terrorists taking the employees of the Nakatomi Company hostage to steal millions of dollars in bearer bonds from the company’s vault. Just because a movie takes place on December 25th doesn’t make it a Christmas movie per se. By that definition, a Labor Day movie need only take place on the first Monday in September and include characters mentioning their day off.
There are plenty of details that would lead viewers to believe this was a Christmas movie. Besides the action starting on the 24th, director John McTiernan peppered in plenty of other references to juxtapose a peaceful holiday with the terroristic mayhem. But they amount to superficialities in plotting and characterization. Here, just scope this list:
- Jingle bells chime over the soundtrack.
- McClane’s limo driver listens to “Christmas in Hollis.”
- McClane whistles “Jingle Bells.”
- McClane draws “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho,” on a dead terrorist.
- Reginald VelJohnson’s character Sgt. Powell whistles “Let It Snow.”
- Theo, the tech-guy terrorist, begins to recite “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” as the police SWAT team attempts to storm Nakatomi Plaza.
- Hans Gruber says the line, “It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles,” as the terrorists are having trouble cracking the safe.
- Some incomplete graffiti on the walls says “Merry Chris…” when Hans goes looking for the bomb detonators.
- Theo says “Merry Christmas” after they crack the safe.
- The wrapping paper tape McClane sticks to his back to hide a gun is Christmas themed.
- McClane says, “Merry Christmas, Argyle,” at the end of the movie.
- Vaughn Monroe’s rendition of “Let It Snow” initially plays over the closing credits.
Lot of reminders, right? But none of them move the action, increase the tension, or reveal anyone’s character — or even really interact with the holiday itself. What do the characters in Die Hard learn about Christmas, or gain from surviving this trauma over the holiday? Maybe it’s to accept your loved ones despite their faults. But this realization has nothing to do with the holiday itself, and everything to do with the fact that McClane iced about a dozen terrorists to save his wife even though they were going through some tough times.
People like to say Die Hard is a Christmas movie because it feels like they’re getting away with something. They realize that true Christmas movies are perhaps too sentimental and saccharin, a load of kiddie crap and Love Actually-style kiddy crap for kiddie adults. Die Hard fans would rather see shit blow up and have characters yell “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!” at each other before you open presents. But no, this would be wrong. It’s kind of like how David Cronenberg insists on saying all his movies are comedies. That kind of flippant factoid is nice for a pull quote or two, but all of the body horror, mutilation, and sex in his movies can’t mask the fact that his statement is complete bullshit. People can’t recognize irony these days, and suddenly we’re all supposed to laugh out loud while watching Videodrome. But I digress.
If Die Hard is a Christmas movie because of its references to the holiday, then so is The Godfather, Eyes Wide Shut, Cast Away, Batman Returns, Mean Girls, Lethal Weapon, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, this year’s Carol, and more. It’s madness to think that any of these could be legitimately considered Christmas movies, and the same goes for Die Hard. Yippee-ki-yay, everyone. Find a real Christmas movie to watch.