From 1898 to Eternity: the Long Legacy of Christmas Classics

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From 1898 to Eternity: the Long Legacy of Christmas Classics

Lauded as a staple in holiday classics,  A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most well known animated TV specials of all time.

Lauded as a staple in holiday classics, A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most well known animated TV specials of all time.

Lauded as a staple in holiday classics, A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most well known animated TV specials of all time.

Lauded as a staple in holiday classics, A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most well known animated TV specials of all time.

Conor Drafz, Crown Writer and Photographer

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Christmas season has begun and holiday spirit is in the air. Part of the holiday cheer is the wide selection of Christmas movies that range from new films on the Hallmark Channel, to stop motion specials of the 60s and 70s, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and A Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), to 80s classics, like Gremlins (1984) and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). The amount of flicks to choose from provides viewers of any age with a great variety of viewing options. With more and more Christmas movies coming out every year, mainly television premieres, there are opportunities for an expansion in anybody’s personal collection.

Christmas movies have been produced and distributed for an extremely long time, since right about the beginning of motion pictures in the very late 1800s, back when movies were just minutes in length. The first Christmas movie ever made, titled Santa Claus, dates back to the year 1898 and was directed by a pioneer in filmmaking, George Albert Smith. The film, which clocks in at about a minute and 15 seconds, simply features the titular Santa Claus trimming a tree and filling stockings. At the end of the picture, there is a cut where the children wake up, surprised and excited, and the film ends right there. Movies have clearly gotten much more advanced as the years went on, although the short may not be astonishing, it is the first of many Christmas movies to be released and paved the way for far more to be crafted.

Since Santa Claus the selection of holiday flicks has greatly increased, gaining heavy ground with the release of the definitive, 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, a story about a man (James Stewart) who commits suicide on Christmas Eve, but is then is shown by his guardian angel just how much of an effect he had on the people around him and what life would have been like for those people if he was never born. Often hailed by critics and audiences as one of the best Christmas movies ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life has become a staple for holiday viewing. Along with It’s a Wonderful Life, several other holiday-centric films were produced in the 1940s that are now considered classics, such as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), also starring Jimmy Stewart and remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail with rom-com magnet Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, Holiday Inn (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), the last of which was remade in 1994.

Many years later, Christmas movies found a new avenue. Not through theatrical, feature-length films, but as specials on television. Perhaps the special that started this trend is 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a short that is loved by many. When asked about her favorite Christmas movies from childhood, Mrs. Christine Connell, an English teacher at Marian answered: “The old Rudolph cartoon… I still watch [it] on VHS.” The short film has created memories for tons who grew up during the era in which it was released, and popularized the use of stop-motion animation, as opposed to traditional hand-drawn animation found in most animated features at the time. Responsible for Rudolph, as well as later efforts in stop-motion TV specials, was the now-defunct production company, Videocraft International, Ltd., which ultimately became known as Rankin/Bass Productions (named after the founders of the company, Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass). Rankin/Bass Productions crafted other beloved television features, including Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), and a countless number of others. Even with the boom of Videocraft International’s stop-motion animation, there was still room for A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), considered the most popular Christmas special ever made. The animated Christmas special craze lasted through the 1970s and peered out near the end of the decade.

Following the drought in quality Christmas-themed theatrical films of the 70s, came a resurgence in the early 1980s, due partly to the release of A Christmas Story (1983); a sentimental view of Christmas in the early 1940s. A Christmas Story may not have been a box-office hit when it hit the big screen in ‘83, but it contrarily grew to become one of the most iconic Christmas flicks of all time. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), the third installment in the Vacation film series is one of the most played Christmas movies on television during the month of December. Chances are if someone were to check out TV listings for Christmas Vacation, they would find multiple showings in the same week. The 1980s brought about further entries into the category of Christmas movies that were not the most traditional. Some of the best-known ones include the horror-comedy, Gremlins (1984), and the action movie spectacular, Die Hard (1988). The latter has been heavily debated as to if it is a Christmas movie or not since it takes place on Christmas, yet it’s plot does not center around the season.

The holiday motion pictures that succeeded those that were released in the 1980s began in 1990 with Home Alone, the film that skyrocketed Macaulay Culkin into fame and was followed by a sequel film, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). Although the Rankin/Bass television specials had faded out by this period, stop-motion featured a resurgence among audiences, due to the 1993 release of the Tim Burton-produced, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Combining both Halloween and Christmas into the same story, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the tale of Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” of Halloweentown who decides to take over Christmas for the year, in place of Christmastown. “I really like The Nightmare Before Christmas. I like the songs and the characters; especially the inner struggles of Jack,” says Morgan Piwonka (10). The film was a different type of picture for The Walt Disney Company, as it was much darker than their typical movies; so much so, that the company decided to distribute the picture under it’s more adult-centric label, Touchstone Pictures, the production company of movies like Pretty Woman (1990) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Released around the same time frame as Nightmare, The Santa Clause (1994) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) are additional flicks lauded by many as Christmas classics.

The segue into the early 2000s delivered an immense number of films, including The Polar Express (2004), The Holiday (2006), and possibly the most played Christmas movies on cable, Elf (2003). Since then, the number of beloved Christmas movies to get theatrical releases has basically come to a halt, with the most stand out pictures emerging not on the big screen, but on television. The Hallmark Channel is the leading network for a variety of new holiday productions coming out every year. Just take a peek at the 34, yes 34, new Christmas movies set to premiere this season. Aside from TV station airings, in particular, Lifetime and Hallmark, there is a lack of noteworthy holiday-centric theatrical releases in recent years. The most significant Christmas movie distributed so far this season is the computer-animated film, The Grinch, which just hit theatres on November 9, 2018. Although no recent releases have garnered much attention, who’s to say it’s just that not enough time has passed for these movies to gain their own recognition. Perhaps by 2025, families will gather in in the living room to view a double feature of Krampus (2015) and A Madea Christmas (2013).

“Christmas time is here,” and one of the most fun aspects of the holiday is the chance to watch dozens of favorites throughout the season with family and friends. Although a drought is present in new Christmas movies of notability, the need for new classics is not rampant, as there is still a lot of classics waiting to be watched at home.

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