3 Story Lessons from Christmas Movies

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

The season is approaching for a category of stories that have been beloved by audiences since the earliest days of film and television. Though America’s customs have shifted and melded throughout the decades, and a number of different religious traditions are celebrated in mid and late December, only one has amassed such a number of films to establish its own genre. I’m referring, of course, to the Christmas movie.

Wrapped presents, decorated trees, nativity sets, stockings, home-cooked food, and perhaps even a visit from Santa Claus himself are all tropes that create an environment of nostalgia and joy for many moviegoers. However, without a solid story behind them, these elements simply become archetypal window dressing. When done well, Christmas movies remind us of the reasons why this season has become so special to so many people. Here are three story lessons we can take from Christmas movies.

1. Family Issues Always Make Great Stories

Examples: Daddy’s Home 2, National Lampoon’s Christmas VacationA Christmas Story

For many, Christmas involves travel, carrying packages, and seeing relatives that we only encounter once a year. There’s a reason why we love to laugh at the difficult cousin that insists on talking politics at Christmas dinner – because so many of us have been there. The holiday season is a time when people express their love to the ones they’re closest to, but when emotions are running so high, there’s bound to be a few road blocks along the way. While conflict in families can work as a powerful tool in any film, finding an organic reason to put families in the same physical space can be challenging. Christmas is an ideal way to accomplish this, but certainly not the only way. Weddings, funerals, births, birthdays, anniversaries, and retirements are just a few ways you can force characters into the same room together.

2. We All Sometimes Feel Like Fish Out of Water

Examples: ElfRudolph the Red Nosed ReindeerFrosty the Snowman

The holidays are not a pleasant time for everyone. Some are confronted with the absence of family members who used to gather with them. Others are faced with their own loneliness. The emotions of the season can highlight what we don’t have instead of those things we should be thankful for. Stories that remind us that we all feel out of place at different times can be of great comfort. Seeing a character that struggles to connect with those around them can both make us laugh and make us cry. These stories create a sense of empathy within us and give us hope that others may have empathy for us. Most powerfully, they can bring assurances that we are not alone.

3. Moments of Reflection Are Universal

Examples: A Christmas CarolScroogedIt’s A Wonderful Life

The reflective holiday film has almost become a genre unto itself. There’s a reason these films seem to resonate with audiences year after year. Our lives feel busier every year. Things never seem to slow down. It never becomes easy to find the time to process and contemplate the experiences we’ve had – and yet we all continue to recognize the importance of it. Seeing characters stop and smell the roses, be confronted with the unhealthy ways they are living, and decide to turn over a new leaf give us hope that perhaps we, too, are capable of doing so. As with family stories, we must give characters a reason to pause their lives. While the holidays can be a great excuse for this – an illness, the death of a loved one, and being fired from a job are all other motivating factors in stories that revolve around a character who ends up experiencing a reflection.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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