In recent years, people have enjoyed citing Die Hard (1988) as their favorite Christmas movie. It has become somewhat of an ironic joke response to the question of someone's favorite holiday film, as people don’t traditionally consider an action movie with guns and terrorists the image of holiday fare. But, it does raise a few interesting questions: What actually constitutes a Christmas film? And can Die Hard truly be considered one?
No absolute definition of a “Christmas film” exists. Thus, we must look to the titles that have cemented their reputation as Christmas films and examine their similarities in order to calculate the necessary ingredients. These are the titles like Home Alone (1990), Elf (2003), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Story (1983), and so on. What classifies them as Christmas titles, and does Die Hard qualify under the same criteria?
The strongest characteristics of Christmas titles are recurring themes: the value of family, the importance of charity and helping others, and the heartwarming goodness of fellowship among men. Regardless of what happens during the narrative of seminal holiday films, those are the driving take-aways that establish them as "Christmas movies" -- from Old Man Marley reuniting with his estranged son in Home Alone, to George Bailey understanding the value of his everyday existence in It’s a Wonderful Life, to James Caan’s character in Elf learning that he shouldn’t treat everyone like a jerk.
In Die Hard, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is only in Los Angeles because he wants to visit his estranged wife and kids at Christmas, in hopes of making amends. His plans are derailed by a terrorist plot in his wife’s office, and before he has any chance of fixing his family situation, he has to lay down some out-of-jurisdictional justice. It isn’t that far a stretch from Home Alone, where Christmas is the background to a story about family reconciliation interrupted by the violent beating of some criminals.
To that end, Christmas as a setting has defined a number of titles as "Christmas movies" even though the holiday itself isn’t integral to the plot. Christmas is much more frequently used as a thematic element for telling a story about love, charity, and family. The holiday itself and the traditional actions of people on Christmas day often go unseen. We don’t see Christmas day in It’s a Wonderful Life, nor White Christmas (1954), but few argue their holiday film status. In those titles, the holiday merely exists to amplify the messages of the film’s story. Die Hard, therefore, technically fits that bill. The fact McClane makes his trip to Los Angeles, and the fact Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) planned his robbery on that particular day (knowing the building would be understaffed and have a ripe picking of hostages) both relate to it being Christmas, and the setting dips the film’s eventual emotional payoff in Christmas spirit.
However, it’s arguable that those themes are present in plenty of movies not set at Christmas, and therefore they also fail to truly define something as a Christmas film. But that argument starts a paradox -- if a Christmas setting and a sentimental message about family and togetherness don’t define a Christmas film, what does? Die Hard could equally work on the 4th of July, or any other holiday where the building would be less staffed and people may be having an office party. But then again, Home Alone could have happened at any time the McCallisters chose to take a vacation. As it is, the holiday setting is what colors the events of each film and steeps them in the warm water of holiday spirit. Granted, that doesn't end the argument as to whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but it does explain why many people see it as such.
Die Hard was released in July as a summer blockbuster, the polar opposite end of the calendar from Christmas. Miracle on 34th Street came out in May of 1947, so release dates don’t dictate genre. In opposition, It's a Wonderful Life was released on Christmas Day in 1946, but Frank Capra said he never thought of or intended it as a Christmas film. He was surprised when, decades later, the film finally became popular and was associated with the holiday. It shows a film's status as a holiday title is more the product of its audience's reception than anything else, and reception varies from person to person.
Truth is, those who view Die Hard as a Christmas movie are going to keep doing so, and those who don’t, don’t. The best definition of a Christmas movie is a subjective one -- if it gets you in the spirit of the holidays and fills you with that warm and fuzzy feeling Christmas movies are supposed to evoke, then it is a Christmas movie. If not, nothing is going to make that happen.