Friday Fives: Top Five Christmas Movies of All Time: Will They Preach?

The goal of the Friday Fives segment is to present a top 5 list for church lay leaders, pastors, ministers, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders and other leaderhelps friends.

For this post, I’ll count down the top five grossing Christmas movies in history and add thoughts about whether each could potentially preach. By that I mean, is there a level of Biblical fidelity in the story? In essence, could the movie, or more specifically its dramatized themes, “preach” at Christmas?

:#5 The Santa Clause 2

Lifetime Box Office Gross: $139,236,327
Debut: 11/1/02
Preach? At number five on the list is the second in the “Santa Clause” franchise that will be putting actor Tim Allen’s great great great grandchildren through college and in yachts. Following the surprisingly successful “The Santa Clause” from 1994 and after an 8-year delay, Buena Vista Pictures released the sequel. In the first film, Allen’s character, Scott Calvin, who works for a toy manufacturer, is forced to become Santa Claus when the real guy falls off Calvin’s townhouse roof and dies. In this sequel, the now settled-in Scott/Santa must find a wife.

Before I continue…

…A word about Santa.

Most Christians come to terms with how they will approach the concept of Santa Claus. Our concern as parents was always not to confuse our children with any images or stories of Christmas that might take a superior role in their perceptions to Jesus Himself. We acknowledged Santa Claus as a story to them, and very happily talked about St. Nicholas and the man he was. We never told them that Santa comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve and we never marked gifts as being “from Santa.” We read the Christmas story from Luke before gathering around the tree. Our children were far far more likely to hear “Joy To The World” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” in our home than “Here Comes Santa Claus” or “Little St. Nick” – although we certainly didn’t ban songs about the jolly old elf. What we always wanted at Christmas was a focus on the redemptive work of God in sending His Son to earth as a literal, historical, and world-changing baby in a manger.

However, neither were we in the camp that proclaims – “Santa is satan with the letters switched around.” If the idea of Santa Claus actually diverts attention away from the Christ-Child, yes, that’s certainly problematic. But I don’t see that as part and parcel with any telling of the Santa Claus story. We never worried that allowing our kids to watch the old Rankin-Bass “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” Christmas TV special would dilute their faith.

And, I’m pleased to say we have wonderful daughters who love God. They like to poke fun at us for “robbing them” of Santa Claus and the emotional scarring that resulted. But they usually do it smiling.

Now, back to The Santa Clause 2.

Essentially a romance wrapped in a holiday movie, the film probably wouldn’t preach very well. There simply isn’t the Biblical or Messiah-centered approach to make it worth much from a teaching standpoint. However, there is an interesting take on legalism that could be explored.

To make up for Santa’s long absence to be on earth looking for a wife, the elves invent a robotic replacement Santa who runs wild with rules and preaches lumps of coal all around. That would probably give you some material for a legalism-vs-grace or materialism-vs-giving lesson.


#4 The Santa Clause

Lifetime Box Office Gross: $144,833,357
Debut: 11/11/94

You know the story, Scott Calvin (Allen) awakes in the middle of the night. He and his young son catch Santa on the roof of their town house. When they call to Mr. Claus, he falls from the roof and dies. That makes Calvin the new Santa, because, of course, of The Santa Clause. The focus of the film is on belief. However, the belief is in the existence of Santa and not Jesus – although certain parallels can be made. Whether one should be comfortable with those parallels is another matter. So, no, this one won’t preach, but it is a light-hearted Christmas movie that is truly funny throughout.


#3 Elf

Lifetime Box Office Gross: $173,398,518
Debut: 11/7/03
Preach? Buddy (Will Ferrell) is a human who was raised by elves, Christmas elves, of course. When he finally realizes he isn’t an elf, he sets out for New York City to search for his human father who doesn’t know he exists. The advantage Elf has over the Santa Clause movies is that there isn’t the primary focus on Santa himself. However, that doesn’t really improve the “preachability” of the film very much. It’s a story, again, of belief, but it’s belief in this airy and empty notion of “Christmas spirit”. There is an interesting plot point in which, because people don’t believe (in Santa) any longer, Santa’s sleigh won’t fly. It requires a special jet engine to make up for the loss of faith. I could see that being used as a metaphor for the power of Christian faith on some level.


#2 Polar Express

Lifetime Box Office Gross: $183,373,735
Debut: 11/10/04
Preach? I have found The Polar Express to be, well, polarizing. I know Christians who love this film and watch it every year. I also know as many who really don’t like it at all. Those in the latter group point to the somewhat odd-looking motion-capture animation that gives the film a kind of quasi-weird-live-action feel. Others say the theme of the story is more new-age imagination than faith. (Of course, if you’re expecting any of these movies in the top five to be truly “Christian,” you’ll be disappointed.)

The Tom Hanks vehicle is based on a Caldecott Medal winning children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg in which a group of children boards a fantasy train for a Christmas Eve ride to the north pole.

While I wouldn’t put The Polar Express in the “will preach” category it has as a sub-text an interesting question for believers: Can you grow out of your faith? Shouldn’t there be a child-like come-what-may nature of our faith in Christ? In the film, those who hear a Christmas bell still believe, those who can no longer hear the bell have grown out of their belief.

If there was such an objective measurement of my faith, could I hear?


It’s A Wonderful Life and Other Comments

Before I get to number one, I wanted to make a comment about It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), which may actually be the most popular Christmas movie of all time in terms of those who have seen it and those who are aware of it. However, it’s among a group of films including Holiday Inn (1942) and White Christmas (1954) that will never make any box office lists because of when they were in theaters and the tracking, or lack thereof, that was in place. There really are no such things as meaningful box office records for such films so they can’t compete in a list such as this.

Further, as you might expect, almost all of those older movies will preach better than the ones on the top five. It’s a Wonderful Life is so bold that characters sing “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” at its conclusion. The focus of the film isn’t Santa or even gifts. It’s on redemption and faithfulness. It’s possible that no more iconic Christmas film will ever be made.

Next, The Nativity Story (2006), is at number 20 on the list with a lifetime box office gross of $37,629,831. (It’s a little depressing that The Nativity Story is at number 20 while Fred Clause is at number 11. Yikes.)

I think The Nativity Story falls in a category with The Passion of the Christ in terms of movies that will preach and preach and preach. Of all of the films mentioned in this post, I recommend The Nativity Story, which is, literally, the Nativity story, be on your annual December watch list. Most of the others are simply fun holiday films.

#1  How The Grinch Stole Christmas 

Lifetime Box Office Gross: $260,044,825
Debut: 11/17/00
Preach? Of all of the movies on the top five, this one might be the most adaptable for a teaching. One reason is because we aren’t pinned down to stories of Santa and elves and the north pole to get in the way of a sermon illustration. Therefore, it may be easier to make connections from the story to Biblical themes. Those themes include forgiveness, materialism, redemption, and faith.

In fact, I have a draft message on my computer that I’ve never had a chance to teach. It’s called “Who’s Your Grinch?” and it’s about the marginalized, Jesus’ view of them, and His call on us concerning them.

It’s the story originally written by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss, of course) with the screenplay adaptation by Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman. The latter give us more details on the story that many of us grew up watching on television.