Picture the scene. Some time over the nebulous ‘Christmas period’, which can differ drastically from person to person, someone will invoke the time of year to narrow the night’s movie selection down from ‘everything on Netflix’ to just ‘Christmas movies’. Too full of mince pies and unable to discern what day it is, everyone agrees and suggestions start to fly.
Almost every social group will have someone who does things deliberately to provoke. The person who loves to play devil’s advocate, the black sheep of the family. It’s usually this person who suggests Die Hard, but the days where this is likely to evoke any new conversation are long gone. They suggest it every year and every year each Christmas attendee has the same opinions about whether or not Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie.
There are people out there who say “it isn’t Christmas until I’ve seen Hans Gruber fall off Nakatomi tower!” (for attribution of this quote, just read any Reddit thread about Christmas films and pick the most interesting username), and there are people who say that no movie with this level of violence could be true to the season of peace and goodwill. Most people don’t care either way.
Where did the “Is Die Hard a Christmas Film” debate come from?
Checking out Google Trends, this debate seems to really catch on during the 2015 Christmas period. The earliest reference seems to be a “12 Greatest Christmas Movies” list by Business Insider. Following this article, a poll by Public Policy Polling found the majority of Americans don’t think of it as a Christmas movie – whether Public Policy Polling included this question in reaction to the conversation started by Business Insider is unclear: the poll was conducted after the article, so it could have been.
Whatever the precise timeline of events, it seems like these two things were the flint and tinder that sparked a heated debate which has persisted into its seventh year, with no sign of stopping.
As for this persistence, it’s easy to see why it has longevity beyond most comment piece conversations. Christmas is a time of year when many people are brought out of their comfort zones, where opinions are similar and values are shared and pushed together with someone who they may only share some blood with rather than anything more tangible. This means that for many people certain topics – religion and politics are the chief culprits here – are considered off-limits for the sake of peacekeeping.
This means that it becomes easy to tread old, safe ground, ground you’ve probed many times and found no landmines. Even the most disparate family groups are unlikely to come to blows over a conversation about films. It becomes a very low stakes debate. Cinematography also creates a shared language that crosses a lot of divides. A cousin with a PhD can talk about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie with a stay-at-home-mum without there being a weird power-imbalance dynamic to the conversation (unless the PhD is in films).
On the ambiguity of Christmas and Subjective Truth
There are a lot of good arguments on both sides, but to choose a side you have to accept that the concept of what makes a “Christmas movie” is set in stone. Christmas is a very imprecise thing. While everyone who celebrates Christmas can agree on it being in December, it often feels like that’s the only thing everyone agrees on. Is the day of gifts and a massive dinner the 24th, 25th, or 26th of December? When can you put your tree up? Do you have Yorkshire puddings? Gifts in the morning or afternoon? Christmas is an extremely complicated Venn diagram of shared culture and familial tradition.
The same goes for categorising movies. How do you weigh up the importance of the setting, theme, and plot? Certainly this answer will be different for different people. There is no objective truth about art, only the subjective.
Objective truth is an irrefutable fact about the world. It is as true for you as it is for the next person. The train is late. It is sunny. Subjective truth is about how individuals experience the world, and can’t really be argued with. Today’s a good day. This music’s too loud. Whether these are truths depends on the person having the experience. A frequent live music attendee will have a different subjective truth about volume to someone who rarely attends loud events.
It’s how the statements “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” and “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie” can both be true. It depends entirely on the subjective truth for an individual’s experience of Christmas films. Do you think the film being set on Christmas Eve and having a Christmas party in it is sufficient to make it a Christmas film? Then it’s likely true for you that Die Hard is a Christmas film, whereas someone who thinks the amount of violence in the films excludes it despite the quantity of Christmas music present experiences Die Hard as an action movie which is inconsequentially set at Christmas.
The Main Arguments For and Against Die Hard being a Christmas Film
There are a few key points that each side of the debate holds as their smoking gun. However, each of these points can be countered.
For: It’s set at Christmas
A lot of people hold the opinion that the film being set at Christmas, having Christmas music, and a Christmas party makes it a Christmas film. On the other hand, Batman Returns is set at Christmas and we’re not having the same debate about that film. Being a superhero film seems to supersede being a Christmas film in a way that being an action film doesn’t.
Against: The plot isn’t about Christmas
The plot is a classic hostage rescue tale, with escalating stakes, violence, and a dramatic finale where the good guy defeats the villain. However, it’s all reliant on Christmas – John McClane is there to win back his wife and see his children over the holidays. Christmas is the linchpin of the film.
For: One of the film’s creators said it is
Steven E De Souza has gone on record more than once to say that it’s a Christmas film, even going so far as to claim parallels to the nativity (“A pregnant woman features heavily” he said on Twitter). Yet, once an artist puts something out into the world, it can be argued that they no longer control culture’s interpretation of it. Intent can only go so far. Plus, Bruce Willis said it wasn’t.
Against: Christmas films should be family friendly
Everyone at a Christmas gathering should be able to gather round and watch the same films, including kids. This only holds water if you believe adults stop existing as people after having children and that childless families, or people with grown children don’t watch films at Christmas. Although children might be the centre of the show for many Christmases, they aren’t for everyone.
And so it goes. Every point has a pretty-much-as-good counter.
So… Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Categorisation is a difficult task at the best of times, let alone when everyone’s got a turkey hangover. One of Christmas’s joys is the way we each get to make and partake in our own traditions. Giving pyjamas on Christmas Eve, everyone gets a chocolate orange, Die Hard is/isn’t a Christmas movie.
It’s okay. You can stop worrying about it – there really is no right answer. Enjoy the debate, or ignore it, or maybe form opinions on the societal value of classifying everything we consume and change the direction of the conversation. Compromise, watch it some years and not others. If you don’t watch a specific film at a specific time of year, it will still be Christmas.
Featured Image Credit: 20th Century Fox