Die Hard and “Christmas” is to movies what hotdogs and “sandwiches” are to stoned grad students: it’s a debate that means simultaneously nothing and, more importantly, everything, everything that matters. (For the record: Hot dogs are sandwiches, and Die Hard is a godddamn Christmas movie. But we’ll get to that.)
At stake in this argument is absolutely nothing. (If you think it’s a Christmas movie, go ahead and watch it with manger Jesus as you sip eggnog, you hero. No one is stopping you.)
But that doesn’t mean we can’t devote several hundred words to the topic, because, somehow, it does still matter. The movie takes place on Christmas Eve into Christmas morning. There are holiday parties. There are Santa jokes. There’s festive cheer and machine guns and songs and an ending wherein all conflict is resolved. What more do you want from a holiday film??
While we’re pretty convinced these features makes Die Hard a Christmas movie, we’ll entertain objections—however wrong they are.
For the sake of clarity, we’re calling the argument in favor of Die Hard as a Christmas movie “Yippee Ki Yay” and the argument apposed “Yippee Ki Nay.”
And, in good argumentative form, we will begin by outlining the strongest possible argument for Die Hard not being a Christmas movie (the Yippee Ki Nay position). We will then mercilessly obliterate this argument by showing how it is, in fact, a Christmas movie. Let’s go, [Hans Gruber voice] cow-boy.
Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Answer: no.
Yippy Ki Nay largely hinges on whether the setting of a film is a sufficient condition for genre classification. If a movie takes place on or Christmas, is this condition enough for calling the movie a “Christmas movie”? Yippy Ki Nays will have to argue that setting alone is not a sufficient condition for genre classification.
By this argument, though Die Hard takes place on Christmas, its primary genre is “action.” Christmas films, so the argument goes, must take as the central storyline the holiday itself (more on this in a bit) and not merely its setting. Die Hard does not do this. Die Hard is, therefore, an action film that just happens to take place on Christmas.
But Yippi Ki Nay’ers will also have to argue something else. They have to argue that Die Hard fails to incorporate non-setting features of a Christmas movie—in other words, not only is Die Hard’s setting not enough to call it a Christmas movie, none of its storylines, themes, or structures place it into this genre either.
This is a more difficult argument.
What are Christmas movie themes? What makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie?
One definition might entail how integral the holiday is to the story. Does the story work without the holiday? Is it still as effective? Yippy Ki Nay might then suggest that the action elements that make Die Hard good are ones that can take place in any season. The center of Die Hard holds when the Christmas is taken away.
Plus, Die Hard was never marketed as a Christmas movie and it was released in July 1988. Essential to its image and story Christmas is not. And because setting alone isn’t sufficient, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie.
Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Answer: yes!
Here’s the thing: we don’t need to show that holiday settings in all films are sufficient for the “Christmas” label. We just need to show that for Die Hard, this setting is sufficient. We’ll do this by showing how Die Hard stands apart from the so-called “happens to be set at Christmas” films.
To argue this anecdotally, let’s list all the Die Hard Christmas things. In total, there are 21 references to Christmas, as counted by stephenfollows.com, including holiday parties, Santa hats, Christmas trees, “ho-ho-hos,” and “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC. There are also three other Christmas songs in the movie, notes stephenfollows, making the movie’s music more Christmas-like than over 99% of films over the last three decades.
As a secondary argument, we might ask Yippy Ki Nay to put forward movies set on Christmas that are not considered Christmas movies. BuzzFeed features a list of such movies. But these films only partially feature Christmas. Die Hard takes place over the course of a dozen hours. Which hours? THE HOURS LEADING UP TO CHRISTMAS DAY. Show us movies set entirely at Christmastime that are not Christmas movies.
Does Die Hard then just happen to take place on Christmas? What does this mean?
It means, Yippy Ki Nay says, Die Hard is (first) an action movie, and then (secondly) a movie that takes place on Christmas.
But even if we concede that setting is not a sufficient condition for Christmasdom, we can still make the case that Die Hard goes beyond setting, incorporating also Christmas themes and motifs, and that these things—setting and themes—combine to form sufficient conditions for a Christmas movie.
First the Yippy Ki Nay’s argument that Christmas is not essential to the Die Hard storyline. Christmas is the raison-d’etre for all events and character evolutions in the film. McClane arrives in L.A. because it’s Christmas. Because it’s Christmas, he attempts to rekindle his relationship with his wife. The robbery occurs at the Plaza also because of the Christmas party and the ease of taking hostages—and because police will be less active. Powell himself is only there because he had stopped to buy his pregnant wife twinkles. (And we can deduce he’s working Christmas Eve for overtime—for his wife.)
As far as Christmas themes, the rekindling of family ties, the child waiting to be born (Powell’s), and the hunt for the lone savior (McClane)—these all seems pretty frickin Christmas to us.
We might also read McClane’s role as a Christ-like figure, one who is put under trial by forces of evil in his attempts to redeem. Often he is barefoot and is cut with glass. These marks (“stigmata”) correspond to the marks on Christ during the crucifixion (the feet, the hands). McClane also complains often of a headache—the pain in his head like Christ’s crown of thorns.
In Die Hard, it is McClane who must be delivered. It is he who must save others. And Powell treats McClane as he might his own son, though removed, like Joseph.
These themes simply could not exist without the Christmas backdrop, and the film is indisputably better and more resonant with those themes in place.
As for release date. Remember that Miracle on 34th Street—the Christmas movie—came out in the summer.
So yeah, even if Die Hard’s (very) Christmas setting isn’t enough to call it a Christmas movie, its themes have Christmas written all over them like blood on a white shirt.
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