Why Die Hard is a Christmas Classic

There is a big debate among movie fans about whether or not the undeniably classic action film, Die Hard, is a Christmas movie or not.  I fall squarely in the camp that it is, but there are many that disagree, saying that, like Iron Man 3, Die Hard is not a Christmas film even though it takes place around the holidays.  Their main argument is that just because a film occurs around a holiday, does not determine whether or not the film is a holiday movie.   And with that I agree.  Just because a film has a few scenes during St. Patrick’s day does not mean it’s a film should be considered a St. Paddy’s movie.  That would be silly.  For me, what defines a holiday film, in this case a Christmas movie, is the film captures the spirit and the meaning behind the holiday while set around the holiday.  A movie is a Christmas movie because it demonstrates the intention of Christmas, the love and compassion that the holiday can instill.  Die Hard is that and more.

To get the basic arguments for Die Hard as a Christmas movie out of the way, the film has the following superficial Christmas movie elements:

  • Christmas music
  • Christmas trees and decorations
  • a workplace holiday party
  • takes place on Christmas Eve
  • Christmas references (i.e. “ho ho ho” written on a dead man’s shirt)
  • John McClane’s estranged wife is named “Holly”
  • John climbs through an HVAC system like Santa climbing through a chimney

Those aspects of the film do assist in showing that the action movie replicates typical Christmas film tropes.  It, at the very least, has aspects that are synonymous with Christmas.  Because a film does need take place around the actual holiday to call itself a holiday film.  Robocop is not an Easter film just because it’s protagonist dies and is resurrected.  Robocop is a Christ figure, but the movie is not an Easter movie, he’s only a literary trope.  Die Hard uses thematic and storytelling devices that are reminiscent of Christmas movies past, while containing the superficial elements to tie those devices to Christmas.

Much has been written how today Christmas has become a massive commercial holiday, where the purchasing of goods and material gifts have become more important than celebrating the birth of Christ and celebrating the kindness in humanity and the love of families.  Christmas certainly has become a holiday that fuels corporate greed and money has become a focal point on today’s cultural Christmas X-Mas.  Die Hard is literally about stealing from that corporate greed and money.  The main antagonist, Hans Gruber (played with such humor and grace by the late Alan Rickman, oh how he is missed), is an “exceptional thief” that shares characteristics of The Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Like the Grinch, he is a foreigner, comes uninvited to the gathering, steals from the Nakatomi Company, and ultimately “gives” what he stole back to the public (the money falls from the building as he falls).  That last piece is admittedly a stretch, but Hans is still similar to the Grinch.  And like Scrooge, he ruins Christmas for SO many people.  He holds employees of Nakatomi hostage, he kills several of them, including the head of the company who has a family, and he forces the police and FBI to deal with a stressful situation the day before a major holiday, just like Scrooge forced Bob Cratchit to work on the holidays.  Now many will point out that Gruber doesn’t change his ways like Grinch and Scrooge do.  He never changes his mind and becomes good.  But his actions directly saves one family and brings them together.  His actions and evilness bring the love back to the McClanes.

Early in the film, as John is cleaning himself up, his estranged wife Holly says that he can stay in her spare bedroom so he can be close to their kids.  For a moment, it seems like this family will be reunited, until John opens his mouth.  John and Holly immediately break out into an argument and the audience immediately understands the tension and stress this couple caused each other.  Both of their careers and attitudes got in the way of a healthy marriage, which is why it is so close to failing.  For months they hadn’t seen each other, and within minutes they are fighting once more.  You can see in their eyes they want to be together and they miss each other, John hopes to stay with her and Holly wants him back, but their history is too tumultuous for either of them to admit they’re sorry. Through the extreme situation that Gruber forces upon them, John and Holly admit to their faults, as they embrace and comfort each other.  Their family is reunited.  Their love rejuvenated.  If that’s not a Christmas miracle, I don’t know what is.

John’s sole purpose before Hans arrived, was to reunite his family, to make amends.  So many people travel for the holidays, going from city to city, state to state, making elaborate travel plans just to be with those they love.  They make sacrifices and struggle to see their loved ones.  John McClane was one of those holiday travelers.  Leaving his job in New York to come to a city he’s unfamiliar with just to see his children and hope to gain back his wife’s love.  Now, you may argue, that John could have visited any time in the year, and that’s true.  But the creators of this masterful film chose Christmas.  Christmas is a time to celebrate family, to reunite with others, to find common ground and share the love that we all so desperately need.  If Die Hard took place on President’s Day, the film would lose some of its power and heart.  Christmas, for me, is about giving and being with family.  Die Hard shares that theme of family and love.

Christmas, from a religious standpoint, is also about family.  It is the Christian holiday of Mary giving birth to God’s son, Jesus.  Die Hard utilizes several literary tropes to encompass Christ in this film.  John McClane is a Christ figure.  He is a protagonist working alone to save the souls of those around him, many of whom he does not know.  He is self-sacrificing.  He is injured, most notably in the feet, just as Christ was when he was crucified.  Gruber has twelve henchmen, they are his twelve apostles, following him and obeying his command.  Now, Christ being used as a literary trope can be found everywhere (see the aforementioned Robocop).  A story having this trope does not necessarily mean is is about Christ or Christmas or his resurrection.  But to have so many does tie the story closely to the days associated with Christ, including Christmas.

In writing this piece, I tried to find quotes from the director, John McTiernan, or its writer Jeb Stuart about the film’s tie to Christmas.  I couldn’t find anything after a quick search, but in a film that is so carefully crafted, one that has such a clear sense of character, geography, set design, and action, this film is clearly set during Christmas with purpose and intent.  A film with this much craftsmanship would not choose a holiday setting arbitrarily.  This film is purposefully set on Christmas to upend genre tropes and to create a familial thematic through line for the audience.  This setting is not an accident.

Finally, the film, even though it takes place in Los Angeles, still has one of the most recognizable Christmas endings.  From White Christmas to It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas movies often end with friends and family reunited, as the beautiful Christmas snow falls outside.  And how does Die Hard end?  A couple is reunited, walking arm in arm, as it snows.  Well, not actual snow, but the money and bonds fall all around them, representing the classic Christmas film cliche, as “Let It Snow” plays in the background.  Roll Credits.

I understand why people say Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film.  It’s an action movie, it features so many people dying, how can that make it a Christmas movie?  Well, my response is, if It’s a Wonderful Life, which an hour and a half of its runtime does not take place during Christmas, and is fundamentally about alternate realities and a protagonist that is highly suicidal, is still considered a Christmas classic, then why argue that Die Hard absolutely can’t be a Christmas Classic?  It shares tropes with other Christmas classics, it is set during Christmas and embraces the sound and the look of Christmas, as “Ode to Joy” plays and bells are included in the soundtrack, and the set dressing is filled with holiday references.  Yes Die Hard is violent and one of the best action movies of all time, but it uses the classical Christmas themes and story beats and character tropes to give dimension to the character and create a sense of setting and emotions.  Die Hard utilizes the holiday to assist in telling its story.  Christmas is not solely window dressing, it is fundamental to the story and the characters and the themes that the film presents.  Die Hard deserves to be seen as a Christmas classic.

Merry Christmas everyone, now go watch Die Hard.

die-hard-meme

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