Christmas is the time of year when all but the grinchiest of folks can get in touch with their spiritual side. Worship songs play over the speakers at Walmart and you can even go into home improvement stores and find various decor pointing to the savior—even if it is next to a 20-foot tall inflatable Grumpy Cat in a Santa hat.
In the myriad of Christmas-themed films, topics of faith become a lot more mainstream. Much of it may be generic belief versus explicit Christ-centric references, but the often cynical popular entertainment industry offers Christians many faith-based moments in plenty a yuletide offering.
Here’s a look at nine of them.
The Polar Express (2004) – The Bell Still Rings
While the entirety of this modern Christmas classic can be viewed as an allegory for a faith journey, it’s the final line of the film narrated by the adult protagonist that offers a most memorable punch. The boy who had spent the entire movie in doubt finally chooses to believe in the film’s dramatic climax, and is rewarded by being able to hear the sound of Santa’s sleigh bells. Ultimately gifted with one of the bells, we are told that all of his friends can hear the bell in the beginning, but eventually, it falls silent to them as they grow up. We are told, for the “hero boy,” the bell still rings. While not an explicit endorsement of Christianity, this is often an experience we find ourselves in. We start off with many companions on our faith journey when we are young and faith is new and wondrous. But as life jades us, many grow cynical and lose belief, leaving only a few true believers who still can keep the wonder of their faith alive. The “bells” of the movie can easily draw comparisons to the voice of the Holy Spirit in our lives, which still can be heard by those who truly believe.
Home Alone (1990) – Ruminations on Family in Church
In a movie filled with nostalgia and inspiring moments courtesy of John Williams, few stack up to one of the movie’s quietest and most serene moments, Kevin’s encounter with Old Man Marley in the church. As the two enter into a discussion on not letting your heart go to waste, there’s also mention that one is always welcome at church, in addition to a church being a good place to go if you’re feeling bad about yourself, and finally, that we should extend such welcoming attitudes to our estranged family. Perhaps it’s the backing of an almost heavenly sounding choir, but the scene seems to take a fairly secularly positive theme and inject it with a spiritual relevance.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Linus Proclaims “What Christmas is All About”
The Peanuts specials have always been known to trickle in religious references, and this first one is no exception. The surprisingly controversial recitation of Luke’s account of the Birth of Christ stands as a turning point in the special, and helps make it one of the most memorable Christmas specials every year. Delivered by Linus, who was reportedly named after the first successor to St. Peter, the scene is a blatant reminder of “what Christmas is all about” above all the commercial trappings.
The Christmas Shoes (2002) – “He’s Receiving Me”
While the climactic encounter depicted in the hit song may be the most powerful moment in film, the most faith-based moment could come from an exchange between young Nathan and his dying mother. When asked why God is taking her, she responds with the profound “He’s not taking me. He’s receiving me.” Offering a perspective on eternal life a cut above the standard Hollywood “better place,” this line even makes an appearance in the film’s sequel.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970) – “They Stood Before the Lord”
Hidden in the final act of this Santa Claus origin story is a surprisingly religious moment where Kris and Jessica stand before the Lord in Holy Matrimony because no town will welcome them. The narration remarks that no church ever looked more beautiful than their makeshift chapel of decorated trees. Point, Bible.
Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
“Maybe Christmas means a little bit more” – This is one moment that needs little introduction, nor little explanation.
The Christmas Box – “The First Gift of Christmas”
When main character Richard is asked this question by the elderly matriarch of the Parkin mansion mid-film, he initially laughs it off as a joke, another of her trivial questions. But over the course of the film’s third act, the question takes on both a personal and theological significance, as the woman’s tragic backstory is unraveled. Of course, the answer is ultimately revealed to be a child, the ultimate gift of love from our creator. It’s a rare and fitting use of the real Christmas story to forward a modern day tale.
Miracle on 34th Street (1994) – A Life Dominated By Doubt
While it’s not as beloved as the 1947 original, the 1994 remake of this Christmas classic takes a decidedly more faith-based approach. While the invoking of God in the final verdict and use of a Church in the last act are great images, it’s a tiny exchange between Santa and Dory that stands out as one of the most memorable moments of the film. While the original’s “faith means believing in things when common sense tells you not to” is iconic and meaningful enough, there is more power in the line’s equivalent in this new film, “if you can’t accept anything on faith, you’re doomed to a life dominated by doubt.” So often, we find our faith ridiculed as childish and fictional, opposed to reason and logic. But this quote can serve as a reminder that there are just some things we cannot fully comprehend using our human intellects alone. If we can’t take a leap of faith in anything, we will indeed be doomed to a life dominated by doubt.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – “I Want To Live Again”
How could any list of faith in film exclude this? Over 70 years after it’s release, George Bailey’s prayer still remains one of the most moving moments in film. When George Bailey prays for guidance at the end of his rope, it’s hard not to feel the emotion radiating off the screen. One little detail some may gloss over in the film’s famous climax when George Bailey, having seen the wonderful impact his life had on those around him, prays to return to his life and live again, is that it isn’t until Bailey explicitly calls out to God that the change is made. (Indicated by the snow resuming.) One of cinema’s most profound expressions of faith and the value of every human life, George Bailey can serve as a stand-in for all of us who find ourselves at the end of our rope. And how in the darkness, how we should all call out to a loving God who is just waiting for us to take him by the hand.
J.J. Francesco is a longtime contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community. // Photo by Valeria Boltneva from Pexels