Top Ten Holiday Movies to Rent for Families

Put these holiday classics on your winter-break bucket list for family holiday fun

Christmas traditions in our modern world are light on wassailing and boughs of holly even though we sing about them a great deal. One of the traditions that we have embraced, however, are holiday movies – although it can be hard to think of consuming media as being traditional in any way. Once everyone is together why not fire up the TV and watch some good old-fashioned holiday entertainment?

To that end I’ve assembled a list of classic holiday movies to help find something for everyone. I’ve ordered this list by age recommendation from youngest to oldest.


Frosty the Snowman

Age recommendation: 5 and up

Interestingly enough the story of Frosty has very little to do with Christmas. It’s really more a tale of the magic of winter with Santa shoehorned in at the end of the cartoon for no reason other than Christmas makes the story more marketable (see: Charlie Brown, below). I typically don’t recommend anything for kids under 5 because of a personal bias against TV for toddlers. However, Frosty the Snowman is perfectly happy entertainment for the youngest of audiences.


How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Age recommendation: 5 and up

I want to emphasize that the version we’re talking about here is the original Chuck Jones animated interpretation of the book. I do not recommend the freakish live action version, which does benefit from Jim Carrey’s performance as the Grinch but beyond that is just frightening. The original cartoon is deceptively simple and ultimately timeless. It hews very closely to the original text and yet brings so much more to the story with inspired narration by Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff, and infectious music. Admit it, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” is going through your head right now. Fun fact: the song was sung by the wonderfully named Thurl Ravenscroft.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Age recommendation: 5 and up

Having watched this every year while growing up I had become used to the edited broadcast version and forgot that there is actually a whole lot more to this show, more songs, more story. We discovered this when I purchased the DVD so that we could watch the classics (Charlie Brown/Grinch/Frosty/Rudolph) on demand. So is the long version that much better? Short answer, no. The story drags in the longer version and you find yourself asking, “What, another song? How long is this thing?” As for age recommendations we’re still in the 5-year-old window but the Abominable Snow Monster can be a little scary for younger kids until Hermey unleashes his inner dentist.


Muppet Christmas Carol

Age recommendation: 5 and up

Definitely NOT the super-creepy Jim Carrey 3D version. Robert Zemekis needs to stop with the motion capture. Just. Stop. It’s why the Polar Express is nowhere near this list. The Muppets are a reliable source of mayhem and comedy and their version of the dusty Dickens’ ghost story A Christmas Carol is no exception. In fact, the Muppet characters fit into the story remarkably well. While I would still say this is fine for 5-year-olds I do want to point out that the ghost of Christmas future is, by its very nature, a bit scary, as is the necessary story element of Tiny Tim’s passing. Because this story is such an integral part of Christmas, and because there are so many versions, and because Dickens’ story is loaded with Victorian menace, the Muppets are really the best entry point for younger viewers.


Charlie Brown Christmas

Age recommendation: 5 and up

Holiday traditions are most powerful when they stimulate happy memories of childhood. If I could pick only one Christmas show to watch each year this would be my choice. There’s so much that I enjoy, Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy score, which is a holiday music staple in our family, the quaintly low production quality, and Linus telling us the true meaning of Christmas. Strangely enough it’s the conflict between the biblical story and the commercialism of the holiday that gives the story its lasting impact. When I was younger I found the complaints about commercialism grumpy and beside the point – because, of course, I wanted stuff. As a parent I embrace the message.


Miracle on 34th Street

Age recommendation: 5 and up

Time to hop in the way-back machine for the classic Miracle on 34th Street. There have been a number of remakes but for the most part I like to stick with the originals. The kids have a surprising tolerance for old movies and it’s a fun opportunity to explain to them why it’s in black and white. As far as deeper themes go it takes a strong secular line on Christmas with its focus on Santa (and Macy’s) but in the end you still get a strong message about faith and belief in the spirit of the season.



Age recommendation: 7 and up

It seems that Elf has moved into a place where it can be considered a contemporary holiday classic. At the center of it is Will Ferrell’s eponymous Buddy the Elf, an impossibly cheerful human raised by elves at the North Pole. Ferrell manages to pull off both the effervescent wide-eyed sincerity and pathos of Buddy, which is what I think gives the movie its enduring charm. I’m going to raise the age limit on this one a little, let’s say 7-year-olds, because there’s some mild language and more adult interactions. Just a heads up even though there’s really nothing that objectionable.


A Christmas Story

Age recommendation: 8 and up

Charlie Brown takes the laurels as the holiday entertainment that most effectively stirs my childhood memories but if there’s another I really look forward to watching each year it has to be A Christmas Story. There’s just so much I like about this movie, not least of which is the narration by Jean Shepard on whose memoirs the story is based. I’m going to ratchet the age on this up a little more to at least 8 because of the swearing, bullying, and Ralphie’s insatiable desire for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. I know, he’s going to shoot his eye out.


The Nightmare Before Christmas

Age recommendation: 8 and up

Is it a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? Flip a coin, or better yet, just keep bringing it out holiday after holiday with a break for Thanksgiving. The inventiveness of the animation made this an instant classic but I’m going to keep it at the high end of the age range just in case your kids are not fans of creepy crawlies. I have to admit that my kids (9 and 12) still haven’t seen it but they have an unusually strong aversion to the macabre. I’m guessing most kids would be fine watching it at 7 or 8.


It’s a Wonderful Life

Age recommendation: 8 and up

I almost didn’t include this one on the list for several reasons – not least of which is the fact that it’s been broadcast a nearly infinite number of times. There’s a chance your kids have already been exposed to it in utero through osmosis. If you’re interested in revisiting it, however, it can be well worth your time. Consider the central theme, even though your life might not go as you planned it is still valuable for the lives you touch as you live it. Next to the Golden Rule that’s one of the best principles you can give to your kids.

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? What would you add?


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