Now that the Fourth of July is over, it’s time to start thinking about Christmas. What? Yes. The holiday is less than six months away, and what better time to dream of a winter wonderland and sleigh bells than during the hottest days of summer? Hollywood has often thought the May to September stretch as good a time as any to release Christmas movies. This month, we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of one of the most famous — before you start the debate, yes Die Hard is totally a Christmas movie.
Below I’ve compiled a chronological list of 25 holiday classics (and some not so classics) that ignored the seemingly wrong timing of a summertime Christmas movie release.
Waiting for Santa Claus
Release Date: June 1901
Audiences didn’t have to wait too long to see Santa in the first year of the 20th century thanks to this short from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., which is marked as having released in June of 1901. That could just be based on the film’s copyright date being logged as June 12th of that year. Waiting for Santa Claus simply depicts a pair of girls standing in front of the fireplace awaiting the arrival of St. Nick.
The Unholy Three (and its remake) and Queen of the Mob
Release Dates: August 16, 1925; July 12, 1930; June 28, 1940
Perhaps the pioneers of the Christmas-set action blockbuster, a number of early movies based around the holiday but released in the summer were of the crime film genre. Both versions of The Unholy Three, each of which starred Lon Chaney, are based on a novel of the same name involving a Christmas Eve burglary. The silent version debuted on August 16th, while the talkie remake released on July 12th five years later. Queen of the Mob, based on a book by J. Edgar Hoover and inspired by the real Barker-Karpis gang, is about a Christmas-set bank robbery and the aftermath takes place a year later during the holidays.
Release Date: August 4, 1942
One of the most famous Christmas movies ever, thanks to its debut of the Oscar-winning staple tune “White Christmas,” Holiday Inn is technically about more than just the yuletide holiday. But while the film does take place over a year’s time with scenes on other holidays, Christmas is definitely more prominently featured. The Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musical premiered in New York on August 4th, and it was still officially the summer season when it arrived in other theaters one month later.
Christmas Holiday and The Cheaters
Release Dates: June 28, 1944; July 15, 1945
More Christmas crimes can be found in these two very different American films. Christmas Holiday is a film noir starring Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin (you’d think with the leads and the title that it’d be a musical) set for little reason on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as a woman recalls the story, in flashbacks, of how she was married to a man who turned out to be a murderer. It came out in June and July of 1944. The Cheaters is more of a comedy about a bankrupt family scheming to steal an inheritance they feel is rightfully theirs. Apparently, the film, which originally released on July 1945, was regularly shown on TV at Christmastime in the 1950s and 1960s.
Christmas in Connecticut
Release Date: August 11, 1945
If The Cheaters didn’t give audiences enough Christmas cheer in the summer of 1945, one month later saw the release of this holiday classic starring Barbara Stanwyck as a writer hosting a dinner on and in the time and place of the film’s title. Christmas in Connecticut was a big hit when it opened in August of its year, proving to Warner Bros. that summer wasn’t the wrong season to release a Christmas movie. Almost 50 years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger directed a remake of the movie for TV, and oddly enough that one also arrived at a seemingly inopportune time, in April 1992.
Miracle on 34th Street
Release Date: June 4, 1947
The summer release of this classic staple of the holidays has a well-known backstory. Legend has it that Darryl F. Zanuck, who led 20th Century Fox at the time, insisted on a May release for Miracle on 34th Street because it was a big movie, but more people went to the movies in the hotter season. Apparently, the film’s Christmastime setting and Santa Claus-based plot were kept hidden in marketing so it didn’t seem too out of place when it arrived in cinemas — the actual release date was June 4th. Fox didn’t bother with such a strategy when it remade the film half a century later, as the 1994 version opened in November.
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Rarely thought of in discussions of Christmas movies, Billy Wilder’s POW film is the sort where a holiday-set climax shouldn’t go ignored. This isn’t just a movie with some scenes taking place on Christmas. This is a tense wartime character drama in which everything comes to a head on the holiday, as a mole is discovered in a prisoners’ barracks and an escape from a Nazi camp occurs.
Susan Slept Here
Release Date: July 14, 1954
In a plot that probably wouldn’t go over too well today, a Hollywood screenwriter basically gets a teen girl as a Christmas present in this romantic comedy. Dick Powell plays the 50-year-old guy who is interested in writing a film about a juvenile delinquent. Fortunately, a cop delivers him one, played by Debbie Reynolds, on Christmas Eve. For research! Of course, they get married and fall in love. In that order.
Lady and the Tramp
Release Date: June 22, 1955
Another classic movie that’s not often thought of as a Christmas movie classic, Disney’s Lady and the Tramp qualifies by being bookended with the holidays. The animated feature opens on Christmas with Lady being gifted by Jim Dear to Darling. It then ends with a scene on the following Christmas as Tramp is seen having been adopted by Lady’s family. Of course, fans might consider it more of a Christmas movie if it’d been released during the holidays instead.
Release Date: June 15, 1960
Another movie by Billy Wilder, this one also features a Christmas that’s anything but merry. Shirley MacLaine’s character finds out at an office Christmas party that she’s just one of many of her boss’s mistresses, so she tries to kill herself with sleeping pills. While not a traditional Christmas movie classic, the film is centered around the holiday and the days that follow leading up to a New Year’s Eve conclusion. It opened on June 15, 1960.
Terror on the 40th Floor
Release Date: September 17, 1974
This one is cutting things very close. The TV movie first aired on September 17, 1974, which wouldn’t be considered fitting within the summer movie season but is still technically a few days before the start of the autumn equinox marking the true end of summer. Anyway, I had to include it because it’s such a precursor to Die Hard with its plot involving attendees of a Christmas party in an office building that become trapped inside — here due to a fire rather than terrorists.
Release Date: June 8, 1983
Like The Apartment, this classic comedy is mostly set during the holiday season, including Christmas and New Year’s. Still, you’d think a movie taking place at that time would be released at that time. Instead, audiences got to see a sloppy Santa Claus in the form of a drunk Dan Aykroyd in costume during the summer, as Trading Places opened in June.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Release Date: September 2, 1983
As the title indicates, Christmas does figure significantly in this British-Japanese co-production. Following in the tradition of Stalag 17, the movie is about a POW camp, this time in Japan, and involves prisoners getting out on Christmas, although this time they’re let go. David Bowie co-stars in the war drama, which hit theaters in Japan and the UK in the summer, with a US release of September 2nd still technically qualifying.
Release Date: June 8, 1984
One reason a studio might want to release a horror-comedy like Gremlins in the summer is that of merchandising. While a Christmas release could be promoted through the selling of Gizmo dolls, Warner Bros. probably sold more toys during the holidays because Gremlins had already been released six months earlier and was a huge hit. Meanwhile, the snowy scenes may have helped make the movie a hit as it made audiences feel even cooler on a hot summer’s day.
Better Off Dead
Release Date: August 23, 1985
More of a winter movie than a Christmas movie, Better Off Dead is concerned with skiing over holiday cheer. If it’s really concerned with anything. There are some really funny scenes set on Christmas, though. Those and the scenes on the slopes were surely met with a feeling of seasonal displacement when the teen comedy hit theaters in August.
Die Hard and Die Hard 2
Release Dates: July 15, 1988; July 4, 1990
When you think summer blockbusters set at Christmas, the first Die Hard should pop into your head immediately. It wasn’t the first modern action movie to take place during the holidays. That’d be Lethal Weapon, which was surprisingly a spring release a year earlier. Die Hard, despite being released in July, is a definite Christmas movie, from the Christmas Eve setting to the music to the themes to the dead guy wearing a Santa hat and a sweatshirt marked with the phrase “Ho Ho Ho.” The sequel arrived two years later, again in July, and again it was set on Christmas Eve. There’s not as much Christmas imagery or theme to “Die Harder,” however, and it’s not as good, so nobody really thinks of it during the yuletide season.
Release Date: June 19, 1992
Isn’t it weird when comic book movies set in fictional cities are set during the holidays? Maybe this is the only one (even next year’s Christmastime-set Shazam! is set in Philadelphia). But Gotham City looks wonderful in winter weather, and the colder season is a good way to ensure enough icy terrain for penguin minions. Plus it further eased us into Tim Burton’s take on the holidays before the next year’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Eyes Wide Shut
Release Date: July 16, 1999
What better time to set a drama about a married couple having a spat than the Christmas season, aka the most wonderful time of the year? Christmas lights and other decorations and yuletide markers are all over the place in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, reminding us constantly that yes this is a Christmas movie.
Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys
Release Dates: May 3, 2013; May 20, 2016
We got another Christmastime superhero movie thanks to Shane Black, who apparently took until working with Marvel to get a summer release. Even with Iron Man 3, he was cutting things close as the movie released on May 3rd, kicking off the season for the film industry in 2013. Three years later, Black was back with another May release, The Nice Guys, which should have been a bigger hit than it was. Both movies seem to only be set during the holidays because they’re made by Black and that’s what he does.
Release Date: June 12, 2015
Going back a year earlier than The Nice Guys, Jurassic World was set at Christmas, too. You remember that being the case, right? The reboot sequel even opened to the tune of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It was the holiday break when Gray and Zach are off from school, presumably, but there’s never any mention of Christmas again after the kids get to Isla Nublar. I know the park is an international affair, but I still believe they’d have had some holiday decorations up, maybe some toy T.rexes with Santa hats on. Jurassic World, may just be the least Christmasy Christmas movie of all time.
More Christmas movies released in the summer (I’ll keep adding them as I discover them):
Love Finds Andy Hardy (July 22, 1938), I, the Jury (August 14, 1953), Jaws IV: The Revenge (July 17, 1987), Metropolitan (August 3, 1990), Prometheus (June 8, 2012).
Related Topics: Christmas