4 Elements of a Christmas Movie to Include in Your Script
December 19, 2023
When it comes to Christmas movies, there is a wide range of choices available depending on the mood you’re in. From the latest Lacey Chabert Hallmark premiere to David Harbour’s turn as a disgruntled John Wick-esque Santa Claus, the possibilities of holiday storytelling are endless.
However, there are a lot of elements in these Christmas films that are similar, even if their genres are far apart. If you’re working on a seasonal screenplay and you’re wondering what aspects of Christmas countless classics have used before, here are four elements of a Christmas movie to include in your script.
Read More: Why Write Christmas Movies?
The Santa Claus Character
Ever since Coca-Cola invented the modern look of Santa Claus in the 1920s and films like Miracle on 34th Street depicted him as the jolly old man from the North Pole, Santa seems to be a must-have in any Christmas movie. Sometimes they’re specific like in Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause, or Elf. Other times it’s a character dressing up as Santa with the red suit and beard such as a brief scene in Home Alone when Kevin approaches a Santa figure or in Reindeer Games when a gang of thieves don the suits to take down a casino.
How can you incorporate Santa into your Christmas story? That depends on the tale you want to tell.
If your story involves Santa Claus as a main character, then there will be an element of magic to the story. In The Santa Clause, he has the ability to deliver presents in a single night, whereas in Fatman he is able to remember kids on the nice and naughty list as well as survive an assassination attempt.
If you want someone to play Santa, then you’re not beholden to any real rules. Bad Santa is a devious mall Santa. The Grinch dons a Santa suit to steal Christmas. Not every Santa is mischievous though, sometimes they’re the patriarch wearing a Santa hat around the dinner table carving into a dry turkey, such as Clark in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
As you can see, there are many ways to represent Santa in your Christmas script, whether it’s as a central figure, a supporting character in a single scene, or just someone wearing a part of the suit.
Read More: What Exactly Counts As a Christmas Movie?
Holidays are About Family
Ah, yes. The holidays. A time for families to gather together, embrace their dysfunctionality, and make new memories around food and fun. When it comes to Christmas movies, family is present in so many ways whether it’s a boyfriend and girlfriend forced to visit their respective divorced parents in Four Christmases or a big gathering like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
One of the reasons family is such a big element in Christmas movies is because it goes with the events that occur that time of year. The holidays are about being around family so the movies reflect that, just like a Valentine’s Day movie will focus on love.
How you implement the family dynamic will determine what story you want to tell. Krampus starts out with family who don’t get along having to come together to save Christmas from an evil presence. Christmas with the Kranks is about a husband and wife who choose to skip Christmas and head to warmer climates because their daughter decided not to come home – that is until she decides to suddenly come back into town with her boyfriend. The Kranks get help from their neighbors (who they’ve pissed off throughout the holiday season) which brings this community/family together.
In many ways, families in Christmas movies somewhat reflect our own – they often start off driving us crazy but we end up missing the time together when the season is over. Holiday movies give the hope that, as a family, we can all come together because blood is thicker than egg nog.
Food is Festive
The holiday season is a time known for indulging in food and drink, whether it’s the company holiday party, family dinner, or meeting up with friends. Lots of Christmas movies have scenes where food plays a prominent role – this isn’t just grabbing a hot cocoa in a Hallmark rom-com either. If you watch some of the biggest holiday movies, you’ll find scenes centered around food.
The Family Stone has a major conflict at the center of their holiday dinner. And who can forget the famous Christmas Eve dinner in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with a dried turkey or the fact that Clark gets enrolled in a Jelly of the Month Club as a bonus. Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas ends with a feast with a roast beast at the center. And there’s Home Alone which Kevin dines on his beloved cheese pizza and eats ice cream while watching rubbish.
Food is a uniter, so in a holiday movie where family gathers food often follows. From Krampus to A Christmas Story, there are major scenes that take place during meals. Perhaps it’s because food brings a group of people together, so if you need to build up to a major conflict, a Christmas meal is a great place to set it.
Dancing and Singing
The holiday festivities continue with a dance number to help liven up an already cheerful movie. A surprising number of Christmas and holiday movies have dance or singing scenes that help express character feelings or reflect the mood of the scene.
And, although they seem like a fun interlude from the story, it’s important that it actually advances the story and is not just a distraction. In Love, Actually, there are several singing and dancing scenes such as the Prime Minister dancing through 10 Downing Street or one of the final scenes when Sam plays the drums as his crush sings All I Want For Christmas is You, something that was the basis for him and his father coming together after the death of his mother.
The dance scene at the gym in It’s a Wonderful Life brings the two lovebirds, George and Mary, together and sparks their relationship. There are many song and dance routines in White Christmas leading up to the show that help save the resort where White Christmas is sung by the popular crooner Bing Crosby.
Even the more modern holiday films like The Christmas Chronicles, Spirited, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special feature characters singing and dancing. So, while it may seem odd to throw such an event in your story, it’s worth considering if you want to add some additional spirit to your script.
Case Study: Elf
Elf is a beloved classic that meets the criteria for being a solid holiday film based on the above-mentioned elements.
Santa plays a prominent role because Buddy the Elf had grown up knowing Santa as the hero of his life. When he visits New York City to find his real dad, there are frequent mentions of knowing who Santa is and the excitement about his arrival (but really it’s just a guy that smells like beef and cheese). Santa does arrive at the end of the film and needs Buddy’s help to save Christmas.
What about family? Not only is Buddy trying to reconnect with his dad, but his father is also neglecting his wife and son choosing work over spending time with his family. Buddy’s innocent nature and desire to be with his father is a catalyst for bringing the family together. It shows that the holidays are all about being with family. So, not only does Buddy save Christmas but saves the family too.
What are the four basic food groups? Naturally, they’re candy, candy cane, candy corn, and syrup. From pouring syrup on spaghetti at dinner to downing a two-liter bottle of soda followed by an enormous burp, the food and drink aspect plays a role in the innocence of Buddy and his perspective of the world. While it’s not as prominent as in other films, there is a point for having the food within the story. It acts as a fish-out-of-water aspect for comedy and the naivete of Buddy in the real world.
Finally, dancing and singing. According to Buddy, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear. This statement leads up to the final scene as a form of building Christmas spirit to help the reindeer fly. Another singing moment centers around Buddy falling in love with Jovie. And in a moment brought on from drinking in the mailroom, Buddy is dancing in front of a cheering crowd until the commotion is broken up. Singing Christmas songs acts as a connection with people and boosts the spirit of the movie.
Not all Christmas movies have these four elements, however, many of the classics include them all. While you don’t need to have them in your holiday script either, you can use these elements and their respective examples as a means of enhancing and inspiring the scenes in your story.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.