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OK, I waited two days to start yammering to you about holiday movies. I think that’s perfectly restrained of me, especially since I heard “The Little Drummer Boy” in a cookie-batter-scented knickknack emporium in early October.

But don’t even talk to me about Hallmark movies or Elf or whatever—the only part of It’s a Wonderful Life I ever enjoy is when Jimmy Stewart tears up the living room and yells at his children. And when it comes to Love, Actually, I have been vaccinated by every medicine science has invented—including booster shots—and am completely immune to it. So seriously, don’t even with me on that.

No, give me the dark ones, the ones where there’s weeping and blame and maybe some sort of faith crisis (I know, that’s basically It’s a Wonderful Life—I’m a walking contradiction). Give me The Ref, where Denis Leary holds a drunker-by-the-minute Judy Davis hostage while Kevin Spacey beats up a Christmas tree with a fireplace poker. Give me Remember the Night, with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, where an ultimately unavoidable years-long prison sentence serves as the heartwarming finale. Give me Christmas Holiday—one of the bleakest films noirs of all … and it’s a Christmas movie!—with a grown-up Deanna Durbin (!) fending off rotten bad guy Gene Kelly (double !!) in a New Orleans nightclub.

My holiday movie obsession over the past couple of years has been 1952’s The Holly and the Ivy, which has never quite caught on with American audiences (though whether that’s because of the movie itself—which is so very British—or its relative scarcity, I do not know). It’s full to the top of the teacup with melancholy: Ralph Richardson as a country reverend, with his grown children—Margaret Leighton, Denholm Elliot and the peerless Celia Johnson—home for the holiday. It’s heavy-duty: crises of faith arise, there’s a drinking problem or two, and Margaret Leighton has a dish-drying scene that is alarming in its intensity; never before in all of cinema have dishes been so thoroughly dried.

Broadcasts can be tough to find—which is why I’m mentioning it now rather than closer to the end of the season—so keep your eyes peeled. TCM usually airs it once (I don’t see it on their schedule yet, but they always do it at like 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, so keep that in mind), but if you have a library card, you can watch it via Kanopy. It’s also here on

It’s worth the hoop-jumping, and it’s fifty times better than Love, Actually. No discussion.

About The Author

DG Strong took up knitting in 2014. He lives in Nashville with his sister, her rat terrier and a hound dog named Opal. He has a blog of drawings and faintly ridiculous rambling called The Psychopedia—there are worse ways to spend your afternoon.


  • Sorry, DG. Have to disagree with you today. “Love Actually “ is a great Christmas movie! Love, rock ‘n roll, longtime friendships…I’ll take it! And if you’re going for older classics, how about “The Bishop’s Wife”?

    • I think Love, Actually is really quite cynical – so I SHOULD like it more, I guess. But aside from the deservedly famous Emma-Thompson-crying-in-the-bedroom scene, there’s something about it that always rings a bit false to me; I never believe any of it or why I should care about all these rich people making problems for themselves.

      • I’m glad I’ve finally found someone who dislikes sappy Wonderful Life as much as I do! Also, Love, Actually too! There are actors I’ve come to be really sick of over the years! Loretta Young, Hugh Grant, and Emma Thompson are three of them.
        But I’m not a noir Xmas person per se. I don’t mind a bit of sap if there’s some snap to go with it. Of the U.S. Xmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street is my favorite. Snappy dialogue and snappy characters! I love A Muppet Christmas Carol for the sheer genius of puppets and actors working together so seamlessly, with silly songs, and yet not demeaning the source material. And did I say Muppets???
        My very top favorite, though, is the 1951 version of A Christians Carol with Alastair Sim. No other version comes close, and as dark and noir as you please! Thanks for the H&I recommendation. I’m determined to watch it just because of the cast!

        • The. Best. Version of A Christmas Carol! The ghosts and Alistair Sim are PERFECT! Which brings to mind The Man Who Invented Christmas starring Dan Brown. A nice presentation of ‘real life’ Charles Dickens.

        • And speaking of Muppets, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas is my favorite. Handwoven/hand knit costumes, a retelling of The Gift of the Magi.

        • Yes! Alastair Sim is the most brilliant Scrooge, and that whole production is my favorite. I’m with you regarding too sappy, although I do like White Christmas, mostly as a sing-along. My sister and I often start humming ‘Sisters’ when we are driving each other nuts. Makes us laugh, and staves off arguments.

        • I’m with you on Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Alastair Sim!

    • YES to The Bishops Wife!! The Best holiday movie…EVER. Cary Grant is Divine

  • I just want to add that Due Hard (the first one) is a Christmas movie too

    • Also, the first Lethal Weapon. These two have been a Christmas Eve tradition in our house for years.

  • I agree with DG on Love Actually, completely. Do seek out the 1940’s Shop Around the Corner, though – it’s great. As a library worker, we appreciate the shout out to library cards and Kanopy!

    • I love Shop Around the Corner, not least because I think both lead characters are sour and borderline unpleasant. My favorite kind!

      • Great movie!

      • Agree!

  • Lol, you must love the die hard films then 😉

  • The only one to see is The Bishop’s Wife. I grew up in the UK where H and I was broadcast obsessively by the BBC, to the point of hating it. It was a joke in our family, oh they must have run out of programs, the H and I is on for the nth time!

  • The Holly and the Ivy is hands down my favorite Christmas movie — I sought out a DVD copy a few years ago. TCM does air it now and again at Christmas time. Another fantastic old Ralph Richardson film is “Home at Seven” from 1952. I love Ralph Richardson!

    • I feel like The Holly and the Ivy has been coming on in American viewers’ consciousness over the past few years, the way that Remember the Night – and before that, Christmas in Connecticut – got rehabilitated and elevated to yearly-watch status. To be honest, I think it’s probably too serious and complicated about faith to achieve that status here, which is a funny thing to say about a Christmas movie, I guess. But we Americans do like our Christmas movies secular!

  • Loved every minute. Thanks for the recommendation

  • I tracked down Holly and the Ivy to a bootleg dvd about 10 years ago. Nice to know I might be able to see it in better quality. Why doesn’t Criterion air it? They need a bleak holiday movies theme. Round here two Christmas favorites are Rare Exports and Three Days of the Condor. Don’t ask.

  • Hmm … will have to ask the Husbeast, the TCM affectionado. Thanks.

    • My new favorite word: “affectionado.” Thank you!!!!

  • My two personal favorite Christmas-related movies aren’t exactly bleak, but they are far, far from Hallmark. One: “The Apartment”, with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon – also seasonal any time from Halloween (it begins in October) to New Years. Two: “Millions” (2004), with young Alex Etel as the child who may have been favored with a miracle (or was he?). For further viewing: of course, there’s always the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim as the *definitive* Ebenezer Scrooge. Wild card entry – no real connection to the holiday, but it begins on Christmas Eve with a hell of a party – “L. A. Confidential”. James Cromwell as an LAPD detective captain sings “Silver Bells”. Ah, the holiday spirit (Irish whisky)!

    • Millions! Yes!

    • “Millions is a goo movie!”

      • That’s “good”, not “goo”

  • Yes, Love Actually is a bit OTT, but where else are you going to see Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, and Colin Firth in the same film? Not to mention the bits with Rowan Atkinson and Billy Bob Thornton.

    I will go to the mat on this, DG. You’ve been warned.

    • Ugh, Rowan Atkinson. The raisins in any baked good.

      • Love raisins, dislike Rowan A.

  • Is there enough angst in Love the Coopers? Or darkness in The Family Stone?

    • Oooooooo,..! The Family Stone! Good call – forgot about that one and Love it!

  • How have l, a huge library aficionado, not heard of Kanopy? And I had never heard of The Holly and the Ivy either. Thank you for both recommendations.

    • Libraries offer Hoopla as well. It offers audiobooks, music CDs, & movies that have less . . . depth to them. Kanopy & Hoopla are good counterpoint to each other. And, they’re free.

  • After the last couple of years, darkness doesn’t much appeal to me but neither does It’s a Wonderful Life. Give me Christmas in Connecticut and The Man who Came to Dinner! And I have to admit, I’ve never seen Love, Actually and I doubt this year changes that.

    • Yes. The Man Who Came to Dinner is priceless. Jimmy Durante says my favorite movie line of all time. It involves rye bread.

    • Christmas in Connecticut is all about the Connecticut house, which I would move into right this very second. And Stanwyck, Stanwycking it up.

  • One of the things I love about watching vintage movies is CRAFT SPOTTING! If you are lucky a crocheted shawl. Well Remember the Night has excellent crafting. Most of the xmas presents seem to have been home made.

  • Hardly anyone has heard of this movie but it has long been a favorite of mine: Home Before Dark. Christmas yes, but also themes of antisemitism, mental illness, emotional affairs and so on. Plus Jean Simmons, Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Ronda Fleming! It lives permanently on my dvr for whenever I need a view, regardless of the season.

  • This movie breaks my heart every time.

  • Thank you for the list of movies I need to check out this holiday season. The Ref is one of my favorites. My partner ‘s Mom introduced it to me years ago and was an annual tradition to watch it during the season.

  • This is a poor crop at best. Where are the truly “dark ones”? If you like some regular strength melancholy in small doses, I recommend Sufjan Stevens: That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
    For those in need of some extra strength holiday bleakness (and brightness), try Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. What other holiday film would have such dialogue: “Now I’m weeping. The happy, splendid life is over, and the horrible, dirty life engulfs us.”

  • How about The Thin Man? The Christmas eve scene with his disreputable friends drunkenly singing around the tree, while various journalists, cops, criminals, and crazy rich people pop in on Nick and Nora’s celebration is my favorite way to think of Christmas.

  • For true dysfunctional holiday fun, you can’t beat “The Lion In Winter.” Mom’s out of prison for Christmas! International intrigue and romance! Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole chewing the scenery! And my favorite line – “What shall we hang – the holly, or each other?”

    • A excellent movie, although I’ve never thought of it as a Christmas movie. Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn! 10 years ago I busted my daughter who was studying in Tours. We went to see Chinon and asked for a guide. The first thing she said was “Have you ever seen a movie called Lion in Winter?” There followed a lovely bilingual discussion of what a great movie is it. Chinon had been nearly a complete ruin, but they had just finished a complete renovation using the same Touraine stone and the same tools and mega as the original builders. The result is you get to see As it was when it was first built centuries ago!

  • Of course you like The Ref! My fave! Why aren’t you my cousin?

    • Because cousins get….slipper socks, medium.

  • I thought xmas movies were supposed to be sappy.. and almost unwatchable.

    I just watched beartown and you can enjoy a nastier winter series .
    the winter scenes were such a contrast to the activity of the people … hbo max

    Xmas music and movies… not for me right now… ok on the 25th!

  • ok, i’m intrigued, especially to see a young denholm elliott, who i adore as a jolly (and also sage) old man in merchant-ivory’s a room with a view, which is not a xmas movie, but certainly a lovely one.

  • I love this movie too, it’s on TCM December 19 at 10:15pm ET.

  • For many years, I thought of Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander as A Christmas movie. Now we count Die Hard among our holiday favourites.

  • Since there seems to be a hate – on for Rowan Atkinson, I’ll put on a good word for Blackadder’s A Christmas Carol.

  • I just watched It Happened on 5th Avenue on TCM… I love that one.

  • A couple of years ago, tired of the same old Christmas movies I watched Trading Places which gave me a well needed laugh. My sister always raves about The Ref, maybe I will watch it this year. Some good recommendations in this thread. I used to watch, Miracle on 34th St. on Thanksgiving, but they no longer show it after the parade, that’s my one sappy movie.

  • I had NO idea about Kanopy! Thanks so much! Happy Holidays!
    ( I had to laugh the first time I saw the dish drying scene…my sister and I burned in unison, “She dries dishes like Mom when she’s Maaad!
    One time I swore she’d wipe the flowers off one plate if she kept fuming.)

  • I thought I was the only one who hates Love Actually! My favorite Christmas movie is a romantic comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck – Christmas in Connecticut. Sorry but Holly & Ivy sounds too dark and depressing for a season I’m already gritting my teeth through! And yet… faith crisis, drinking problems… I’m tempted.

    • Christmas in Connecticut is dark too – a ship sinks! A baby goes missing! An ornament gets broken!

  • I found it on TCM’s schedule…Sunday December 19 @ 10:30pm!

  • If anyone gets TCM – here’s your jackpot! Scroll to the bottom of the page for days & times.

  • OK, DG, I’m sold! Since we could not find “The Holly and the Ivy” anywhere on TV, we bought it on DVD. New favorite! Thanks for the tip!
    Oh, and for my $$ the 1999 version of “A Christmas Carol” with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge is The One To Watch.

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