Is [REDACTED] a Christmas Movie?

No one realizes that their own take on Die Hard as a Christmas movie helps sustain a powerful curse on the internet. Not even the guy who started it all by accident.

An image of John McClane from Die Hard wearing a Santa hat, surrounded by explosions.
20th Century-Fox / Getty; The Atlantic

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a Christmas movie. A Christmas Story is also a Christmas movie. White Christmas is very definitely a Christmas movie. For generations, we didn’t even need to say these things. There was more or less unanimous agreement on the question “What is a Christmas movie?” And this was great, because we don’t need to debate everything.

Well, now, because of the dreaded incentives of social media, we force debate upon ourselves all the time, even at the most wonderful time of the year. And we do so even when our arguments hold no promise of a resolution. By which I mean that, once again, people are logging on for a holiday argument they have had many times before: Is the 1988 action movie Die Hard, in which Bruce Willis fights terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve, a Christmas movie? Once again, tweets and Facebook posts about whether Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie are spiking. Posts about whether it’s original or cool to talk about Die Hard’s status as a Christmas movie are also spiking. An influencer family with 4.8 million Facebook followers recently shared a horrific musical “parody” in which they claimed to be addressing “a heated debate” that they have “every year” and asked viewers to take sides in the comments. (Oh boy, did they!)

According to Google Trends, search traffic for the phrase Is Die Hard a Christmas movie jumps every November and December. Somehow, in 2020, there was about as much search interest as there had been in any year prior, despite it being quite clear that Die Hard can be a Christmas movie if you want it to be, it’s fine, and no one cares, or no one would in an ideal world. By January, we will be able to more accurately survey this year’s damage, but I’m not optimistic. This is a sad state of affairs, but what are we going to do? Lecture people about it until they stop? That would be, in its own way, continuing the discussion.

The perennial revelation that Die Hard is a Christmas movie seems to have appeared online for the first time in 2007. A post on Slate titled “‘Now I Have a Machine Gun. Ho Ho Ho.’”—a reference to a key scene in the movie Die Hard—made the case. Through the eyes of Willis’s character, it argued, “the office Christmas party is revealed for what it really is: the fake fun of capitalism, the dying gasp of another pointless year.” In an instance of multiple discovery, the same idea appeared again just two weeks later, in a blog post for The Guardian titled “My Favourite Christmas Film? How About Die Hard.” (Fine!) Over the years, guys saying this online became a trope, to the point where there were T-shirts, and to the point where BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos had to beg, “Stop Saying Die Hard Is Your Favorite Christmas Movie,” in 2013. Yet there was nothing to be done. A huge spike in “Die Hard Christmas movie” tweets and search traffic arrived in 2016, when a British magazine ranked Die Hard No. 1 on its list of the best Christmas movies ever and a British newspaper then published a rebuttal titled “Die Hard Is Not the Best Christmas Movie.” Ever since, the fight has been a yuletide tradition (and a marketing opportunity).

To be clear, this is an internet problem. Talking privately about whether Die Hard, or any other movie, is a Christmas movie inflicts no harm on anyone. It’s a Wonderful Life is, as we all know, not a Christmas movie, because its central drama stems from a series of decisions made over decades, at various times of the year, culminating in a bank error that doesn’t seem like it would really lead to significant jail time (as the narrative suggests) and that doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas. Nevertheless, my family watches It’s a Wonderful Life every single year on Christmas Day because it’s so funny!

If I tweeted that, I would regret being born. Because this is what social media does: It puts arguments in front of you over and over again, tempting you to think that you just might be the one special person who can cut through the nonsense and be rewarded for your clarity and insight with attention from your peers. We all know that this is not true, and that we will fail, but that doesn’t make us stop. It’s almost like popping a pimple—it feels so satisfying in the moment, and comes with such a disgusting, delicious moment of relief (12 likes, maybe), but it isn’t medically advisable. This is the way in which many of us have chosen to live for most of the year. Must we live this way at Christmas, too? Yes.

Recently, I called up Michael Agger, the author of the blurb about Die Hard in the 2007 Slate post and currently The New Yorker's online culture editor, to ask him how he felt about the monster he’d created. “I wasn’t even aware that this had grown into a huge thing,” he said. “I had no idea.” He didn’t have a lot to say about where the idea had come from, and only remembered “bullshitting” in the office—out loud! pre-Slack!—trying to come up with some easy holiday-week content to feed the web. “Much like you’re doing now,” he noted. (Right!) Yet the mechanisms of social media couldn’t leave that office riff alone. “There’s a lot of unintended, chaotic effects of online life,” Agger said, though he hasn’t had to live with some of them, because he doesn’t spend much time on Twitter.

I was forced to deliver to him the tragic news that Die Hard Christmas discourse has since produced a secondary market for “Is it a Christmas movie?” takes, where anyone can claim—for likes and shares—that any movie with a Christmas scene or Christmas-adjacent vibe (usually having to do with “coziness” or “family drama”) is actually a Christmas movie. This started out with somewhat reasonable choices such as Carol (department store, gloves, snow) and Little Women (they give away their Christmas oranges to scarlet-fever patients); now anything can be anointed as a Christmas movie, and all the better if the reason is inscrutable. I have seen, in recent days, cited as Christmas movies: the horror movie Hereditary, the horror movie Deep Red, the horror movie American Psycho, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Shawshank Redemption, Iron Man 3, Charlie Wilson’s War, and the final installment in the Twilight series. Also: Anastasia (a movie about Rasputin), Lincoln (a movie about Abraham Lincoln), and Mad Max: Fury Road (a movie about near-future resource wars). The list goes on and makes no sense, which is also the point, but not a very fun or interesting one.

The goal of such posts is almost never to illuminate something previously unknown and potentially exciting for the reader, as many of them don’t even explain the Christmas connection that the author purports to have noticed. The goal is to establish that whoever is posting has some unique claim to the powers of perception, or that they have iconoclastic taste that will offend normie sensibilities. Or worse: that they’re aware of the meme that is “calling unexpected movies Christmas movies” and they feel pressure to express and differentiate themselves according to its rules. This is humiliating.

I’m still not trying to lecture. I myself have made many silly comments along these lines. I once tweeted that The Social Network is a Christmas movie because its first 20 minutes or so take place on a college campus in early December. I’m sorry. I just didn’t think that my Christmas-movie post was the obnoxious one! No one ever imagines that their own dashed-off nothings are part of the same heap of dashed-off nothings that they may, at other times, refer to as “crushing” or “hellish” or “eroding my will to live.” And no one ever treats their own opinion about Die Hard as a Christmas movie as helping to sustain the powerful curse that is the conversation about Die Hard as a Christmas movie. Not even the person who started it all by accident.

After he’d done a Google search and seen the extent of the mess, Agger compared himself to a guy who tosses an apple core over his shoulder, then comes back to the same spot years later to find a full-grown tree. Minutes later, he emailed me to correct the metaphor: “I’m the guy who threw a cigarette out the window and accidentally burned down the forest!”