Annihilation at Tannenberg

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 141st installment in the series.

August 26-30, 1914: Annihilation at Tannenberg

The saying “victory has many fathers” is especially true when it comes to the Battle of Tannenberg. One of the greatest triumphs in history—which saw the invading Russian Second Army totally destroyed by the German Eighth Army in East Prussia—Tannenberg was the unlikely offspring of successive commanders, aided, oddly enough, by miscommunication and downright disobedience on the German side.

Russians Rush Into Action

Like the other Great Powers, Russia’s general staff had drawn up elaborate plans for mobilization and opening moves in the case of war. One of the main goals was an immediate invasion of East Prussia, in order to keep Russia’s promise to its ally France. Both knew Germany would probably throw most of its forces against France when war broke out, assuming that Russia would take about six weeks to mobilize. By invading East Prussia much sooner than that—ideally within two weeks of mobilization—the Russians hoped to force the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France in order to defend the Fatherland.

Following the decision to mobilize against Germany and Austria-Hungary on July 30, 1914, the Russians kept their promise to France by rushing forces into the field before mobilization was complete, with the Russian First Army under Paul Rennenkampf (192,000 men) invading East Prussia from the east, and the Second Army under Alexander Samsonov (230,000) invading from the south. The armies were supposed to converge on the German Eight Army (150,000) under Maximilian von Prittwitz to complete a classic encirclement; however there were some obstacles (literally) in the form of East Prussia’s patchwork of lakes, which made it hard to coordinate the movements of the Russian armies, while poor communications and logistical issues delayed Samsonov’s advance even more.

After crossing into Germany on August 12, Rennenkampf’s First Army suffered a minor defeat in the Battle of Stallupönen at the hands of Hermann von François, a headstrong corps commander in the German Eighth Army with a habit of disobeying orders, on August 17. Encouraged by François’ modest victory, Prittwitz decided to abandon his defensive stance and advance east against the Russian First Army, while the Russian Second Army was still struggling to move up from the south. However, the German attack was rebuffed at the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, leaving First Army in control of the field.

Alarmed by this reverse and the plodding advance of Samsonov’s Second Army, which (finally) threatened to encircle Eighth Army, Prittwitz decided to retreat to the Vistula River, sacrificing East Prussia to defend the route to Berlin. But German chief of the general staff Moltke was unwilling to give up the Prussian heartland so easily and fired Prittwitz, handing command of the Eighth Army to Paul von Hindenburg, an older general called out of retirement, advised by a young, dynamic chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff. Moltke also transferred one regular and one reserve army corps from the Western Front to East Prussia, further weakening the German right wing in Belgium and northern France (just as the Allies hoped).

As Hindenburg and Ludendorff hurried to East Prussia, Prittwitz’s talented deputy chief of operations, Colonel Max Hoffman, was devising a daring new plan. Eighth Army would use East Prussian railroads to suddenly shift François’s I Corps south and catch the Russian Second Army unprepared. To gain time XX Corps under Friedrich von Scholtz, currently the furthest south, would hold off the Second Army as long as possible.

This plan was very risky, since it left Eighth Army’s flank open to attack by the Russian First Army—but, luckily for the Germans, Rennenkampf showed no sense of urgency about following up the victory at Gumbinnen, and First Army advanced at a decidedly sedate pace. His delay provided a crucial window of opportunity for Hoffman’s plan, which was already in motion when Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over command of Eighth Army on August 23.

In fact, the new commanders had been contemplating a similar move, but they now faced huge logistical challenges, working to hurry the artillery for François’ I Corps south by rail, while Scholtz’s XX Corps staged a fierce fighting retreat against forward elements of Second Army, throwing the Russians back at Orlau-Frankenau on August 24. Then on the evening of August 24 the Germans had a stroke of luck, intercepting uncoded radio messages sent by the Russian Second Army headquarters, which gave away its location and direction of march. With this vital information in hand, Hindenburg and Ludendorff now made the crucial decision to order XVII Corps under August von Mackensen and I Reserve Division under Otto von Below to move south by forced marches to complete the encirclement.

The following day Hindenburg and Ludendorff ordered François, whose I Corps was now arriving west of the Russians, to attack—but the normally bellicose commander flatly refused because his artillery was still in transit. Furious at this open insubordination and worried by (exaggerated) reports that the Russian First Army was approaching from the north, the Eighth Army leaders paid a personal visit to François’ headquarters and forced him to issue the orders under their direct supervision. However François, stubborn as ever, found ways to put off their implementation until his artillery finally arrived.

As it turned out, François was probably right: delaying the attack created more time for Mackensen’s XVII Corps and Below’s I Reserve Corps to march south and defeat the Russian VI Corps on August 26, while Scholtz’s XX Corps brushed aside a division from the Russian XXIII Corps and kept the XIII and XV Corps busy in the center. After a fierce daylong battle the VI Corps was in a headlong, disorderly retreat towards the Russian border, leaving Samsonov’s right flank vulnerable and thus opening the way for encirclement. Meanwhile the Russian troops were hungry and demoralized after three days of marching with no food, due to supply failures resulting from the rushed deployment.

On the evening of August 26, with I Corps’ artillery in hand at last, François ordered an attack on the Russian I Corps guarding Samsonov’s left flank the next day, opening with a devastating “hurricane” bombardment at 4am. John Morse, an Englishman serving in the Russian Army, described the artillery duel in this area:

The air, the ground, everywhere and everything, seemed to be alive with bursting shells… Generally the sound of it was a continuous roar. The heavens were lit up by the reflections of discharged guns and exploding shells, and the pandemonium was dominated by a shrieking sound… [from] the rush of projectiles through the air.”

In terms of casualties, Morse noted, “Of course the loss of life was very great. I can only say the ground was heaped with dead and dying.”

As François’ I Corps pushed the Russians back on August 27, Scholtz’s XX Corps was locked in a ferocious battle with the Russian center, still attacking, while Mackensen’s XVII Corps and Below’s I Reserve Corps closed in from the northeast, officers urging exhausted troops towards the thunder of great guns to the south.

By the evening of August 27, the flanks of the Russian Second Army were in complete disarray, falling back towards the frontier all along the line. Alfred Knox, the official British military observer attached to Second Army, described the chaos unfolding just behind the front, on the Russian side of the border:

A long convey of wounded has entered the town… Losses, according to all accounts, have been dreadful, and chiefly from artillery fire, the number of German guns exceeding the Russian. A plucky sister [nun] arrived from Soldau with a cartload of wounded. She said there had been a panic among the transport and the drivers had run away, leaving the wounded… She said that the artillery fire of the Germans was awful.

And things were about to get much, much worse: Unbeknownst to the Russian troops streaming southward, by this time François’ I Corps had sent the Russian I Corps reeling back into Poland and thereby succeeded in turning Second Army’s left flank. On August 28 François followed up with a sweeping attack to the east—once again disregarding Ludendorff’s explicit orders—cutting Second Army’s line of retreat into Russian Poland and completing the encirclement.

The disaster was total: As the remnants of the Russian I and VI Corps dragged themselves to safety in Russian Poland, from August 28 to 30 the rest of Second Army was surrounded and annihilated. The scale of the defeat was breathtaking, as the Russians suffered around 30,000 killed and missing, 50,000 wounded, and 90,000 taken prisoners (below, Russian soldiers surrender) for a total of 170,000 casualties, versus just 14,000 casualties in all categories for the Germans. Along with the horrible human toll, another casualty of Tannenberg was the legend of the “Russian steamroller,” which would flatten all opposition in its irresistible progress to Berlin. Germany was safe, at least for now.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff had scored a victory that surpassed all their hopes, but in truth it was due just as much to Russian failings as German skill. Knox, the British observer, summed up the deficiencies:

The whole machine was inferior to the German machine. There was no proper co-operation between corps commanders. The men were worried by orders and counter-orders. The morale of all ranks was much affected by the number of the enemy’s heavy guns … [The generals] forgot the wonderful capacity of the East Prussian railway system. They sent the 2nd Army forward without field bakeries, imagining, if they thought of the soldiers’ stomachs at all, that a large army could be fed in a region devoid of surplus supplies.

Knox also recorded a firsthand account of the fittingly tragic denouement for Second Army’s commander, General Alexander Samsonov, who threw caution to the wind and rode to the frontline as the fortunes of war turned against him, then found himself cut off in the wholesale retreat:

All the night of the 29th-30th they stumbled through the woods… moving hand in hand to avoid losing one another in the darkness. Samsonov said repeatedly that the disgrace of such a defeat was more than he could bear. “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” He went aside and his staff heard a shot. They searched for his body without success, but all were convinced that he shot himself.

Desperate Fight at Le Cateau

As the Russian Second Army was obliterated on the Eastern Front, on the Western Front the terrible Great Retreat continued, with the French and British armies falling back before the onrushing Germans following the battles at Charleroi and Mons, slowing them where they could with rearguard actions. On August 26, the British II Corps commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien disregarded an order from Field Marshal John French (apparently a frequent occurrence with headstrong commanders in the early days of the war) and decided to make a stand at Le Cateau, about 100 miles northeast of Paris.

The British II Corps faced three divisions from the German First Army under Alexander von Kluck. After an opening artillery barrage, the German infantry advanced in close formation over open ground towards the British lines, as at Mons, and with similarly bloody results, as massed rifle fire and shrapnel shells cut swathes in the attacking units. A British officer, Arthur Corbett-Smith, described the carnage:

A blue-grey mass of enemy infantry appears advancing with steady, swinging pace. At 500 yards or a trifle more one of your regiments opens rapid fire on them. You can actually see the lanes in the German ranks ploughed through by the British rifle-fire. Still they advance, for the lanes are filled almost immediately. Nearer and nearer, until that regiment which began the advance has almost ceased to exist. The remnant breaks and scatters in confusion, and as they break away another new regiment is disclosed behind them. Such is the method of the German massed attack, overwhelming by sheer numbers.

Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, quoted an ordinary “Tommy” (British soldier) with a similar, if more succinct view: “We kill ‘em and kill ‘em, and still they come on. They seem to have an endless line of fresh men. Directly we check ‘em in one attack a fresh attack develops. It's impossible to hold up such a mass of men. Can't be done, nohow!”

As casualties mounted, the Germans attempted to outflank the British from the west but were rebuffed by the newly formed French Sixth Army under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury, hastily created by chief of the general staff Joffre with troops from the Army of Lorraine. Nonetheless by mid-afternoon the German frontal assault was beginning to wear the British down and Smith-Dorrien, seeing himself hopelessly outnumbered and with a breakthrough imminent, organized an orderly retreat to the south, covered from the west by French horse artillery. The British had suffered 7812 casualties, including around 2500 taken prisoner, while 5000 Germans lay dead; perhaps more importantly, Le Cateau helped delay the German advance on Paris.

After the battle the Great Retreat resumed, pushing French and British troops to the limit of their endurance. Gibbs, attached to a cavalry unit, recalled:

For twenty miles our cavalry urged on their tired horses through the night, and along the sides of the roads came a struggling mass of automobiles, motor-cycles, and motor-wagons, carrying engineers, telegraphists and men of the Army Service Corps. Ambulances crammed with wounded who had been picked up hurriedly from the churches and barns which had been used as hospitals, joined the stampede… Many who were wounded as they tramped through woods splintered by bursting shells and ripped with bullets, bandaged themselves as best they could and limped on, or were carried by loyal comrades who would not leave a pal in the lurch.

The retreat was made even more difficult by huge columns of refugees, mostly peasants and villagers fleeing Belgium and northern France. A British Corporal, Bernard Denmore, recalled:

The roads were in a terrible state, the heat was terrific, there seemed to be very little order about anything, and mixed up with us and wandering all about over the road were refugees, with all sorts of conveyances—prams, trucks, wheelbarrows, and tiny little carts drawn by dogs. They were piled up, with what looked like beds and bedding, and all of them asked us for food, which we could not give them, as we had none ourselves.

However there was a silver lining, as the journey was equally onerous for the pursuing Germans. John Ayscough, a chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force, wrote his mother: “A German officer taken prisoner yesterday say that their men had had nothing to eat for four days, and had to be driven to fight at the point of the bayonet.”

As the enemy closed in on Paris, the Allies began clearing out of vulnerable positions. On August 28 the British commander, Field Marshal French, ordered the evacuation of the British forward base at Amiens, followed the next day by the main supply base at Le Havre and the strategic channel port of Boulogne; the new British base would be at distant St. Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay. Arthur Anderson Martin, a surgeon serving with the BEF, happened to be present at Le Havre, where he witnessed the chaotic scene at the harbor, involving all the trappings of a modern army:

Everyone was shouting and cursing; contradictory orders were given… The stage between the ship and the big sheds was packed with all sorts of goods in inextricable confusion. Here were bales of hospital blankets dumped on kegs of butter, there boxes of biscuits lying packed in a corner, with a forgotten hose-pipe playing water on them. Inside the sheds were machine-guns, heavy field pieces, ammunition, some aeroplanes, crowds of ambulance waggons, London buses, heavy transport waggons, kitchens, beds, tents for a general hospital, stacks of rifles, bales of straw, mountainous bags of oats, flour, beef, potatoes, crates of bully beef, telephones and telegraphs, water carts, field kitchens, unending rolls of barbed wire, shovels, picks, and so on.

Meanwhile as August drew to a close the chief of the French general staff, Joseph Joffre, decided to relocate his headquarters from Vitry-le-François, located on the Marne River about 60 miles east of Paris, to Bar-sur-Aube, about 30 miles further south, and the military governor of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, advised the government that the capital itself was no longer safe. Across the channel, on August 30, The Times published a brutally honest account by Arthur Moore, later known as the “Amiens Dispatch,” giving the British public its first unvarnished view of the war to date; farsighted observers now understood that Britain was in for a protracted conflict that would require all her strength.

But unknown to even the highest authorities, the tide was already turning in the Allies’ favor. On the evening of August 30, von Kluck, commanding First Army on the German right, decided to shift his direction of march from due south towards the southeast, to pursue the retreating British. However this would open his fight flank to attack by the new French Sixth Army under Maunoury, drawing on troops scraped together by Gallieni from the garrisons in Paris. Meanwhile Joffre also created a new special army detachment under Ferdinand Foch, one of the most aggressive French generals, with troops from the Third and Fourth Armies.

The stage was set for the Miracle on the Marne.

See the previous installment or all entries.

The 36 Best Christmas Movies of All Time

The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events
The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events

There’s a difference between a Christmas movie and a movie that happens to be set at Christmastime. One evokes the spirit of the holiday—the atmosphere, the charity, the awkward family meals—while the other shows snow falling and the occasional Santa hat to set the mood. This key difference is why the debate surrounding Die Hard being “a Christmas movie” is always so heated. Is it solely a matter of the calendar or does a true Christmas movie need to reflect the soul of the season?

It’s also a genre that’s oversaturated with new, harmless movies every year seeking to thaw icy hearts and let them grow three sizes after a tub of popcorn. Which makes the enduring legacies of the very best Christmas movies that much more impressive.

We all have our own lineup of movies, old and more recent, that instantly leaps to mind when you think of Christmas. Movies that you watch on repeat without fail this time of year. Movies that have achieved Christmas immortality. Here are some of the best movies that, in our opinion, capture the heart of Christmas (listed in alphabetical order, as we love them all too much to play total favorites).

1. The Apartment (1960)

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in 'The Apartment' (1960)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Shut up and deal, everyone. A sloppy Christmas party is the catalyst of this legendary dramatic comedy, featuring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon as office works who would fall in love if they could just get their lives together. Maybe the most melancholic of the holiday romps, few films capture both the loneliness of the holidays and the life-saving power of human connection as well.

2. Babes In Toyland (1961)

There were more than a few adaptations of Victor Herbert’s operetta before this one, but the Disneyfication of the fairy tale mash-up created a Technicolor jolt of Christmas adventure. Mouseketeer Annette Funicello shines as the secret heir to a fortune, but the movie’s best weapon is Ed Wynn as the Toymaker, pouring pure delight on everything he touches. (The movie is currently streaming on Disney+.)

3. The Best Man Holiday (2013)

Nia Long, Terrence Howard, and Melissa De Sousa in The Best Man Holiday (2013)
Michael Gibson - © 2013 - Universal Pictures

Just as The Hangover II is just The Hangover but in Thailand, and the sadly never-filmed Beetlejuice 2: Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian would have been Beetlejuice but in Hawaii, The Best Man Holiday takes the characters we loved hanging out with from the first film and puts them all together for Christmas. It’s got every emotion under the sun, including a lot of laughs and a lip sync dance number to “Can You Stand the Rain,” and the rest of the soundtrack is smart enough to include a Christmas tune from Mary J. Blige. It’s also further proof that Terrence Howard should be added to movies if only just to spout gruff one-liners, throw cell phones, and roll out.

4. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

This may be the only romantic comedy where a handsome young man helps a beautiful woman stay with her slightly cranky husband. Of course, Cary Grant is actually a handsome young angel whose mission is to help a Bishop (David Niven) in the midst of raising money for a new cathedral. Sometimes you pray for help and God sends the hottest actor in Hollywood to take your wife ice skating in order to remind you that kindness isn’t about funding a fancy new building.

5. Carol (2015)

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol (2015)
WILSON WEBB / © 2015 THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

Todd Haynes’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s romance takes some dark, personal turns while still reveling in Christmas cheer. In it, Cate Blanchett plays Carol, a woman who falls for the store clerk (Rooney Mara) who advises her to buy a train set for her daughter’s Christmas present. The intensity of their budding romance is set against Carol’s difficult divorce proceedings, creating a whirlwind story filmed with the lushness of a holiday department store display.

6. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

A still from 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The shortest of the movies on this list, Charles M. Schulz’s holiday special left an indelible mark on pop culture in less than half an hour. The animated wonder simultaneously gave us the best Christmas monologue about the crappiest tree and a jazzy Christmas soundtrack courtesy of Vince Guaraldi.

7. Christmas In Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Warner Home Video

Elizabeth Lane lives an ideal WWII-era life of domestic bliss on a picturesque farm with an adoring husband, sweet baby, and a host of pleasing recipes she shares with her magazine readers. Unfortunately, that’s the lie she’s living in order to keep her job as a writer. Her reality is as a single, city-dweller which is all well and good until her boss suggests she host a war hero for Christmas at the totally real and not-at-all made up Connecticut farm she’s always writing about. Cue the mad scramble. Barbara Stanwyck is fantastically charming as Lane, double life and all, and the holiday setting allows her to both search for love and discover the power of being herself.

8. A Christmas Story (1983)

A still from 'A Christmas Story' (1983)
Warner Home Video

There’s a reason TBS plays this on a loop for a full 24 hours heading into the big day. Endlessly quotable, the youthful memoir is stacked with iconic moments involving tongues on flagpoles, risqué leg lamps, a sadistic Santa, and a super safe BB gun. Go ahead and shout out all your favorite lines right now. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

9. The Christmas Toy (1986)

Long before Buzz and Woody, Jim Henson produced a movie about an overconfident toy tiger who puts a playroom full of toys at risk because he can’t handle being supplanted by a new favorite toy. They all come to life when people aren’t around, and flop down when the playroom door opens, but they get frozen forever if a human touches them out of their original place. It’s a funny, imaginative gem, and I wore out the VHS when I was a kid.

10. Christmas Vacation (1989)


Warner Home Video

The blessing! More outright embarrassing and less sardonic than A Christmas Story, the Griswold family’s suburban misadventures lovingly devolve into the kind of chaos that requires a SWAT team. If you’re hosting your whole family, a flaming, flying set of plastic reindeer may just be the best symbol for the season. Fun fact: Mae Questel (who stole scenes as Aunt Bethany) sounds familiar because she was the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop.

11. Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Yup, it’s on the list. Not merely set during Christmastime, John McClane’s harrowing rescue of his wife’s office mates is a bit like an action version of Ebenezer Scrooge. He starts off cranky and hateful of the season but remembers the true value of love and kindness after being visited by multiple people with guns who teach him to share what he has with others and give selflessly to those in need.

12. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Johnny Depp stars in 'Edward Scissorhands' (1990)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The first film in Tim Burton’s Christmas Trilogy, this Gothic love story set in the artificial snow challenges a suburban wonderland when an unfinished Frankenstein’s monster descends from the castle at the top of the hill. Another assault on commercialism, Edward Scissorhands is the misunderstood, gentle creature thrust into a harsh world of neighborly envy and hormonal bullying. Burton followed it up by subverting Christmas with Batman Returns and celebrating more misunderstood holiday creatures by writing and producing The Nightmare Before Christmas.

13. Elf (2003)


Warner Home Video

There is no tamping down Buddy the Elf’s enthusiasm. Like a retelling of Big with yellow tights and a green, pointy hat, Will Ferrell navigates the big city world of cynics to help them locate their inner child and believe in Christmas again. The main gag is how ridiculous Ferrell is as a giant elf, but the movie turns to magic because of its refusal to be even slightly mean-spirited. It’s like taking a big bite out of spaghetti topped with M&Ms, marshmallows, sprinkles, and chocolate syrup.

14. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

A still from 'Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas' (1977)
The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events

It’s “The Gift of the Magi” with singing river otters. That’s an automatic win on the adorability scale, but Jim Henson’s tale of family togetherness glides by on sheer sweetness and joy, revealing that you don’t have to have expensive equipment (or even a good band name) to create beautiful harmonies.

15. Frosty The Snowman (1969)

The tip top of children’s Christmas movies is dominated by Walt Disney, Jim Henson, and Rankin/Bass, who stepped away from stop-motion animation for this story based on the wildly popular holiday tune. It’s wondrous, but it’s also more harrowing than you remember. As soon as Frosty is given life, he’s aware of his own melting mortality, and the entire plot of the story is about figuring out how he can survive. It’s also impressive for having a mediocre children’s party magician as the villain.

16. The Holiday (2006)

Cameron Diaz and Jude Law star in 'The Holiday' (2006)
Columbia Pictures

The purity and heart are what make Nancy Meyers’s Christmas-set house-swapping romantic comedy an annual must-watch. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet’s characters trade cities for the winter and both discover that new Google Map directions are exactly what they need to put them in the path of the right guy. It sticks to the formula, leaving its stars to swoon, act goofy, and proposition Jude Law for sex.

17. Home Alone (1990)


20th Century Fox

John Hughes must have suffered some kind of vacation-based trauma, because this and Christmas Vacation both focus on the hilarious worsts of time away from the office. For the Griswolds it’s living beyond their means and needing more lights. For Kevin McCallister, it’s about neglect that should demand a call to Child Protective Services. The lesson of every elementary schooler’s dream of independence is that it’s ok to order your own cheese pizza—as long as you also buy more toothpaste and fight off violent robbers. And if you love seeing Home Alone on this list but bristle at Die Hard’s inclusion, think twice, because they’re essentially the same movie.

18. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Why they keep trying to improve on perfection is beyond comprehension. Keep Jim Carrey. Keep Benedict Cumberbatch. Give me Chuck Jones’s animation team featuring Boris Karloff and the legendary voice talent June Foray. It’s a madcap comic masterpiece with a message of kindness served up piping hot next to the roast beast. Sadly its sequel (which was written as a prequel), Halloween is Grinch Night, never quite caught on.

19. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)


Paramount Pictures

Like most of you, I often fantasize about what It’s a Wonderful Life would be like starring The Grinch. I mean, who’s The Grinch’s guardian angel? Obviously, Frank Capra’s classic tale of redemption is in the eternal top five of Christmas films thanks to Jimmy Stewart’s mournfully enthusiastic performance and its overall message that one life matters. It, more than just about any other movie, has come to represent Christmastime itself—a ubiquitous presence on TV screens everywhere throughout December.

20. Jingle All The Way (1996)


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Tons of Christmas movies share the true meaning of the holiday with otherwise jaded individuals, but few punish their protagonists so thoroughly as this tale of a father who waits until the last minute to get his son the hottest toy of the year. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mattress-selling Howard Langston goes through consumerism hell to try to snag an elusive Turbo-Man doll. He fights with police, almost blows up, and has to dress up in spandex all over a piece of molded plastic. It should be required viewing on December 1 for every parent.

21. Joyeux Noel (2005)

Daniel Brühl and Gary Lewis in Joyeux Noël (2005)
Nord-Ouest Production, Senator Film Produktion, Joyeux Noel Ltd., Artemis Productions, MediaPro Pictures, TF1 Films Product

A prestigious epic chronicling the famous Christmas truce of 1914, wherein German, French, and British soldiers crossed into the No Man’s Land to stay the fighting and exchange gifts. The film is a sentimental melodrama that uses the perspectives of several different characters (both Allied, Central Powers, and civilian) to celebrate peace’s possible existence even in the hellish, frozen waste of war.

22. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

Showcasing Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell crooning “Silver Bells” while strolling down a New York City street, this gem is the rare Christmas movie with a twist ending. It’s also the rare Christmas movie where a con artist abuses our natural affinity for charity during the season until he realizes that doing honest, good work is far more fulfilling. Who knew all you needed to set a bunch of misdemeanoring baddies straight is to stuff them in Santa suits and give them a bucket?

23. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Christopher Plummer and Dan Stevens in The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Kerry Brown - © Garlands Films DAC

Surprisingly deft and sweet, Scrooge meets his maker in this film about Charles Dickens and the apparent parallels of personality he shared with one of his most famous characters. Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens really shines as Dickens, slapping on a charming presence even in the midst of an existential breakdown and every writer’s worse nightmare: a deadline. The strangest element is Christopher Plummer as Scrooge in direct communication with his author, but like a ghost of Christmas past, it works to stunning effect. The movie, the man, and the manuscript all hinge on whether Dickens can accept that people can change.

24. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
MGM

Judy Garland’s musical extravaganza ticks all kinds of holiday boxes. A great Halloween movie. A great World’s Fair movie (why isn’t this a subgenre?). An excellent Christmas movie. It chronicles a wealthy family’s eventful season as two daughters vie for romance with their respective suitors and burst into song at every opportunity. We have it to thank for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but no snowman is safe during the film.

25. Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

Not just one of the best Christmas movies, but one of the very best films of its release year, Miracle on 34th Street soars with a charismatic performance from Maureen O’Hara and precocious side eye from a young Natalie Wood. Is Santa real? And is he the old gentleman you helped get a job at the department store? Cynicism is incinerated by this infectiously warm movie—one of the only films in history where the US Postal Service acts as Deus Ex Machina.

26. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

A scene from The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Walt Disney Studios

Undoubtedly controversial, everyone has their personal favorite version of Charles Dickens’s important treatise on humanity and self-inflicted loneliness. The 175-year-old story has been adapted more than 100 times counting movies, TV, radio, and graphic novels. Maybe 1951’s Scrooge is your favorite, maybe you like George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart best. The Muppets and Michael Caine, though, brought a fresh, playful flavor that allowed a rat to co-narrate.

27. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

What’s this? What’s this? It’s Henry Selick’s perfect stop-motion celebration of Christmas cheer through a Gothic lens. With so many Christmas movies, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is defiantly different. Mostly because it has werewolves, a singing sack filled with bugs, and a ghost dog who saves the day. So many movies focus on Christmas getting canceled because Santa gets detained, so it’s nice to see a movie about the ghouls who detain him.

28. Period Of Adjustment (1962)

Jane Fonda and Jim Hutton in Period of Adjustment (1962)
Warner Home Video

Jane Fonda sporting a molasses-thick Southern accent stars with Jim Hutton as two newlyweds who fight about almost everything. The movie is about “that agonizing pause between the honeymoon and the marriage,” but it also takes its holiday setting to showcase the pause that Christmas often offers to reflect and talk and evolve. Based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, the quarreling lovers swap grievances with another couple while drinking heavily and absorbing fully the stress and release of the holiday season.

29. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Onni Tommila in Rare Exports (2010)
Oscilloscope

Do you know the real origin of Santa Claus? If you said, “Giant goat beast buried a mile underground in Lapland,” consider yourself on the Nice List. This Finnish flick starts as a horror film, but evolves into a winter adventure featuring a bunch of naked old men, naughty children stolen from their homes, and a standing-ovation-worthy explanation for how every mall in America gets its own Santa.

30. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The epic story of a misfit caribou who finds purpose because of what makes him unique, this Rankin/Bass tale is the longest continuously aired Christmas special of all time. It’s shown up on screens every year since 1964, thrilling young and young-at-heart viewers alike with vibrant animation, fun songs, and, for some awesome reason, an abominable snowman.

31. The Santa Clause (1994)

Tim Allen and Paige Tamada in The Santa Clause (1994)
Walt Disney Pictures

So many great Christmas movies follow Dickens’s blueprint of transforming someone skeptical into a true believer, and this Tim Allen comedy goes one step further by converting the crank into Kris Kringle. It’s ostensibly an argument against growing up too soon (or at all), and it established the Highlander-esque rule that if Santa dies from falling off your roof, you become Santa.

32. Scrooged (1988)


Paramount Pictures

Another stellar adaptation of Dickens, Richard Donner’s manic spree recasts Scrooge as a power-hungry television president played by a breathless Bill Murray. Beyond its intrinsic entertainment value and Carol Kane’s national treasure status, it also gives us all a break from a season of sentimental stories. It’s also a reminder that we should petition to make “Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas” a real thing.

33. The Shop Around The Corner (1940)

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Warner Home Video

Jimmy Stewart is the secret ingredient for a great Christmas movie. He and Margaret Sullavan are naive romantic magic in this movie about two store clerks who despise each other but don’t know they’re secretly falling in love through anonymous letters. If that sounds familiar, it was the basis for the AOL-era You’ve Got Mail, right down to the cafe meeting where Stewart learns that his nemesis is also his love and bugs her with a healthy dose of espresso and dramatic irony as she waits for her real crush.

34. 3 Godfathers (1948)

There aren’t enough Christmas Westerns. Thankfully, John Ford crafted one that replaces the wise men with three cattle rustlers who help a young woman give birth just before she dies. With a promise to keep the baby safe no matter what, and considering the Biblical symbolism of their predicament, they make a harrowing journey across inhospitable land to New Jerusalem. John Wayne brings his John Wayneness to the picture as one of the cattle thieves, but faith even in the face of dehydration is the real star.

35. Trading Places (1983)

Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places (1983)
Paramount Home Video

One of the best comedies ever made is also one of the best Christmas films—one that is shot through with generosity while thumbing its nose at greed. It features two crusty stockbroker brothers who play God with the lives of a young, well-heeled gentleman and a poor hustler when they make a bet to see if nature wins out over nurture. They effectively switch their lives (tacitly proving that having money is a big help in making more money) but don’t count on their prince and pauper teaming up to fight back. The narcissistic brokers get what they earn, but you have to wait until their cameo appearance in 1988's Coming to America to see them back on top.

36. White Christmas (1954)

There’s just nothing better than opening those big stage doors to discover the snow you’ve waited months for has finally arrived on Christmas Eve while Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and Danny Kaye croon about our days being merry and bright. The songs and dance routines are fantastic, the story is nostalgic and goofy, and the charm is on full blast. Even growing up in a place where it never snowed, this was the ideal.

8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas

A Krampus figure in Heimstetten, Germany
A Krampus figure in Heimstetten, Germany
FooTToo/iStock via Getty Images

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. Krampus

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on the region and what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. In recent years, the tradition has spread beyond Europe, and many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. Jólakötturinn

A representation of Jólakötturinn in Iceland
A representation of Jólakötturinn in Iceland
Atli Harðarson, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat; in fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this was mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores. A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. Frau Perchta

A Bohemian depiction of Frau Perchta circa 1910
A Bohemian depiction of Frau Perchta from 1910
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. Belsnickel

An interpreter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, portrays Belsnickel at the Landis Valley Farm Museum
An interpreter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, portrays Belsnickel at the Landis Valley Farm Museum
gsheldon/iStock via Getty Images

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. Hans Trapp

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. Père Fouettard

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. The Yule Lads

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls, that is.

8. Grýla

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this list originally ran in 2013.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER