It’s that time of year again: You're gathering with friends and family. Wrapping presents. And spiking the eggnog with your favorite yuletide libation. That leaves just one thing: the annual holiday movie marathon. Not sure where to start? How about with this list of fascinating facts about your favorite holiday films.
1. It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office bomb.
Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put director Frank Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas was supposed to have a laugh track.
In the 1960s, it was standard procedure to lay a laugh track over virtually any half-hour comedy, even if the performers were drawn in (The Flintstones was among the series that used a canned “studio audience” to help cue viewers for jokes). When executive producer Lee Mendelson told Charles Schulz he didn’t see the Peanuts special being any different, the artist got up and left the room for several minutes before coming in and continuing as if nothing had happened. Mendelson got the hint.
3. Stanley Kubrick Is Partly To Thank For Christmas Vacation.
Christmas Vacation marked the directorial debut of Jeremiah Chechik, who began his career as a fashion photographer for Vogue then moved into commercial directing. “I had made these commercials that became quite iconic here in the U.S.,” Chechik recalled to Den of Geek! in 2011. “They were very dark and sexy and sort of a little bit ahead of their time in terms of style. And what happened was they gained the notice of [Stanley] Kubrick, who had mentioned them as his favorite American filmmaking, ironically, in a New York Times article.” It didn’t take long for Chechik’s phone to start ringing and for studios to start sending him scripts. “And the script that really piqued my interest was Christmas Vacation," he said. "And the reason is I had never done any comedy—ever.”
4. Natalie Wood still believed in santa when she filmed Miracle On 34th Street.
Natalie Wood was eight years old while filming Miracle on 34th Street. “I still vaguely believed in Santa Claus,” said Wood, as recorded in her biography written by Suzanne Finstad. “I guess I had an inkling that maybe it wasn’t so, but I really did think that Edmund Gwenn was Santa. I had never seen him without his beard because he used to come in early in the morning and spend several hours putting on this wonderful beard and mustache. And at the end of the shoot, when we had a set party, I saw this strange man, without the beard, and I just couldn’t get it together.”
5. Ralphie’s dad is never given a name in A Christmas Story.
Over the years, a gaggle of sharp-eared A Christmas Story fans have pointed out that in Bob Clark’s scene, Ralphie’s dad is given a name: Hal. This is because they believed that in the brief exchange between the two neighbors, Swede asks of the leg lamp, “Damn Hal, you say you won it?” But a quick confer with the film’s original screenplay confirms that Swede’s actual query is, “Damn, hell, you say you won it?”
6. “Frosty The Snowman” was a hit song long before it was a TV special.
The song “Frosty the Snowman” was written by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson in 1950 (with a melody that is strikingly similar to 1932’s “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”) specifically as a means of capitalizing on the success of Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record wasn’t as huge as “Rudolph,” sales-wise, but Frosty’s story was nevertheless perpetuated via Little Golden Books and Dell Comics.
7. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” was also a song before it was a holiday special.
Yet again, the song came first. In this case, way first: J. Fred Coots and Henry Gillespie wrote it in 1932, at a time when sheet music outsold records. The song only received national exposure in the first place because Eddie Cantor, Coots’ employer at the time, reluctantly sang it (at the urging of his wife) on his radio show in late November 1934. Despite the music publishers’ dire warning that songs aimed at children were doomed to fail, Cantor’s performance sent the sheet music for the song flying off retailers’ shelves and inspired countless other popular artists to record it.
8. Gremlins was intended to be much, much darker.
Though some might contend that Gremlins is a pretty dark film, the original script, written by Chris Columbus, was much, much darker. Case in point: Earlier scenes included the Gremlins eating Billy’s dog then decapitating his mom and throwing her head down the stairs. Producer Steven Spielberg, director Joe Dante, and Warner Bros. were all in agreement that they should tone down the gore in order to make the movie more family-friendly.
9. Bill Murray improvised a lot of his lines in Scrooged.
In a 1988 interview with Philadelphia Daily News, director Richard Donner discussed Bill Murray’s penchant for improvisation and described the experience of directing Murray as follows: “It's like standing on 42nd Street and Broadway, and the lights are out, and you're the traffic cop.”
10. Bill Murray was the first choice for the lead in Bad Santa.
According to The Guardian, Murray was actually in final negotiations to take the lead, until he dropped out to film Lost in Translation. Suffice it to say, it was a win-win for both Murray and Billy Bob Thornton.
11. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to star in Elf.
When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Jim Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star.
12. How The Grinch Stole Christmas almost never happened.
Whereas today’s studios and production companies provide funding for projects of interest, television specials of the past, like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, had to rely on company sponsorship in order to get made. While A Charlie Brown Christmas found its financier in the form of Coca-Cola, How the Grinch Stole Christmas struggled to find a benefactor.
With storyboards in hand, Chuck Jones pitched the story to more than two dozen potential sponsors—breakfast foods, candy companies, and the like—all without any luck. Down to the wire, Jones finally found his sponsor in an unlikely source: the Foundation for Commercial Banks. “I thought that was very odd, because one of the great lines in there is that the Grinch says, ‘Perhaps Christmas doesn’t come from a store,’” Jones said of the surprise endorsement. “I never thought of a banker endorsing that kind of a line. But they overlooked it, so we went ahead and made the picture.”
13. Four plot lines were cut FROM Love Actually.
Director Richard Curtis initially aimed to include 14 love stories in the film. Two were clipped in the scripting phase, but two were shot and cut in post. Those lost before production involved a girl with a wheelchair, and one about a boy who records a love song for a classmate who ultimately hooks up with his drummer. Shot but cut for time was a brief aside featuring an African couple supporting each other during a famine, and another storyline that followed home a school headmistress, revealing her long-time commitment to her lesbian partner.
14. A Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie made without Jim Henson.
The man behind the Muppets passed away on May 16, 1990 at the age of 53. The Muppet Christmas Carol debuted on December 11, 1992 with Steve Whitmire taking over Kermit the Frog for Henson. The film is dedicated to Henson and his recently deceased collaborator Richard Hunt, who'd long performed Scooter, Beaker, Janice, Statler, and Sweetums.
15. A hellish trip from New York to Chicago inspired John Hughes to write Planes, Trains And Automobiles.
Before he became a screenwriter, Hughes used to work as a copywriter for the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. One day he had an 11 a.m. presentation scheduled in New York City on a Wednesday, and planned to return home on a 5 p.m. flight. Winter winds forced all flights to Chicago to be canceled that night, so he stayed in a hotel. A snowstorm in Chicago the next day continued the delays. The plane he eventually got on ended up being diverted to Denver. Then Phoenix. Hughes didn’t make it back until Monday. Experiencing such a hellish trip might explain how Hughes managed to write the first 60 pages of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in just six hours.
16. The plot of The Nightmare Before Christmas was inspired by the collision of holiday store decorations.
In the film's DVD commentary, creator Tim Burton explains that his childhood in Burbank, California was not marked by seasonal changes, so holiday decorations were an especially important factor in the year's progression. When it came to fall and winter, there was a melding of Halloween and Christmas in stores eager to make the most of both shopping seasons. This, he claimed, planted the seed for his tale of the king of Halloween intruding on Christmas.
17. The puppets from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer were rediscovered in 2006.
When they resurfaced, they did so on Antiques Roadshow in 2006. Well, not all of them—just Santa and Rudolph. A woman who worked for Rankin/Bass had stored them in her attic since at least the 1970s. Prior to that, she let her kids play with them. Rudolph lost his red nose, and let’s not even talk about how Santa lost his eyebrows. The puppets were fully restored after their trip to Antiques Roadshow and have since been displayed at the Center for Puppetry Arts. The new owner hopes the puppets can go on tour so more people can enjoy them.
18. Robert Zemeckis gave his childhood home a shout-out in The Polar Express.
When the conductor says “11344 Edbrooke” near the beginning of the film, he’s referring to director Robert Zemeckis’ actual childhood home in Chicago.
19. The FBI didn’t think It’s A Wonderful Life was so wonderful.
In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”
20. A Christmas Story got its science right.
Mythbusters tested whether it was really possible to get your tongue stuck on a piece of cold metal. Guess what? It is. So don’t triple dog dare your best friend to try it.
21. Will Ferrell refuses to make a sequel to Elf.
Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."
22. A Charlie Brown Christmas killed the aluminum tree business.
Aluminum Christmas trees were marketed beginning in 1958 and enjoyed fairly strong sales by eliminating pesky needles and tree sap. But the annual airings of A Charlie Brown Christmas swayed public thinking: In the special, Charlie Brown refuses to get a fake tree. Viewers began to do the same, and the product was virtually phased out by 1969. The leftovers are now collector’s items.
23. Hugh Grant did not want to dance in Love Actually.
Though Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis had worked together on Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, they had a deep disagreement on how the Prime Minister should be played. Grant wanted it to be a grounded performance and resented Curtis's push to make the part more whimsical. This came to a head when shooting the dance number, which Grant refused to rehearse. "He kept on putting it off, and he didn’t like the song—it was originally a Jackson 5 song, but we couldn’t get it—so he was hugely unhappy about it," Curtis explained. "We didn’t shoot it until the final day and it went so well that when we edited it, it had gone too well, and he was singing along with the words!" It was a tricky thing to cut, but the final result with Girls Aloud’s cover of “Jump (For My Love)” speaks for itself.
24. Richard Donner considers Scrooged the movie where Bill Murray became “an actor.”
Though Scrooged is mainly a comedy, it concludes with Murray’s character being a changed man, who has to deliver a rather dramatic speech in order to make his character’s transformation clear. But director Richard Donner told Philadelphia Daily News that what they witnessed in that pivotal scene was something much greater: “On the last take I saw something happen to Billy. I saw Billy Murray become an actor.”
25. When Neal is thinking about Del on the train in Planes, Trains And Automobiles, Steve Martin didn’t know the camera was rolling.
In order to get the new ending he wanted, John Hughes and editor Paul Hirsch went back to look for footage they previously didn’t think would be used. Hughes had kept the cameras rolling in between takes on the Chicago train, without his lead’s knowledge, while Martin was thinking about his next lines. Hughes thought Martin had a “beautiful expression” on his face in that unguarded moment.
26. Gizmo and Stripe were the same creature at one point in the development of Gremlins.
It was at the suggestion of producer Steven Spielberg that Gizmo’s role in the film grew. Originally, it’s the cute little Mogwai himself who transforms into Stripe the Gremlin. But Spielberg knew that audiences would want to see as much of Gizmo as possible, so he withdrew the idea so that they would appear as totally separate characters.
27. the Grinch’s green color was inspired by a rental car.
In the original book, the Grinch is illustrated as black and white, with hints of pink and red. Rumor has it that Chuck Jones was inspired to give the Grinch his iconic coloring after he rented a car that was painted an ugly shade of green.
28. In real life, Harry and marv may not have survived Kevin’s attack in Home Alone.
BB gun shots to the forehead and groin? A steaming hot iron and can of paint to the face? A flaming blowtorch to the scalp? The Wet Bandits endure an awful lot of violence at the hands of a single eight-year-old. So much so that neither one of them should have been walking—let alone conscious—by the end of the night. In 2012, Dr. Ryan St. Clair diagnosed the likely outcome of their injuries at The Week. While a read-through of the entire article is well worth your time, here are a few of the highlights: That iron should have caused a “blowout fracture,” leading to “serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly.” And the blowtorch? According to Dr. St. Clair, “The skin and bone tissue on Harry's skull will be so damaged and rotted that his skull bone is essentially dying and will likely require a transplant.”
29. Dorothy Parker worked on the script for It’s A Wonderful Life.
By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time, such as Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.
30. In the Czech Republic, Bad Santa is called Santa Is A Pervert
Films are known to change names to fit foreign markets. That’s nothing new. However, sometimes its nuance gets a little lost in translation. Case in point: the Czech Republic’s extremely literal, albeit accurate, title.
31. Christmas Vacation’s Cousin Eddie is based on a real guy.
Randy Quaid borrowed many of Cousin Eddie’s mannerisms from a guy he knew growing up in Texas, most notably his tendency toward tongue-clicking. But Eddie’s sweater/dickie combo? That was an idea from Quaid’s wife.
32. It wasn't until after filming that the producers ofvMiracle On 34th Streetvgot permission to use Macy’s and Gimbels' names in the movie.
Despite the fact that both Macy’s and Gimbels figure prominently in the story, the studio took a gamble by not getting the companies to sign off before using their names. According to TCM, the studio made the companies aware they were going into production, but refused to share footage until filming was completed. Luckily, both department stores were satisfied with the final product.
33. Jean Shepherd makes an on-screen appearance in A Christmas Story.
If the voice of the man who brusquely informs Ralphie and Randy that the line to sit on Santa’s lap begins about two miles further back than they had anticipated sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the voice of the narrator, a.k.a. Adult Ralphie, who also happens to be Jean Shepherd, the man upon whose short stories the film itself is based. The woman behind Shepherd is his wife, Leigh Brown.
34. Rankin/Bass weren’t the first team to animate Frosty The Snowman.
In 1954, United Productions of America (UPA) brought Frosty to life in a short cartoon that is little more than an animated music video for a jazzy version of the song. It introduced the characters mentioned in the lyrics visually, from Frosty himself to the traffic cop. The three-minute, black-and-white piece quickly became a holiday tradition in various markets, particularly in Chicago, where it’s been broadcast annually on WGN since 1955.
35. Rudolph has a son named Robbie.
At least, he does according to the BBC. They developed three cartoons based on Rudolph's offspring, but the name of Robbie's famous dad is never actually mentioned. The plotline tells us that the villain of the series, Blitzen, can't stand to hear Rudolph's name. In reality, it's because the BBC couldn't get permission to use it (or didn't want to pay to use it).
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.