Armageddon – The Somme

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 242nd installment in the series. 

July 1, 1916: Armageddon – The Somme 

It was the worst day in British history as measured in bloodshed, with 57,470 total casualties and 19,240 dead, mostly drawn from the cream of the patriotic British middle and working classes. An unparalleled disaster, the first day of the Somme and the 140 days of horror that followed live on in Britain’s collective psyche to this day, remembered – some argue unfairly – as the climactic agony of a generation of young men betrayed by an intellectually bankrupt elite unworthy of their devotion.

Needless to say, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Following six months of planning and preparation, the combined Anglo-French attack on both sides of the River Somme on July 1, 1916 was supposed to literally be a walkover, an annihilating blow that would shatter the German front in northern France and force the neighboring German armies to retreat, reopening the war of movement and setting the stage for final Allied victory. 

Instead it was Armageddon. 

Plan and Reality 

The German defenses at the Somme were formidable to say the least, beginning with a first line complex, about 200 yards deep, of three trenches connected by communications trenches, protected by huge fields of barbed wire and studded with strongholds or “redoubts” – self-contained mini-fortresses of concrete and earthworks protecting machine gun nests. The Germans had also constructed a second line defense several thousand yards behind the first lie, situated on the far side of a chain of low hills and therefore invisible from the Allied trenches, and were working on a third line defense located a similar distance behind that. 

Thanks to aerial reconnaissance the Allies had been able to create detailed maps of the German defenses, and the plan to penetrate them drawn up by British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig and French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre looked plausible, on paper at least. After a huge bombardment by massed artillery to break up barbed wire and flatten the German trenches, and the explosion of 19 huge mines to destroy the redoubts, British and French infantry would advance along a 25,000-yard front on both sides of the River Somme behind a “creeping barrage” of artillery fire, with the guns gradually raising their elevation to create a moving wall of explosions to protect them from German counterattacks.

Most of the burden of fighting at the Somme would fall on the British Fourth Army, as the planned French contribution was scaled down radically because of the need to defend Verdun; after the Fourth Army pierced the German defenses, the new British Reserve Army (later Fifth Army) would enter the fray to exploit the breakthrough, advancing northeast along the road connecting Albert to Bapaume before pivoting north to roll up the German defenses west of Cambrai. Threatened on their flanks, the German armies would have no choice but to retreat in disarray, creating an opening for all the Allied armies to attack and expel them from France and Belgium.

Haig and Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson were so confident about the artillery’s ability to wipe out German defenses that British soldiers went “over the top” with orders to advance across “No Man’s Land” at a walking pace and in close order, just a few yards apart. They were also weighed down by over 60 pounds of ammunition, food, tools, and other supplies, reflecting the expectation that they would be operating for at least several days deep behind the German lines, away from supply depots. Albert Andrews, a private in the 30th Division, listed their kit: 

I will tell here what I carried: rifle and bayonet with a pair of wire cutters attached; a shovel fastened on my back; pack containing two days’ rations, oil sheet, cardigan, jacket and mess tin; haversack containing one day’s iron rations and two Mills bombs; 150 rounds of ammunition; two extra bandoliers containing 60 rounds each, one over each shoulder; a bag of ten bombs [grenades]. 

However the German defenses were even more formidable than anyone suspected. Invisible from the air, the Germans had constructed bunkers up to 40 feet deep, reinforced with concrete and sturdy wood beams, which provided shelter for tens of thousands of German troops during the unrelenting weeklong bombardment that began on June 24. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from assessing damage to the German second line and directing artillery fire to German targets ahead of the advancing infantry, including new stretches of barbed wire hurriedly laid out in the night. Finally, Rawlinson’s relaxed attitude towards command, giving officers on the ground considerable leeway to adjust tactics as they saw fit, meant many ordered the creeping barrage to jump over the German first line in the optimistic belief it had already been obliterated. 

“A Hurricane of Fire” 

The British attack on the morning of July 1, 1916 began with a final bombardment that stunned observers with its fury, reinforcing the general impression that no defenders could possibly be left alive in the first German line. Geoffrey Malins, a British photographer documenting the war in photos and film, recalled the blistering fusillade: 

When I reached the section where I judged it best to fit up my camera, I gently peeped over the parapet. What a sight. Never in my life had I seen such a hurricane of fire. It was inconceivable that any living thing could exist anywhere near it. The shells were coming over so fast and furious that it seemed as if they must be touching each other on their journey through the air. 

At first glance the shelling appeared to have accomplished one of its main tasks by breaking up the new barbed wire defenses, according to Frederick Palmer, American correspondent, who described the scene near Beaumont-Hamel: “All the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the first-line trenches appeared to be cut, mangled, twisted into balls, beaten back into the earth and exhumed again, leaving only a welt of crater-spotted ground in front of the chalky contour of the first-line trenches which had been mashed and crushed out of shape.” However, as the British infantry soon discovered, in many places the explosions had simply lifted the barbed wire into the air and dropped it down again in new positions, with stretches of broken wire overlapping to create an equally impenetrable barrier. 

As one hundred thousand soldiers waited to go “over the top,” each man was left alone with his thoughts. In many cases, following a week of anxious inactivity they were simply impatient for the big moment to arrive. Edward Liveing, a British soldier in the London Regiment of the 56th Division, recalled the final minutes as the British guns pounded the German lines and the German batteries responded in kind: 

I have often tried to call to memory the intellectual, mental and nervous activity through which I passed during that hour of hellish bombardment and counter-bombardment, that last hour before we leapt out of our trenches into No Man’s Land… I had an excessive desire for the time to come when I could go ‘over the top,’ when I should be free at last from the noise of the bombardment, free from the prison of my trench, free to walk across that patch of No Man’s Land and opposing trenches till I got to my objective, or, if I did not go that far, to have my fate decided for better or for worse. I experienced, too, moments of intense fear during close bombardment. I felt that if I was blown up it would be the end of all things so far as I was concerned. The idea of after-life seemed ridiculous in the presence of such frightful destructive force. 

The British also unleashed poison gas and clouds of white smoke to serve as a screen for the advancing infantry (below). Lieutenant Adrian Consett Stephen described the British gas attack in a letter home, as well as his first ominous inkling that perhaps all was not going as planned:

For a mile stretching away from me, the trench was belching forth dense columns of white, greenish, and orange smoke. It rose curling and twisting, blotting everything from view, and then swept, a solid rampart, over the German lines. For more than an hour this continued, and I could see nothing. Sometimes the smoke was streaked with a scarlet star as a shell burst among it… It seemed impossible that men could withstand this awful onslaught… And yet a machine gun played steadily all the time from the German front line.

Finally, the huge mines under the German redoubts went up with an infernal power that reminded many observers of volcanoes erupting, the shockwaves knocking down men standing on the other side of No Man’s Land while debris was lofted almost a mile into the air, sometimes taking several minutes to descend. One aerial observer, second lieutenant Cecil Lewis, described seeing (and feeling) the largest mine – the “Lochnagar mine” under the “Schwaben Redoubt,” actually two separate mines loaded with a stupefying 60,000 pounds of high explosive – go up from a plane at 7:28 a.m. (below, an aerial view of the Lochnagar crater today): 

At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet (1,200 m). There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters. The barrage had lifted to the second-line trenches, the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun.

Elsewhere a photographer was able to capture a remarkable photo of the British mine beneath the German “Hawthorn Redoubt” as it detonated, sending up 45,000 pounds of ammonal high explosive and taking hundreds of German soldiers with it (below; the photographer was about half a mile away, and the soldier barely visible by the trees in the foreground provides a sense of scale). 

The infantry assault began at 7:30 a.m. with a diversionary attack to the north by the 46th and 56th Divisions of the neighboring British Third Army against a small German salient at Gommecourt, and here the British suffered their first setback, for all the reasons that would soon become apparent all along the front: the artillery preparation had been inadequate, the Germans were able to patch the barbed wire in many places, and the lack of aerial observation made it almost impossible to know whether any progress was being made. Even worse, the failure of the 46th Division to advance doomed the effort by the 56th Division in the other arm of the “pincer.” As a result barely any of the British troops reached the German front line near Gommecourt, and those who did were soon forced out by German counterattacks. 

This story would repeat itself, again and again, up and down the battlefield of the Somme. All along the front the the Germans emerged, rattled by the bombardment but largely unscathed, from their deep dugouts and quickly took up defensive positions in shell holes, along the lips of the mine craters, and in small stretches of trench that remained usable after the shelling. One German soldier, Matthaus Gerster, recalled the adrenaline-charged experience:

At 7:30 a.m. the hurricane of shells ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Our men at once clambered up the steep shafts leading from the dug-outs to daylight and ran singly or in groups to the nearest shell craters. The machine guns were pulled out of the dug-outs and hurriedly placed in position, their crews dragging the heavy ammunition boxes up the steps and out to the guns. A rough firing line was thus rapidly established… A few minutes later, when the leading British line was within one hundred yards, the rattle of machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line of craters. Some fired kneeling so as to get a better target over the broken ground, while others in the excitement of the moment, stood up regardless of their own safety to fire into the crowd of men in front of them. Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines. Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in closer order, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumbled under this hail of shell and bullets. All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing, never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell-hole for shelter. 

From the village of Serre to Beaumont-Hamel, after the explosion of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine mentioned above, the British 4th, 29th, and 31st Divisions had to advance across a low basin that made them perfect targets for German artillery and machine guns. Even worse, the officers had accelerated the creeping barrage on the assumption the German frontline was destroyed – again, unaware that the enemy’s deep dugouts had survived (below, wire entanglements at Beaumont-Hamel). 

Now a new threat was rapidly becoming apparent: because the British were trying to advance along such a broad front, a failure by any division to progress left its neighbors exposed to flanking fire from the Germans and counterattacks from neighboring German trenches – so even where the British succeeded in breaking into the German first line, they found themselves isolated in narrow corridors surrounded by the enemy, and were forced to retreat anyway. This proved to be the case for the 36th Division, which advanced north of the village Thiepval but then abandoned its gains, including the key Schwaben Redoubt (or what was left of it), under withering fire when the adjacent 32nd Division failed to advance. 

And still more British troops poured forward. Edward Liveing described seeing the second wave advance to meet its fate:

The scene that met my eyes as I stood on the parapet of our trench for that one second is almost indescribable. Just in front the ground was pitted by innumerable shell-holes. More holes opened suddenly every now and then. Here and there a few bodies lay about. Farther away, before our front line and in No Man's Land, lay more. In the smoke one could distinguish the second line advancing. One man after another fell down in a seemingly natural manner, and the wave melted away. In the background, where ran the remains of the German lines and wire, there was a mass of smoke, the red of the shrapnel bursting amid it. 

Soon it would be Liveing’s turn to plunge into the maelstrom, where he discovered it was almost impossible to keep track of his men amid the chaos:

As I advanced, I felt as if I was in a dream, but I had all my wits about me. We had been told to walk. Our boys, however, rushed forward with splendid impetuosity to help their comrades and smash the German resistance in the front line… I kept up a fast walking pace and tried to keep the line together. This was impossible. When we had jumped clear of the remains of our front line trench, my platoon slowly disappeared through the line stretching out. 

As the troops in subsequent lines advanced, they were greeted by the horrifying sights of No Man’s Land, where they found their own comrades lying dead and wounded by the thousands, and faced the same fate themselves, at the hands of the same German machine gunners and artillery crews. Liveing recalled his own experience, culminating in a wound that – like tens of thousands of others that day – forced him to retreat back across No Man’s Land under heavy fire: 

We were dropping into a slight valley. The shell-holes were less few, but bodies lay all over the ground, and a terrible groaning arose from all sides. At one time we seemed to be advancing in little groups. I was at the head of one for a moment or two, only to realise shortly afterwards that I was alone… I turned round again and advanced to a gap in the German wire. There was a pile of our wounded here on the German parapet… Suddenly I cursed. I had been scalded in the left hip. A shell, I thought, had blown up in a water-logged crump-hole and sprayed me with boiling water. Letting go of my rifle, I dropped forward full length on the ground. My hip began to smart unpleasantly, and I felt a curious warmth stealing down my left leg. I thought it was the boiling water that had scalded me. Certainly my breeches looked as if they were saturated with water. I did not know that they were saturated with blood… I looked around to see what was happening. In front lay some wounded; on either side of them stakes and shreds of barbed wire twisted into weird contortions by the explosions of our trench-mortar bombs. Beyond this nothing but smoke, interspersed with the red of bursting bombs and shrapnel.

Back on the German side, Gerster described the seemingly endless British attacks, each one ending in disaster:

The extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster. Instead of a leisurely walk they covered the ground in short rushes at the double. Within a few minutes the leading troops had reached within a stone’s throw of our front trench, and while some of us continued to fire at point-blank range, others threw hand grenades among them. The British bombers [grenade throwers] answered back, while the infantry rushed forward with fixed bayonets. The noise of battle became indescribable… Again and again the extended lines of British infantry broke against the German defence like waves against a cliff, only to be beaten back. 

Ironically the French Sixth Army, which had been assigned a supporting role in the attack because of the manpower requirements at Verdun, made much more progress to the south of the Somme, led by colonial troops from North Africa in the 1st Moroccan Division and 2nd, 3rd, and 16th Colonial Divisions. The neighboring British divisions, at the southernmost end of the British line, also fared better in their attacks near Montauban, Fricourt, and Mametz Woods. 

The Allied success in the southern half of the battlefield was due in part to hills that provided better observation points and shelter for artillery and the use of a larger number of smaller mines to disrupt longer stretches of the German trenches. These factors meant the British and French could clear German artillery more effectively before the infantry attacked, while the continuing bombardment forced the German infantry to remain in their dugouts longer before coming to the surface – giving the attackers crucial extra moments to advance. 

However the British and French still failed to penetrate to the German second line of defenses further east, meaning nowhere along the front had the Allies achieved their hoped-for breakthrough. Furthermore their advances on the southern half of the front merely made it even more urgent for the British divisions north of the Somme to catch up in order to allow the entire operation to move forward, leading to more disastrous assaults in the days to come. 

All along the front, July 1, 1916 ended in nightmarish scenes of death and destruction, with fighting continuing sporadically where Allied or German troops held out in isolated strongholds. Paul Maze, a Frenchman serving with the British Army as a translator, described the night of July 1: 

I went at night to Albert, where I knew that from some high ground I could look into La Boisselle and a wide stretch of the battle-ground. The line kept emerging from the darkness, illuminated by brilliant lights from a constant succession of soaring rockets, bursting and spreading into vivid colours, momentarily revealing quivering patches of the deep shade beyond. Our men were then bombing the craters in front of La Boisselle. Occasionally the light showed up little figures crawling over broken ground. Behind me the town of Albert was trembling with the shelling, as flashes from the guns played hide-and-seek through the beams of its gaping roofs and intermittently lit up as in daylight a white streak of the Albert-Bapaume road… Ambulances were taking away the wounded from the casualty clearing-station in Albert. Lorries were packed with the lighter casualties who waited their turn in big groups, all labeled with the nature of their wounds. Roads were crammed with marching troops and lorries. Dust was rising everywhere. Lines of cavalry horses, contentedly munching hay, covered the rolling plains as far as Amiens, hidden in the darkness. 

After a day of consolidation and (relatively) small-scale combat on July 2, the British returned to the attack on July 3, determined to push forward in the north and set the stage for the assault on the German second line, allowing the British Reserve Army to swing into action as planned. This time, unfortunately, the attacks near Ovillers and Thiepval went forward with little or no coordination, as officers mounted local attacks according to their own hastily improvised strategies. Palmer, the war correspondent, saw one of the attacks: 

The battle was not general; it raged at certain points where the Germans had anchored themselves after some recovery from the staggering blow of the first day. Beyond Fricourt the British artillery was making a crushing concentration on a clump of woods. This seemed to be the hottest place of all. I would watch it. Nothing except the blanket of shell-smoke hanging over the trees was visible for a time, unless you counted figures some distance away moving about in a sort of detached pantomime. Then a line of British infantry seemed to rise out of the pile of the carpet and I could see them moving with a drill-ground steadiness toward the edge of the woods, only to be lost to the eye in a fold of the carpet or in a changed background.

Further south Maze witnessed the continued fighting around the village of La Boisselle, which was quickly being reduced to a heap of rubble:

Through a gap between two sandbags I was shown the village, where smoke was drifting across skeletons of trees on a torn-up mound. An uneven line of sandbags, stretching across piles of bricks and remnants of houses, faced our front trench. The enemy was there, a few yards away. His presence, so near and yet unseen, made upon me an uncanny impression. The ground between our trench and the ruins beyond was merely a stretch of craters and burnt-up grass broken up by tangled wire… The dead were lying there in all conceivable attitudes, rotting in the sun. A veil of fumes from lachrymatory shells was rolling along the ground… with the heat the smell had become very trying.

Incredibly conditions were about to become even more trying, as nature turned against both attackers and defenders with the arrival of unexpected summer thunderstorms, which – once again – turned the battlefield into a quagmire and flooded trenches. Many men commented on the unusually sticky nature of the Somme mud, with its combination of clay, dust, and chalk ground up by entrenching tools and artillery. Maze described the scene as the heavens opened above them: 

The rain, falling down the shiny slopes, formed streams everywhere. Steam rose from the hot ground… the Somme dust had turned everything into liquid mud; lorries rushed along plastering everybody with it. Drenched infantry and horse-lines were out in the open – everything now looked miserable. During the next three days the rain hardly ceased. Conditions became appalling… The trenches had now crumbled down with the rain, and water rushing down the slopes had invaded every communication-trench. The mud was a soft yellow, sticky paste that clung to one’s boots and had to be kicked away at every step. 

The mud would be a perpetual fixture of the Somme, especially once summer gave way to autumn. Hugh Knyvett, an Australian who fought at the Somme some time later, portrayed it as a force of nature all its own: 

How we cursed that mud! We cursed it sleeping, we cursed it waking, we cursed it riding, we cursed it walking. We ate it and cursed; we drank it and cursed; we swallowed it and spat it; we snuffed it and wept it; it filled our nails and our ears; it caked and lined our clothing; we wallowed in it, we waded through it, we swam in it, and splashed it about – it stuck our helmets to our hair, it plastered our wounds, and there were men drowned in it. 

And still the fighting went on. On July 7, 1916 Rawlinson ordered another round of attacks on the center near Ovillers, Mametz Wood, and Contalmaison – but once again there was virtually no coordination between the commanders on the ground, leaving individual units to advance with their flanks unprotected, and over the next six days modest victories were paid for with extravagant amounts of blood. Nature also paid a heavy price, according to Private Robert Lord Crawford, who described a scene near Contalmaison in his diary entry on July 7, 1916: 

What a scene of desolation in this area of battle. One stumbles across a corpse distended by gangrene, half hidden by luxuriant flowers, and then a few yards further on a patch of land from which every vestige of vegetation has been completely burned. What is marked on a map as a wood is in reality a seared row of skeleton trees. This is the most violent and wasteful of all the invasions of nature which a bombardment involves. 

Mametz Wood and Contalmaison finally fell to the British on July 12, setting the stage for the next big push on July 14, 1916. The Battle of the Somme was just beginning. 

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.

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