Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 254th installment in the series. 

October 25, 1916: Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Following its invasion of Austria-Hungary in August 1916 the tides of war turned against Romania all too swiftly. With the arrival of the newly-formed German Ninth Army under Erich von Falkenhayn in late September, the combined forces of the Central Powers sent the Romanians reeling back to the mountain passes of the southern Carpathians (also known as the Transylvanian Alps). Meanwhile Bulgarian forces under the German commander August von Mackensen invaded Romania from the south, capturing the chief port, Constanta, by October 22. 

Then in late October and November defeat turned to debacle, as Romanian defenses crumbled before the German onslaught, allowing the enemy to pour through the mountain passes into the plains of Wallachia. Although the Romanians managed to halt them temporarily here, this advance set the stage for them to outflank all the Romanian armies to the east, clearing the way for a drive on the capital, Bucharest, in late November. Remarkably all this happened in just a few weeks, and indeed the German storming of the Romanian passes is remembered as one of the most impressive military achievements of the war. 

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In the right circumstances these high, narrow valleys cutting the Carpathians – from west to east the Vulcan, Szurduk, and Turnu Roşu (Red Tower) – should have been nearly impenetrable, with primitive wagon roads or goat paths broken by rough terrain and dominated by strong defensive positions. 

However circumstances were far from right for the Romanians, whose hasty retreat from Hungary left them little time to dig in, and who had scant experience with trench warfare to begin with. Their dire supply situation had hardly improved, due to continuing shortages as well as the general incompetence of Romanian logistics officers. Perhaps worst of all, they were facing elite mountain troops in the German Alpenkorps, supported by superior mountain artillery. 

The result was a crushing defeat, although ordinary Romanian soldiers fought bravely and tenaciously, exacting a heavy toll on the attacking Germans (above, Romanian infantry on the march). From October 25-November 15, 1916, the Germans battered the divisions of the Romanian First Army, separated by mountain ranges and thus unable to come to each other’s aid, back through the passes amid rapidly worsening conditions. The Romanians could at least draw cold comfort (literally) from the fact that the harsh weather in the mountains affected the Germans as much as them. One German infantry officer, first lieutenant Erwin Rommel, recalled his company’s nighttime ascent into the Szurdok Pass:

It began to rain as we started to climb without benefit of a guide. The rain grew heavier as night began to fall and it was soon pitch black. The cold rain turned into a cloudburst and soaked us to the skin. Further progress on the steep and rocky slope was impossible, and we bivouacked on either side of the mule path at an altitude of about 4950 feet. In our soaked condition it was impossible to lie down and as it was still raining, all attempts to kindle a fire of dwarf pine failed. We crouched close together, wrapped in blankets and shelter halves and shivered from the cold.

Battling up the narrow passes, the Germans faced Romanian defenders taking cover in forests and behind ridges, from which they frequently attempted ambushes, sometimes with considerable success (below, Romanian soldiers dug in in the snow). However the Germans for their part enjoyed a major advantage in their mountain artillery, which could be brought up with relative speed to lay down withering fire across valleys and over hills. 

Another German officer, captain Gerhard Friedrich Dose, remembered a battle where the German mountain artillery proved decisive, wiping out an entire enemy unit in dramatic fashion: 

The undergrowth closed behind us as we hurried down the hill as fast as our equipment and the terrain would allow. We went toward where we thought our company was, down into the valley. Behind us someone started shooting but it soon stopped. The noise moved down into the valley. From a favorable position I could see the Romanians far below on the right wing of our front. They began to advance downwards the mountain… A short while later we recognized Romanians in the trees. They had put on German helmets and were firing from behind trees. The branches moving gave away their movements… Suddenly we heard a storm roar through the air, it steadily increased in volume… Rounds flew by and slammed with incredible power in the area of the mountain crest. The roar of the rocks and earth falling back to the ground sounded like galloping cavalry. It must have been a very heavy artillery gun doing the shooting. It was exactly what was needed to destroy the crest. We advanced further and further. 

Of course, even relatively small engagements were fateful for the ordinary soldiers doing the fighting, and the prospect of being wounded was even more frightening given the primitive conditions and distance to the nearest casualty clearing stations, all of which meant wounded soldiers might die before they could receive medical care (below, an exhausted German soldier resting in the Red Tower Pass).

For the grievously wounded, who all too often found themselves left behind by comrades during chaotic battles in the passes, there was nothing to do but lie out in the open, exposed to the elements, and wait for the end. Hans Carossa, a medic in the Romanian Army Medical Corps, remembered stumbling across one man in his final moments, and doing what little he could for him: 

A Roumanian stretched between two birch trunks lay across my path; I thought he was dead and was stepping over him, when I heard a groan and felt a feeble but perceptible tug at my cloak. Turning around, I looked down on the dying face of a man of about thirty; his eyes were closed, his mouth terribly twisted with pain. His fingers still clutched the fast hem of my cloak. Through a grey cape which covered his breast a slight vapour was rising. R. threw it back; under his torn ribs his lungs and heart lay exposed, the heart beating sluggishly. A number of silver and copper medals of saints, which he had been wearing on a black ribbon round his neck, were driven deep into his flesh, some of them much bent. We covered him up again. The man half-opened his eyes, his lips moved. Simply for the sake of doing something I filled my morphia syringe, and then I saw that this was what he seemed to want: he pushed the cloak aside and tried to stretch out his arm to me in readiness… 

Wounded Romanian soldiers lucky enough to be evacuated to the rear for medical care endured conditions that were shocking even by the very low standards of the First World War. Casualty clearing stations were often open to the elements, while hospitals were often little more than hastily renovated sheds. Doctors and surgeons, many of them foreign volunteers, were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of casualties, which included thousands of victims of frostbite as the winter wore on. As in neighboring Serbia and the nearby Salonika front, disease was epidemic, with cholera, dysentery, and typhus killing thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. 

In her diary Lady Kennard, an English noblewoman volunteering as a nurse with the Romanian Army, described the struggle to treat an unending flow of wounded amid mounting anxiety about their own circumstances in Bucharest (not assuaged by the belated arrival of an Allied military mission): “The arrival of a French command may still save the capital, but one doubts it, for the passes are obviously falling with incredible rapidity, and the wounded are coming in hundreds. We now have thirty-five cases in each of our wards, planned to hold fifteen. They are packed like herrings, poor wretches, and lying two in a bed.”

These men were lucky, as at least they had beds in a real hospital in the capital; the plight of wounded soldiers being treated out in the countryside, behind the front, was even worse. Yvonne Fitzroy, another British volunteer nurse serving on the southern front where the Romanians were fighting the Bulgarians, described conditions there in early October: “In the Russian Red Cross Hospital next door two and three men were shoved on a single mattress just as they came in, the dead and the living sometimes lying side by side for hours.” 

And still the German invaders continued pounding through the northern passes, finally reaching the Wallachian plains by mid-November. Rommel recalled his company’s descent from the valley into more open country, where the fighting continued amid scattered peasant farmhouses and small villages, including a violent, confusing encounter on November 12, 1916: 

The fog swirled hither and yon and the visibility varied between a hundred and three hundred feet. Shortly before the head of the column reached the south end of the village, it ran into a close column of advancing Rumanians. In a few seconds we were engaged in a violent fire fight at fifty yards range. Our opening volley was delivered from a standing position and then we hit the dirt and looked for cover from the heavy enemy fire.

The odds looked unfavorable for Rommel’s unit, to say the least, and the Germans were forced into a temporary retreat by fierce Romanian counterattacks, as often happened during this period: 

The Rumanians outnumbered us at least ten to one. Rapid fire pinned them down, but a new enemy loomed on both flanks. He was creeping up behind bushes and hedges and firing as he approached. The advance guard was getting into a dangerous situation… I ordered the advance guard to hold the farmhouse for an additional five minutes, and then to retire on the right side of the road through the farms… 

However Rommel’s famous levelheadedness, combined with German training and firepower, helped stem the Romanian tide, providing yet another example of the power of machine guns against even vastly superior numbers in the First World War:

Soon Rumanian skirmish lines reappeared in the south and approached our position. They were still over two thousand yards away, I have the signal to fire at will. This stopped the attack cold and we suffered no losses in the ensuing fire fight. The heavy machine guns had many excellent targets. As night fell the enemy retreated… We were sad about the losses in the company which totaled seventeen wounded and three dead… On the Rumanian side hundreds of dead covered the field including a Rumanian divisional commander. 

Elsewhere, however, the Germans found themselves bogged down in heavy fighting near the southern mouths of the passes, made even more miserable by heavy winter storms. Dose recalled conditions in the eastern Predeal Pass in mid-November: 

Our exhausted troops dug rifle pits and covered them with their shelters but the weight of the snow collapsed them again and again…  Numerous soldiers had fingers and toes frozen… The wounded could only be brought down much later because there were so few people available for that purpose. Four people were required per litter. It took almost twelve hours to make the trip. 

On the other side, in mid-November Kennard recorded worsening conditions in Bucharest, as thousands of wounded piled up outside the train station: 

The men lay on the ground, which was covered with wooden boards. Some shared a mattress with four or five others, the rest lay without even a pillow to their heads… I passed the station, where a trainload of them had just come in. They lay out in the waste ground behind the building, in full sunlight, pitiful in their helplessness. They had no water and no food, just a few cigarettes, and I did not hear one single moan or complaints.

Even more alarming, as the Germans approached from the west Kennard was informed that she should be ready to evacuate the capital at any time: “It sounds impossible, but I was told to-day that we shall probably have to pack up and leave in forty-eight hours’ time, to spend the winter in – well, we don’t know where, but in the snow, anyway!” Later she recorded a social encounter which did little to allay her fears: “A Roumanian general came to tea and said: ‘We shall leave by night.’ I said: ‘Where to?’ He answered: ‘God knows!’ – which was encouraging!” 

Meanwhile to the south Mackensen’s drive into Dobruja at the head of the Danube Army sent waves of refugees fleeing into the interior. In late October Fitzroy recorded the classic scenes – now all too familiar from previous mass retreats in Belgium, northern France, Poland and Serbia – of peasant families trudging along with all their belongings: 

The whole country is in retreat… Behind we could see the shells exploding, and the sky was alight with the glow of burning villages. On our right a bigger glow showed the fate of Constanza, which fell to-day. The road was indescribably dilapidated, and crammed with refugees, troops, and transport… Ponies and oxens are harnessed into their little springless carts, all their household goods are packed inside, and they are followed by terrified flocks of sheep, pigs, and cattle. The peasants trudge along, going – one wonders where? 

French Retake Fort Douaumont 

Verdun was supposed to be the place of decision, where Germany would “bleed France white” and end the war. Instead it was simply a charnel house, where the initial German onslaught devolved into a bloody battle of mutual attrition, the attackers suffering almost as many casualties as the defenders.

At the beginning of September 1916 the new German chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg visited Verdun with his collaborator Erich Ludendorff; shocked at what they saw, they immediately called off the offensive. But the tide was already turning, as the French gradually pushed the Germans back a few meters at a time, paying a heavy price to liberate their ruined land. The most humiliating setback for the Germans so far came on October 24, 1916, when the French finally recaptured Fort Douaumont – the strategic key to the battlefield and the object of several earlier failed counter-attacks. 

The French were aided by the delivery of two massive new howitzers, the 400-millimeter St. Chamond railway guns, so called because they were mounted on custom designed flatbeds pulled by steam engines – the only practical way to move the 140-ton behemoths. Although this obviously limited their deployment, with a range of ten miles the monstrous artillery pieces could easily drop 1,400-pound high explosive shells on German positions outside Verdun from specially built rail spurs well to the south. 

The French offensive also benefited from a huge accumulation of other types of artillery drawn from all over the Western Front, plus a stockpile of 15,000 tons of shells. The French troops in the three frontline divisions had trained for weeks, rehearsing their assault on a full-size reproduction of the position. Last but not least the French commander in charge of the counter-attack, the artillery officer General Robert Nivelle, had new tactics – and a trick up his sleeve.

The counter-attack began on October in typical fashion on October 19, with a punishing bombardment by the “regular” French artillery, which as before seemed to make little impression on Fort Douaumont, but pulverized the German trenches blocking the approaches to the fort (above, the fort before the war; below, on October 10, 1916). As casualties mounted many German units sensibly withdrew to the protection of the fort itself, while the well-hidden German artillery held its fire, waiting for the French infantry attack before revealing its own positions. 

On October 22, the French artillery suddenly stopped firing and a huge cheer went up from the French lines, indicating that the French infantry attack was imminent, and the German artillery finally unleashed its own bombardment against the French trenches, supposedly now full of assault troops – but no one was there. In a clever piece of deception, Nivelle had tricked the Germans into giving away the positions of their own artillery, allowing the French guns to target them before the French infantry went over the top (below, French infantry in a trench near Fort Douaumont). 

After another day of shelling, during which the French managed to wipe out about half the German artillery positions around Fort Douamount, the Germans were still in firm possession of the fort itself – but now the hammer came down. On October 23 at 12:30 p.m. a massive explosion shook the center of the fort, as the first of the 400-mm shells plunged with remarkable precision into the bowels of the structure, killing 50 patients and medical staff in the infirmary. Ten minutes later brought another shuddering impact, followed by another, and another, as the two railway guns fired in tandem. The fort had finally been breached. 

With fires burning inside the fort, the German commander had little choice but to order his men to withdraw on the evening of October 23, leaving it undefended – or rather, almost undefended. In a typical mix-up resulting from virtually nonexistent communication on the battlefield, that evening a German captain in charge of a signaling unit returned to the fort to find it abandoned. With the fires mostly extinguished, showing admirable initiative he hurriedly scraped together whatever troops he could find to hold the fort. 

Thus only a handful of ill-equipped defenders were holding the fort when the French attacked on the morning of October 24, 1916, meaning that Fort Douaumont, one of the strongest fortifications in Europe, was hardly defended at all both when it fell to the Germans in February 1916, and then again when the French liberated it exactly eight months later. In fact, ironically the French faced much stiffer resistance from German defenders in trenches and bunkers outside the fort – but once again Nivelle’s tactics delivered a startling success. 

Nivelle’s second innovation was the double creeping barrage, in which French artillery laid down a wall of fire just in front of the advancing infantry, shielding them from German counter-attacks, obliterating recently dug German trenches and fortifications, and forcing German defenders to take shelter in deep dugouts while the French advanced. The tactic was particularly effective because it was actually composed of two barrages advancing in sequence: the first by heavy artillery to take out major strongholds, followed by the second by field artillery, to keep German troops pinned down. 

As the double creeping barrage scoured the fog-covered battlefield, three French divisions surged forward with a speed that took the demoralized and distraught German defenders by surprise. Taking thousands of prisoners, the French bypassed the few remaining German strongholds, leaving these to the five reserve divisions following close on their heels, while they raced ahead to the abandoned fort looming out of the clouds. One French officer recalled the dramatic scene: 

Through my artillery glasses I could count the shell holes. They are all full of water. What a time our men must have had if they went through there! The landscape is not dead. Over there on the slopes of Douaumont earth-colored men are moving about. To the left and to the right they are marching in Indian [single] file. They are advancing, climbing, and gradually getting nearer their objective. As last there is one whose silhouette stands out upon the sky as clearly as if a shadow show. Others are going down a gorge. They are going to be seen. They will be mown down. Don’t show yourself like that. It is crazy… I want to shout. I must have shouted, but I did not hear the sound of my own voice in the noise of bursting shells… Douaumont is ours. The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with its mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.

Fort Douaumont, the strategic key to the entire Verdun battlefield, was once again in French hands – or rather, what was left of it. Another French officer described the battered fort, whose upper levels had been largely destroyed, but whose lower levels were still mostly intact, a tribute to superb French pre-war engineering (above, the roof of the fort today):

One can clearly make out the site of ditches whose sides and bottom are in shocking condition; the masonry has almost entirely collapsed, the slopes are destroyed, and the grating of the escarp no longer exist. The wire network is demolished. Some blocks of concrete are still to be found, with fragments of iron stakes, these having formed part of the battlements… All the basement rooms are in perfect condition, except the last one to the east, in which was a store of bombs that has been blown up.

The liberation of Fort Douaumont was hailed across France as the greatest French victory (or as some cynics may have observed, the only victory) since the Miracle on the Marne. In addition to decisively demonstrating the failure of the German offensive at Verdun, the victory had special personal meaning for some of the troops who took part. Masserigne Soumare, a Senegalese soldier in the French Army who took part in the battle, remembered that in a time of endemic racism their success helped change the attitudes of ordinary French people towards black Africans, and no one was prouder than the colonial troops’ white officers (above, Senegalese troops with a banner recognizing their service at Douaumont, a rare honor): 

We felt very proud after the attack because the French had tried many times to retake the fort, but finally, we [were the ones] that took it… And when we were leaving the fort, our officers told us not to wash our uniforms even though they were very dirty and covered with mud. But we were told: “Don’t wash your uniforms. Cross the country as you are so that everyone who meets you will know that you made the attack on Fort Douaumont.” And we took the train [and traveled] for three days between Douaumont and St. Raphäel. And in every town we crossed, the French were clapping their hands and shouting: “Vive les tirailleurs sénégalais!

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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