From the jolly to the depressing, here are the essential nonfiction holiday films.
Everyone has their favorite Christmas movies, but rarely are they of the documentary kind. Maybe that’s because most nonfiction films involving the holiday and its iconography are downright depressing. There’s not much of a story in real people having a merry Christmas. So, the interest is in unfortunate circumstances, like foreclosure and death. But there are a few feel-good and at least matter-of-fact docs about the holiday.
Below is a list of 12 titles, in order from least depressing to most deperessing. Perhaps the films towards the end will make you feel better by comparison.
Becoming Santa (2011)
This wonderful and very funny film follows one man, Jack Sanderson, as he tries to become a perfect professional Santa. Along the way, he explores the history and meaning of the character when he’s not dying his beard and training for the job. It plays like the Super Size Me type of experiment-based doc (call it Santa Size Me) and the result of the venture is that Sanderson and the audience get more into the spirit of the holiday.
I Am Santa Claus (2014)
Morgan Spurlock actually presents and wrestler Mick Foley produced this look at professional Santas, focused on what they do the rest of the year. One wants to open a BBQ joint, another heads a sex club, and a third is struggling to get by when it’s not Christmastime. Also, Foley suits up as St. Nick. There is a touch of sadness for these men that it can’t be the season all year round, but mostly we’re introduced to people of certain passion for the holiday.
Jingle Bell Rocks! (2013)
More passionate people can be found in this documentary about Christmas music, specifically of the obscure variety. One of them is John Waters, who makes any documentary better just with his presence. While it is a fun look at a certain aspect of the holiday season, the doc does involve a good deal of negativity towards traditional Christmas songs. At the very least, it provides some fresh recommendations to add to your holiday playlist.
Christmas in a Day (2013)
Spun off from the crowdsourced feature Life in a Day, this mid-length doc is again produced by Ridley Scott’s company and curated by Kevin Macdonald. They asked people in the UK specifically to capture their Christmas, then compiled the footage together. It’s pretty simple but does offer an interesting glimpse at British culture. It’s not cheery all the way, but apparently scrooges and the downtrodden don’t self-document on the holiday.
Making Christmas Crackers (1910)
Even more matter-of-factly British is this short documentary from over a century ago. Christmas crackers are a holiday tradition in the UK and are kind of like festive, colorful, present-filled wishbones. Here we get to see how they were made in the early 20th century in a factory full of women workers. Then, at the end of the six-minute film, there’s a dramatized bit with a family using their Christmas crackers and being paid a magical visit from Santa Claus.
Tree Man (2016)
Let’s see, we’ve got Santa Claus, holiday music, and Christmas crackers covered, but where’s the documentary about Christmas trees? Right here, with a story about a man who travels from Quebec to New York City every holiday season to sell his evergreens to the same neighborhood of people. There is a minor bit of melancholy, though, because the guy leaves his own family behind every December for the gig making others happy.
Xmas Without China (2013)
One of those documentaries where someone tries to limit himself in some way for a period of time, this one follows a man and his family attempting to celebrate Christmas without use of products made in China. Obviously it becomes a more challenging task than anyone could imagine, proving a point of how dependent American people are on the more-affordable foreign products, even though it hurts their own economy.
What Would Jesus Buy? (2007)
Another doc produced by Spurlock, this one also focuses on the commercial side of Christmas. The film follows Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir — not a true religious organization but a performance-based social activist group — as they travel the country trying to get people to concentrate more on the true meaning of the holiday, which isn’t presents. Their purpose is more anti-materialism, though, than pro-Christian values.
Christmas Under Fire (1941)
Back to Britain, here’s an Oscar-nominated short documentary that shows life in the UK on Christmas — during the Blitz. Like the later Christmas in a Day, it’s also a sort of sequel, following the model of 1940’s London Can Take It! only now focused on the holiday traditions still being continued during World War II as bombs are falling on England. The ten-minute film leans positive but the context makes it difficult not to be saddened overall.
Roger & Me (1989)
Michael Moore’s debut isn’t totally a Christmas movie, but among its most memorable sequences is a section where the titular Roger Smith gives his annual Christmas message at the General Motors holiday event, and that scene is intercut with one of Deputy Sheriff Fred Ross evicting former GM employees from their homes, on Christmas Eve. Also, there’s a montage of Flint set to the tune of the Singing Dogs version of “Jingle Bells.”
Casting JonBenet (2017)
One of the tragic elements that people forget about the JonBenet Ramsey murder is that it occurred on Christmas (or very early the next day). This new nontraditional documentary, which plays out various scenarios with different actors in multiple reenactments, reminds us of that fact heavily with its scenes set during the holidays and with Santa Claus (well, Bill McReynolds dressed up as Santa) being a major character — and suspect.
Dreams of a Life (2011)
Christmastime is also part of the mystery of the death of Joyce Carol Vincent. She died of unknown cause in December 2003, apparently in the midst of wrapping presents, but wasn’t discovered until January 2006. Her television was still on. Nobody had bothered to check her flat for her whereabouts. And yet she wasn’t exactly friendless. Her death is one of the most depressing ever in a movie, and of course it involves the holiday season.
Bonus: Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland (2010)
I want to mention two documentaries worth a shout out because of their Christmas-related titles. The British documentary classic Every Day Except Christmas, directed by Lindsay Anderson, is a short film about the people who work at London’s Covent Garden, which only closed on the holiday, and the gonzo Finnish doc Reindeerspotting follows drug addicts from the northern city of Rovaniemi, which is considered the unofficial home of Santa Claus.