Michael Caine and the Muppets gathered around a turkey dinner

We’ve Got the Perfect Feel-Good Family Movie for Each of the 12 Days of Christmas!

Fiiiive gold-en riiiiings!

Every year, it seems like people start celebrating Christmas just a little bit earlier. One of my neighbors even put a Santa hat on his Halloween skeleton, and no, it wasn’t a Nightmare Before Christmas theme! That being said, I do agree that it takes some time to transition from my usual Grinchy state to a more merry attitude, so here’s a list of the twelve best family-friendly Christmas movies to watch as we approach the big day.

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These movies are listed in a specific order, one designed to gradually ramp up your holiday spirit until you’re practically overflowing with mirth. (Or spiked eggnog … either works.) For best results, start watching on December 12, finish on Christmas Eve, and spend Christmas day watching a certain holiday classic involving a leg lamp and a Red Ryder BB gun, just like everybody else.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

On the first day of Christmas … “this box is meowing.”

Clark and Ellen Griswold admire their Christmas lights in Christmas Vacation
(Warner Bros.)

We first met Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) and his family in the 1983 comedic classic National Lampoon’s Vacation. In this sequel, Clark and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) are back, though their longsuffering kids, Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki), are played by different actors. The action centers around Clark’s desire to host the perfect Christmas at home, complete with a delicious homecooked meal, a twinkling fresh-cut tree, a fully-lit and decorated house, and of course, a zany group of unforgettable family members.

Everything goes wrong, of course, especially when Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) shows up in his busted R.V. with a bunch of kids and no presents. Just as in the first film, Clark reaches a breaking point when his boss doesn’t come through with a promised corporate bonus, and his meltdown is epic.

Elf (2003)

On the second day of Christmas … “smiling’s my favorite!”

large man in elf costume sits in classroom with much smaller children/elves
(New Line Cinema)

Elf became an instant holiday classic the moment it was released. It stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human who was accidentally sent to the North Pole and raised by Santa’s elves. In adulthood Buddy finally realizes he’s not like the other elves, so he goes on an adventure to New York City in search of his real father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan).

Walter isn’t very happy to see Buddy at first, but over time, he comes to love his son in spite of Buddy’s over-the-top Christmas spirit. With Buddy’s help, everyone discovers the power of the Christmas spirit. Zooey Deschanel co-stars as Buddy’s new girlfriend, Jovie.

Last Holiday (2006)

On the third day of Christmas … let’s go on an adventure!

Queen Latifah and Gerard Depardieu cooking together
(Paramount Pictures)

Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) leads a lonely life at the start of this holiday rom-com, but when she’s diagnosed with a terminal illness she opts to spend her life savings on a lavish trip for one. Tired of playing it safe, she throws caution to the wind and jets off to Europe, where she goes skiing and skydiving, hits the spa, and eats fine cuisine made by Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu).

Georgia is having the time of her life, but there’s a small catch; she isn’t really dying at all. When her friend (and crush) Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) learns that her medical test was wrong, he follows her to Europe to deliver the good news. This movie is funny, heartfelt, and relatable to anyone who has ever felt reluctant to follow their dreams.

Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

On the fourth day of Christmas … “Kevin!”

two robbers leer at Kevin McCallister as he reads a map
(20th Century Studios)

You’ve got time for a double feature tonight, right? Of course you do!

The first Home Alone introduced us to 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), a kid so bratty he gets banished to an attic room the night before his entire extended family is set to fly to Paris. In the confusion of the next morning, Kevin is left behind at home by himself. As his parents scramble to get back to the States, Kevin lives it up, until a pair of criminals called the Sticky Bandits (Jose Pesci and Daniel Stern) attempt to break into the McCallister mansion. Using surprising resourcefulness and smart, Kevin defends the family home.

The second movie is basically the same theme, except instead of being home alone, Kevin accidentally gets on the wrong plane and winds up alone in New York City. As usual, the precocious kid wheedles his way into the Plaza Hotel and starts racking up serious room service charges on his dad’s credit card. But then, uh oh! The Sticky Bandits are back, and Kevin once must again thwart them with his homemade weapon ingenuity.

The Polar Express (2004)

On the fifth day of Christmas … “Well, are ya’ coming?”

The conductor ushers a young boy onto a waiting train in The Polar Express
(Warner Bros.)

To be perfectly honest, I was one of the many, many people who thought this animated version of a classic children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg was rather creepy when it first came out. It has grown on me over the years, and not just because my oldest son went through a phase when he watched this movie every day, all year round. Somewhere around my 57th viewing, the movie lost its weirdness and became a legitimate favorite in our household.

Director Robert Zemeckis is a master of emotional movies, especially those that star Tom Hanks (Cast Away and Forrest Gump). In The Polar Express, Hanks plays all of the male adults, from the young boy’s unseen father to the conductor and the big man (Santa) himself. The story follows a boy who doubts the existence of all things North Pole, especially “Mr. C,” until a magical journey on a train on Christmas Eve changes his mind.

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

On the sixth day of Christmas … this Santa rocks!

Santa flies his sleigh with two kids in the back and presents flying out

The Pierce family has been struggling since their firefighter dad (Oliver Hudson) died heroically while saving others a year ago. This Christmas, oldest son Teddy (Judah Lewis) has no spirit at all and has gotten involved in petty crime. When mom Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) gets called into work on Christmas Eve, youngest daughter Kate (Darby Camp) sets a camera up and catches Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) in the act. She then blackmails her brother into helping her follow Santa, leading to a madcap adventure that spans the globe.

There are many fun parts of this new family classic, but I don’t think you can top Santa leading a group of inmates in a rocking version of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” Among those inmates is Steven Van Zandt and his band, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, whom you might remember for playing Silvio on The Sopranos and backing up The Boss in the E Street Band.

Scrooged (1988)

On the seventh day of Christmas … “sometimes the truth is painful.”

Bill Murray holds a child as the boy's mom looks on in Scrooged
(Paramount Pictures)

After the last sweet, modern movie, let’s head back into the Land Before Cell Phones, otherwise known as the ’80s. In this version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a Scrooge-like figure who is so focused on his job as a television executive that he has forsaken all of his friends, families, and even his girlfriend (Karen Allen).

Supporting cast members include Bobcat Goldthwait as a Bob Crachit type, Carol Kane as a pugnacious Ghost of Christmas Present, and Alfre Woodard as Frank’s beleaguered assistant. You may know the story, but you’ve never seen it done like this before!

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

On the eighth day of Christmas … another take on an old classic.

Michael Caine and the Muppets gathered around a turkey dinner
(Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Here’s another version of the Dickens classic tale, this time played by the beloved Muppets we know and love from our childhoods. Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge, while Muppet performers portray most of the rest of the cast. This movie stays true to the original plot, but the inclusion of characters like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, plus cameos by the Swedish Chef, Statler and Waldorf, Sam the Eagle, result in far more smiles than any other version of A Christmas Carol.

Side note: the 2009 animated version with Jim Carrey is also excellent, but I’ve found it to be too scary for young kids.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

On the ninth day of Christmas … he’s a mean one.

Jim Carrey as The Grinch reading the Whoville
(Universal Pictures)

This is the first book by Dr. Seuss to ever be made into a full-length feature film, although most of us remember the story well from the 1966 television special. Ron Howard directed the movie, which features Carrey as the titular grump and Taylor Momsen as Cindy Lu Who.

Anthony Hopkins narrates the tale, which sticks to the beloved storyline closely and brings Whoville to fully technicolor life. The adorable Christine Baranski, Molly Shannon, Jeffrey Tambor, and Bill Irwin round out an exceptional cast.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

On the 10th day of Christmas … warm fuzzies, please.

The Peanuts gang gathers around Charlie Brown and a Christmas tree

Okay, you got me. This is not a feature-length film, but it’s such an integral part of the holiday season, I just couldn’t resist adding it. Also, it’s short, so you might have time to watch a few other short television specials. Might I suggest following Charlie Brown with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, or Frosty the Snowman? Just an idea.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first TV special that was ever made based on Charles M. Schulz’s popular Peanuts comic strip. In it, Charlie (voiced by Peter Robbins) has zero Christmas spirit, and having his gang of friends picking on him doesn’t help. He chooses a pathetic little fir as a Christmas tree, but it flops when he tries to decorate it, making him even sadder. When his friends realize they’ve been mean to him, they show support to their friend and they all sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” while catching snowflakes on their tongues and dancing. How could anyone not love it?

Black Nativity (2013)

On the 11th day of Christmas … make a joyful noise.

a family of four sings holiday song together in Black Nativity
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Black Nativity is a musical drama based on a 1961 play written by Langston Hughes. The main character is a teenager named Langston (Jacob Latimore), who has taken the wrong path while being raised by a single mom (Jennifer Hudson) with no money. After he’s sent to live with his grandparents Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett), he learns what it really means to be a part of a loving, caring family. There are many nods to the Biblical story here, and the plot relies heavily on faith, yet the real message is about forgiveness.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

On the 12th day of Christmas …

black and white still of Santa speaking with a mother and daughter
(20th Century-Fox)

It’s amazing when a movie made so long ago can resonate to this day, but this classic delivers. The story involves Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), an executive at Macy’s in New York City who hires a new department store Santa who calls himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn). The thing is, Kris really believes he is Santa, and after seeing him perform a bunch of minor miracles in person, Doris’ young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) starts to believe him. Lots of other kids (and adults) do too, which leads to a media circus that goes all the way to a court of law.

When the men in the white coats with the butterfly nets show up, Kris seems about to be permanently committed to a mental health facility. All it takes is a little faith (and a lot of letters from children rerouted from the North Pole) to free Kris and set the world right again.

Note: this movie is in black and white. If you or your family simply can’t stand it, you can always watch the decent remake from 1994, which is in color.

A Christmas Story

Finally, on Christmas Day … “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

boy and his friends wearing winter hats and jackets looking shocked
(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)

Technically this is #13, but come on! Every year, TBS plays A Christmas Story on repeat for a full 24-hours. Join Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) on his quest to score the ultimate gift on Christmas morning, and “be sure to drink your Ovaltine!”

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, happy viewing.

(featured image: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

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Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.