If you need an alternative to “Jingle Bells” for your seasonal playlist this year, the following Christmas movie themes will more than suffice.
Pushing beyond vocal soundtracks the movies on this list are notable for their incredible orchestral themes and underscoring, though some do have quality soundtracks (double win) and also happen to be great movies. Really, this is an all-round great list for your festive entertainment needs.
- Home Alone (1990) – John Williams
There’s no particular order here but it wouldn’t be right unless “Home Alone” had the top spot. Remember the old days when kid’s movies had live actors? Just one of the many reasons this movie is an eternal classic. Another is John Williams. No one writes a melody quite like him and you’ll be humming “Somewhere in My Memory” for days. The overture opens with a foreshadowing of Williams’s “Harry Potter” in playful jingle bells and creepy Christmas-mystery chromaticism, and then expands magically into that simple but perfect melody, the quintessence of Christmas movie magic. Add a children’s choir and melt-in-your-mouth strings and the effect is complete. Home Alone 2 revisits the same melodic material, and some claim it’s even better than the original.
- Love Actually (2003) – Craig Armstrong
The first and best (and most English) of ensemble movies, “Love Actually” is a proven hit. Managing to be equal parts festive, funny and romantic the movie gets away with the cheese by being just the right amount of self-deprecating and then nailing the emotional climaxes. Bill Nighy’s “Christmas is All Around You” is a highlight, but the true magic happens in the scoring. You’ll never forget the revelatory moment when Juliet watches Mark’s video to that simple, heartbreaking piano motif. The Portuguese Love Theme is another gem, delicate yet triumphant, but the penultimate scene with Sam running through the airport toward his New York love would be nothing without Armstrong’s immaculate scoring. He wields strings, French horns and timpani in a grand, festive crescendo and if you aren’t struck with goosebumps for those few minutes than there’s something wrong with you.
- The Holiday (2006) – Hans Zimmer
A more predictable festive romance, “The Holiday” is still a well-produced story with some surprisingly fun details, the best of which is Eli Wallach. Hans Zimmer wisely opts for a lightly textured score, steering away from grandiose orchestral romanticism that could have cheapened the fairy-floss story. Where Williams is master of the melody, Zimmer specializes in layered motifs, making clever use of piano, electric guitar and drum kit alongside strings and minimal woodwind. The oscillating string movement of the central theme is stirringly uplifting while also cleverly evoking the wildness and mystery of the Santa Ana winds. Zimmer also does a great job of blending with Frou Frou’s spacious soundtrack items. The emotional climax of the story, the Cry, is an appropriately triumphant moment without pushing too far into cheese territory.
- The Polar Express (2004) – Alan Silvestri
Criticised by some for being too dark and ghostly (have people not seen A Christmas Carol?) “The Polar Express” is a quirky magical journey and a welcome alternative to the bubbly children’s comedies usual of the genre. Alan Silvestri is no stranger to Christmas movies and his bouncy music-hall tunes and expansive orchestral landscaping mark one of the highlights of his composing credits. Try not to focus on the nasal twangs of Tom Hanks half-singing the title song, and listen instead to the musical genius beneath. The opening refrain of the main theme is epic, mysterious and appropriately skin-tingling, complete with wordless choir and wind-chime glissandos. Silvestri contrasts the grand orchestral moments with sections of shimmering strings and panpipe, evoking the glistening moonlit landscape. The songs are also clever, fun and catchy, especially “Hot Chocolate” and “Polar Express”.
- Miracle on 34th St (1994) – Bruce Broughton
Even with credits like “Silverado” and “Tombstone” to his name, Bruce Broughton is strangely no longer a household name in movie composition. Though he continues to write for the screen to this day, “Miracle on 34th St” marks one of his last well-known scores. Opening with the famous Christmas-bell herald that forms the musical leitmotif of the movie, Broughton segues seamlessly into the Miracle theme demonstrating a deft hand at the powerful evocation of Christmas joy (he also composed for “All I Want for Christmas” in 1991). He creates a delicate atmosphere with light strings, brass, and, of course, Christmas bells. You may notice the ‘evil’ theme sounds strangely similar to parts of “The Lion King”, composed by Hans Zimmer in the same year. The truly amazing moment, however, comes with his use of a cappella children’s choir, building a powerful, sacred moment from a wordless medieval melody.
NOTE: Though the movie is enjoyable, and stars David Attenborough, do yourself a favour and unearth the 1947 version instead.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Danny Elfman
Tim Burton and Danny Elfman go way back, a unique artistic partnership that has given us such flawlessly deranged movies as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Corpse Bride”. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is no exception, and it’s dark silliness forms a fun counterpoint to the whimsical romantic comedies on offer. The Overture demonstrates the artistic variety of Elfman’s scoring, opening with a Star Wars-esque expansiveness which soon breaks into a zany galloping dance and then into melodic hints of the great songs to come, “This Is Halloween” and “Jack’s Lament”. With bells and other metallic percussion used liberally throughout, contrasted frequently with heavy lower brass and woodwind, Elfman masterfully blends chromatic eeriness, dreamlike delicacy, and heavy black drama into an active score. Listen attentively and you’ll soon realize that the music is as vital to the story as the brilliant animation, never once letting up for the entire movie.
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – James Horner
A fitting contrast to Elfman’s lively, detailed scoring, James Horner specializes more in full orchestral sweeps and unobtrusively fluid themes. Famous for his work on “Titanic”, “Avatar” and “Braveheart”, it’s clear that subtle grandeur most defines his style. Employing full, slow-moving string layers with delicate woodwind and piano solos (you’ll notice how much he loves the oboe), and the requisite Christmas bells, he creates a suitably glistening carpet of sound to mirror the snowy beauty of Whoville. It’s rather clear his talent doesn’t lie in comic songs (eg, “Happy Who-lidays”) so fortunately most of The Grinch is orchestral and Horner more than makes up for it in moments like Memories of a Green Christmas.
- A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Vince Guaraldi Trio
The sophisticated comic awareness of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schultz is perfectly depicted in the musical choice for this animated Snoopy short. The link between childhood innocence and timeless wisdom is brought to life in laid-back jazz meanderings from the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Improvising on some well-known Christmas favourites, such as “Christmas Time is Here” and “O Tannenbaum”, the Trio also add brilliance to the simple beauty of character scenes like Ice Skating. The full soundtrack makes for excellent Christmas cocktail-party music, and would be equally useful for a romantic eggnog-by-the-fire evening.
- Joyeux Noel (2005) – Phillippe Rombi
The power of a single voice was the inspiration behind “Joyeux Noel”, and it fittingly forms the genesis of the most powerful Christmas movie moment ever. Though not a festive song, the simple, rustic melody of “I’m Dreaming of Home” evolves powerfully from a wordless hum into a fully orchestrated work under the brilliant hand of Phillippe Rombi, with echoes of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”. A truly exceptional musical experience on its own, the movie itself is another level altogether. The titular scene, complete with bagpipes, a Scottish men’s chorus and an a cappella rendition of “Stille Nacht”, will have you in goosebumps from the outset if not in a complete teary mess. If you’ve lost some Christmas spirit over the years, this movie should be the first on your list.
- L.A. Confidential (1997) – Jerry Goldsmith
It’s not the most Christmassy narrative on the list but it’s a perfect antidote to glimmering holiday cheer if it all becomes a little to much. The soundtrack itself is brilliant, with upbeat jazz-age standards mixed among festive favourites, but the movie gets its lone-wolf noir atmosphere from the haunting solo trumpet brilliantly woven through the score by Goldsmith. He also plays a clever hand blending grand orchestral sweeps with edgy jazz drum fills. Understated but extremely clever, Goldsmith’s score plays a huge role in the movie’s success as one of the most highly rated films of all time. Ok, yeah, and Kevin Spacey might also have something to do with that.
- The Snowman (1982) – Howard Blake
Definitely worth a watch for its full-length orchestrated score that brings the innocent animation to life, but most notable for it’s ethereal child solo: Walking in the Air.
- A Christmas Carol (2009) – Alan Silvestri
Silvestri blends echoes of every famous carol into a surprisingly original score. Perfect for clever instrumental reinventions of your favourite carols.
- Holiday Inn (1942) – Irving Berlin
This one is more famous for the songs but that’s only because almost all of them have since become Christmas standards, particularly “White Christmas”, made famous by Bing Crosby in “Holiday Inn” long before the movie of the same title was made ten years later. Berlin is also responsible for bringing us “Happy Holiday”. If that’s not enough, just watch it for Fred Astaire and Bing himself. Swoon.
If you need some more Art music ways to enjoy Christmas, find a live performance of “The Messiah” or “The Nutcracker” that you can witness in the flesh. You won’t regret it. If none are accessible in your local area, try these exceptional versions on YouTube:
- The Nutcracker ballet (Tchaikovsky) performed by the Mariinsky Theatre or the New York City Ballet.
- The Messiah oratorio (Handel) performed by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, or settle for highlights from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.