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Dec. 7, 2023

Ask the experts: Why are we drawn to holiday movies?

The holiday season is here, and marathons of favorite festive movies are starting to grace television screens. MSU experts can explain the elements of a great holiday movie, how brands tap into the popularity and nostalgia of these films and why we keep watching them.


Jeff Wray is a professor of film studies and the Timnick Chair in the Humanities in the MSU College of Arts and Letters. He’s also a screenwriter and producer for Jazzy Tam films, an independent film company based in the Midwest dedicated to bringing to life the stories and realities of undocumented black lives. He can discuss the elements of a classic holiday film and how they’ve evolved in terms of representation.


“A great holiday movie is one that taps into the holiday spirit. In older movies, there was this standard ‘holiday spirit’ idea: think ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or the animated classics like ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ In more modern movies, they tap into that spirit in new and interesting ways. For example, in ‘Jingle All the Way,’ the main character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, learns about the meaning of Christmas while trying to find an elusive toy for his son.”

“Hallmark Christmas movies get a lot of flak for being predictable, but they’ve really paid attention to diversity of audiences: there are storylines with LGBTQ couples, Black couples, Latinx couples, mixed race couples. They’ve carved out a niche for an audience that wasn’t being served.”

Favorite holiday movies: “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Scrooged”

Zhou Tian is a Grammy-nominated composer who teaches film scoring and composition in the MSU College of Music. He can speak about how memorable scores can enhance the viewing experience of holiday movies.


“Music has the power to evoke and amplify emotions. A well-composed score can intensify the emotional impact of a scene, making it easier for the audience to connect with the characters and their experiences. When it comes to holiday movies, composers often aim to encapsulate nostalgia and warm feelings by incorporating familiar holiday tunes, orchestrations with a festive flair and by evoking a sense of joy, togetherness and tradition.”

“In ‘Home Alone,’ for example, John Williams created a score that is playful, whimsical and brimming with holiday cheer, enhancing the movie’s heartwarming and comedic elements. Even if you listen to the music without the film, you can tell it’s the holiday season by the sound of the sleigh bells and optimistic melodies. In ‘Home Alone,’ the music not only complements the comedic and adventurous tone of the film, but also becomes an integral part of its holiday charm.”

Favorite holiday movie scores: “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “The Preacher’s Wife,” “Home Alone,” “The Polar Express” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

Karen Kangas-Preston, senior academic specialist and instructor of costume design and technology in the MSU Department of Theatre, can discuss the role of costume design in holiday movies. She is currently the costume designer for “A Very Northville Christmas,” a production that spoofs Hallmark Christmas movies, at the Tipping Point Theatre in Northville, Michigan.


“Our connection to holiday movies and the feelings of home and comfort they are meant to evoke is often strategically represented in the costume design. Just as our own clothing choices may show how we are feeling, the costume designer will sway the viewers’ emotions via choices made for the characters on screen.

“The designer will consider not only the character portrayed but also themes and meanings of the movie as a whole. Color and texture used in costume design are subtle indicators that mirror the themes in these movies. Many holiday movies utilize a warm and festive color palette reminiscent of autumn and winter celebrations. Use of soft knits and fuzzy winter wear reinforce feelings of comfort and home and help to draw us into the movies with a desire to feel the same. Many costumes will appear ‘perfect’ — clean, new, crisp and fashionable — to support the themes of the idealized perfection of the holiday season, which can help us to distance ourselves from the realities of preparing for our own celebrations.”

Favorite holiday movie: “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”

Media, advertising and branding

Allison Eden, an associate professor in the MSU Department of Communication, researches the role enjoyment plays in attention to — and selection of — media content and, more broadly, the effects of entertainment on user behavior and well-being. She has conducted research focused specifically on holiday movies.


“People enjoy holiday movies because they provide a break from the business of the season: they’re predictable, comforting and have happy endings. Nostalgia is also a powerful factor: people remember watching certain movies with their family growing up and watch those same movies with their kids and relatives now.

“Interestingly, weather doesn’t seem to have a strong influence on when we decide to watch holiday movies. In Michigan, we might think we turn to holiday movies when it’s cold and snowy outside because they make us feel warm and cozy inside. But if that’s the case, people who live in warmer climates wouldn’t be tuning in to holiday movies at the same time. So, it’s less about the weather and more about the annual tradition people turn to around the holiday season, regardless of how warm or cold it is outside.”

Favorite holiday movies: “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Home Alone” and “The Grinch” (2018)

Ed Timke, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Advertising and Public Relations, is an expert on the history of advertising, branding and media. He can discuss how brands tap in to the nostalgia, emotion and cultural relevance of holiday movies.


“Nostalgia, especially when it comes to holiday movies watched in the past with our loved ones, is a profound emotional attachment that surfaces from revisiting cherished memories and feelings linked to those festive cinematic experiences. Branding and advertising that reference these beloved holiday movies effectively harness our memories, offering glimpses of times past that reconnect us with important people and events in our lives. This connection creates a deeply personal and emotional resonance with a brand.

“Additionally, the nostalgia evoked by holiday movies prompts us to pause and reflect on what brings joy and happiness during the bustling holiday season, serving as a gentle reminder of the value of treasuring moments that, all too often, pass by swiftly. This reflective quality not only amplifies the emotional impact of these films on us, but also bolsters the effectiveness of any related branding efforts.”

Favorite holiday movies: “Gremlins,” “Scrooged,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Elf” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964)

Ayalla Ruvio, an associate professor of marketing in MSU’s Broad College of Business, is a consumer behavior expert. She can discuss the role of marketing in driving holiday movie viewership and brand collaborations.


“Holiday movies play a role in building tradition and making memories. Marketers want to be a part of this: they want their brands — their movies — to be part of consumers’ holiday rituals. The magic is in the strong emotional connection it creates between people and their nostalgic memories. Holiday movies evoke warm and fuzzy feelings and bring back memories that drive consumers to continue to watch on TV, buy tickets to the movie theater, and purchase products associated with the films they love.”

Favorite holiday movie: “The Holiday”

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