The world is full of intractable problems and hotly contested ideas. Climate change, COVID-19, the nature of capitalism. Whether Elon Musk should replace himself as the leader of Twitter. And then there is the question of whether the 1988 action thriller Die Hard is a Christmas movie. A debate that is only slightly more resolvable than whether The Dress is white and gold or black and blue, the Die Hard discourse can be traced back to a 2007 Slate article by Michael Agger, who when informed by The Atlantic's Kaitlin Tiffany in 2021 of the cultural babadook he had unleashed with his throwaway post said, "I'm the guy who threw a cigarette out the window and accidentally burned down the forest!"
Christmas elements make it a Christmas movie
The most straightforward case for Die Hard as a Christmas movie is that it takes place on Christmas Eve, which seems like a deliberate choice. Screenwriters can set a movie whenever they want! Bruce Willis plays John McLane, a Big Apple cop who flies from New York to Los Angeles to attend his estranged wife Holly's (Bonnie Bedelia) fancy office holiday party in a downtown skyscraper. It's there that a rogue group of international terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) takes the partygoers hostage shortly after McLane arrives. McClane, of course, spends most of the next 132 minutes in a tank top, takes matters into his own hands, and (spoiler alert!) ultimately foils the plot after two hours of quip-flecked action that defies various laws of physics in ways that we have come to accept as a movie-watching society.
Christmas is brought up a number of times in the film. This very thorough data analysis by Stephen Follows shows that the word Christmas itself is uttered 18 times over the course of the film, more than the words "die" or "hard," among others. McLane's urge to reconcile with Holly is rather clearly motivated by the holiday, and he and his limo driver listen to Run D.M.C.'s "Christmas in Hollis" on the way from the airport to the soon-to-be-besieged Nakatomi Tower. The first ludicrously weird terrorist that Willis kills is sent back down to his paymasters in an elevator wearing a Santa hat and a sweatshirt that reads "I have a machine gun now. Ho ho ho." Willis himself at one point dons a Santa hat, and the soundtrack features four Christmas songs. Apparently, more than a million people watched Die Hard on Christmas Eve in 2016.
It's not Christmas without warm fuzzy feelings
Christmas movies, it is safe to say, are not generally released in July. But that's when the now-iconic thriller splashed movie screens across the country, on July 15th. Nothing about the plot would be remotely different if the film had been set during the Nakatomi Corporation's Halloween party instead. No one involved in the making of the film has ever said that they intended it to be a Christmas film, and polling (yes, this has become a big enough thing that reputable national polling firms have weighed in) suggests that the film lacks a public opinion majority behind the premise that it is an interchangeable choice with, say, A Christmas Story for holiday viewing. It is also not a film to be watched with small children, unless you want to do grievous and irreparable harm to their psyches.
The terrorist plot to steal $640 million in untraceable bonds from the Nakatomi Tower's basement has nothing to do with Christmas. No one on the mostly taciturn heist crew full of hilarious-accented bad marksmen and bad decision-makers feel the holiday spirit, nor do they appear to have any resentment toward Gruber, their leader, for making them work on Christmas Eve. The law enforcement officers called to the scene also never complain about having their family time interrupted by homicidal thieves. Most damningly, we don't even get to see McClane reunited with his kids at the end of the movie in some kind of It's a Wonderful Life tear-jerking scene. Die Hard, in fact, completely lacks the ability to elicit tears even from the most sensitive of viewers.
What is a Christmas movie for, after all, if not to make us wistful and wet-cheeked?
The Christmas question is beside the point
After watching all 2+ hours of Die Hard for the first time in 30 years in pursuit of a serious answer to this serious question, one thing emerged clear: the question of whether it is a Christmas movie is the least interesting thing about it. This flick has it all — McClane coming to appreciate his wife's career and her need to pursue it, an early critique of the militarization of metropolitan police departments (at one point the cops send an armored personnel carrier to storm the building and it gets blown up by missiles that the terrorists have smuggled in), journalists with Enemy of the People vibes, cocaine.
There's the wonderfully bizarre scene where the passenger next to McClane on the flight tells him that the way to survive air travel is to take off your socks and ball up your toes on the carpet of your final destination. There are more Chekhov's guns strewn throughout the movie than there are in the collected works of Anton Chekhov. Hart Brochner's portrayal of Holly's massive sleazeball colleague Ellis is the stuff of pure legend, like he's acting in a totally different movie than everyone else around him. And Willis' virtuoso performance as John McClane deserves to be appreciated as the pinnacle of plot-hole-ridden action schlock that it is.
In other words, Die Hard is as incredible as the day it was released. If you want it to be a Christmas movie, that's ultimately between you and your preferred holiday deity.