The big question facing America: Is Die Hard a Christmas film? A Debate

SPOILER ALERT! (for the five people who haven’t already seen it)

There is often lively disagreement at the Center’s offices. Among the staff you can find different opinions on a range of issues, trade and tariffs being one example. But all of these policy discussions pale beside the question of whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas film.


Yes, is the simple answer. This doesn’t rest on the fact that film opens with Run DMC singing Christmas in Hollis and ends with Vaughn Monroe singing Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!. It doesn’t rely on the fact that McClane puts a Santa hat on a dead terrorist and writes on his chest “Now I have a machine gun, Ho-Ho-Ho”. It has nothing to do with Hans Gruber telling a despairing comrade “Its Christmas, Theo, its the time of miracles”.

It rests on the fact that Christmas is integral to the plot. McClane is in Los Angeles, at Nakatomi Plaza, because it is Christmas. He is there to visit his wife and family. If Hans Gruber had launched his operation on any of the 365 other days of 1988 (it was a leap year), McClane would not have been there, his plan would have worked, and he’d be “sitting on a beach, earning 20%”.

As an economist, I’m used to dividing questions into positive (with objective answers) and normative (with subjective answers). This is a positive question. Objectively, Die Hard is a Christmas film.

Did you know…

The first actor offered the role of John McClane was Frank Sinatra. Die Hard is based on a 1979 book titled Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe. This was a follow up to Thorpe’s 1966 novel The Detective, which had been filmed under the same name in 1968 starring Old Blue Eyes as Detective Joe Leland, the main character in Nothing Lasts Forever. When a film based on a Joe Leland book went into production, the filmmakers were contractually obliged to offer Sinatra – then aged 70 – the lead role.


I rented Die Hard yesterday and watched it for the first time. It was an entertaining film, but it is clearly NOT a Christmas movie!

Coincidentally, the action in the film takes place at Christmas time. So what? Its themes couldn’t be farther removed from the meaning of Christmas. Sure, you hear a Christmas song or two, and see a Christmas tree (before it is incinerated). And John McClane and his wife are attending a Christmas party at her company’s building when the thieves strike. And why is McClane in Los Angeles at all? He is visiting his estranged wife and two children over the Christmas holiday.

Some observers, like John Phelan, think this makes a powerful case for Die Hard being a Christmas movie. But the film would be no different if McClane had been visiting his wife and children on New Year’s Eve, and Holly McClane’s company had been holding a New Year’s Eve party. The sound track could have featured Auld Lang Syne.. What difference would that change make? None at all. Or it could have been Holly’s birthday, and that could have been the occasion for John McClane’s visit. Would the movie be affected at all by that framing? No!

To be a Christmas movie, a film’s themes, plot and characters need to have something to do with the unique features of the Christmas holiday. Thus, Miracle on 34th Street, to name just one example, is indisputably a Christmas movie. But a film that features exploding helicopters, murdered hostages, cliff-hanging encounters between a policeman and terrorists, and so on, does not become a Christmas movie simply because the film’s violent events happen to occur on Christmas Eve.

Die Hard is a good action flick, if you like that kind of thing. But a Christmas movie it is not!

John Phelan is an economist at Center of the American Experiment. John Hinderaker is President of Center of the American Experiment.