As the streaming wars heat up between Netflix, Disney Plus, and other on-demand services, getting the rights to popular holiday films is a highly contested battlefront. Unfortunately, it makes finding the best classic Christmas movies and TV specials almost as difficult as Santa’s task of visiting every home on Christmas Eve. But if ‘ol Kris Kringle can do it, we can steel our remotes and venture into the great unknown.
Of course, few can afford to subscribe to all these multiplying streaming platforms. Luckily, most have a free trial period and a few are even free, ad-supported services. It takes some planning to sign up and ensure the streamer works with your TV, and to remember to cancel a service before the trial ends. As movie licensing changes frequently, this list of where to find these titles only applies to the current year.
Unfortunately, most of the beloved Rankin-Bass stop-motion specials are still being licensed only for TV broadcast and not streaming. With other holiday favorites carved up among various streamers like a Christmas turkey, it presents challenges.
Still, rediscovering stories of the season with loved ones may be worth the trouble. Between what’s available via free trials, in combination with the access to the streaming services you may already have, here are 25 Christmas classics sure to make sure your December is merry and bright.
This article is updated for 2021 from the 2020 version. Enjoy!
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon offers a free 30-day trial of its Prime Video streaming service.
1. “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946, 132 min.)
After George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has grown weary of doing good, an angel named Clarence reveals an alternate reality showing the effects his life choices have had on family and friends.
2. “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (1977, 48 min.)
One of Jim Henson’s personal favorite holiday specials, this charming musical story celebrates the season with a message of honoring one’s heritage.
3. “The Andy Griffith Show: The Christmas Story” (1960, 26 min.)
When a few miscreants have to be detained on Christmas Eve, Andy and Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) bring friends together for a Christmas party at the Sheriff’s Office in this first-season highlight.
4. “The Ultimate Gift” (2007, 118 min.)
Starring James Garner and Bill Cobbs, this faith-driven story asks big questions about finding purpose in life beyond acquiring material things.
5. “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947, 109 min.)
When a clergyman (David Niven) prays in desperation, an unconventional angel (Cary Grant) shows up in this romantic comedy co-starring Loretta Young.
6. “Midnight Clear” (2007, 102 min.)
A decade prior to “The Chosen,” director Dallas Jenkins presented this gritty ensemble drama. Characters struggling with alcoholism, desperation, and even suicide during the loneliest time of the year find hope in unexpected places.
While Disney’s family-focused streamer no longer offers a trial, it runs $8 per month.
7. “Home Alone” (1990, 103 min.)
Accidentally separated from his family, bratty Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) faces off against two inept crooks in this Christmas comedy from director Chris Columbus and writer/producer John Hughes.
8. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992, 89 min.)
Featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge and heartfelt songs by the great Paul Williams, many regard this musical as the best on-screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel.
9. “The Small One” (1978, 26 min.)
Imagining events adjacent to the Gospels’ Nativity accounts, “The Small One” tells of a peasant boy in first-century Judea who gives up his beloved donkey to a carpenter and his pregnant wife.
10. “The Santa Clause” (1994, 97 min.)
When Tim Allen (“Home Improvement”) inadvertently makes Santa fall off of his roof on Christmas Eve, he finds himself magically recruited to take his place.
This mega-streamer has a $9.99/month version that features some ads.
11. “8-Bit Christmas” (2021, 97 min.)
With a premise akin to “A Christmas Story” as its starting point, this family comedy surpasses that original flick with lots of laughs and poignant messages about fatherhood and growing up.
12. “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947, 101 min.)
The Macy’s parade, a doubting little girl, and a kind old man convinced he’s Kris Kringle. This clever dramedy from the Golden Age of Hollywood features Maureen O’Hara and an all-star cast. This year, HBO Max also has the 1994 version.
13. “Elf” (2003, 97 min.)
Envisioned as an homage to Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, this outrageous Will Ferrell comedy became so much more with its constant laughs, spectacular visuals, and bighearted themes.
14. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989, 97 min.)
Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and his family make plans for a big Christmas together, which predictably turns into a big disaster.
15. “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” (1978, 60 min.)
Back in its first decade, when “Sesame Street” emphasized parent-child bonding as the key to learning, memorable songs and big-eyed Muppet characters bring to life a story of giving and wonder.
While Netflix no longer offers a trial, its lowest-tier service will set you back $9 per month.
16. “White Christmas” (1954, 120 min.)
Full of humor and spectacle, this Irving Berlin musical has delighted generations of movie lovers thanks to the on-screen chemistry of stars Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera Ellen.
17. “Klaus” (2019, 96 min.)
The postal academy’s worst-ever student Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) gets sent to a frozen island to handle their mail. Only local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) and mysterious carpenter Klaus (J.K. Simmons) can help Jesper complete his mission.
18. “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” (2020, 122 min.)
An imaginary world comes to life in a holiday tale of an eccentric toymaker (Forest Whitaker), his adventurous granddaughter, and their magical invention. In crafting this sensational musical, director David E. Talbert has said he drew inspiration from the biblical story of Job.
19. “The Christmas Chronicles” (2018, 104 min.)
Borrowing several plot elements from 1987’s “Adventures in Babysitting,” this clever update stars Kurt Russell as a saxophone-playing Santa who makes believers out of two kids following a Christmas Eve sleigh ride.
The Chosen App
“The Chosen” series is available free via mobile apps.
20. “Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers” (2021, 105 min.)
Following rave reviews and earning $13.4 million at the U.S. box office, “The Chosen” Christmas special — dramatizing scenes from the Nativity Story — has now been made available free worldwide alongside seasons one and two, which loosely adapt the biblical gospels.
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21. “Little Women” (1994, 118 min.)
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 coming-of-age novel, this widely acclaimed adaptation features Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, and Christian Bale.
22. “The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Alan Brady Show Presents” (1963, 26 min.)
When his TV host boss abruptly leaves a hole in prime time, writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), his reluctant team, and wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) pull off a variety show full of quick-witted jokes and impressive dance numbers in this third-season episode.
23. “Clarence” (1990, 87 min.)
A sequel produced 44 years after “It’s A Wonderful Life,” this TV film finds the angel Clarence (Robert Carradine) on a new mission to help a hurting family.
Apple TV Plus
Apple currently offers a seven-day trial of its streaming service.
24. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965, 25 min.)
Infused with jazz standards from the Vince Guaraldi Trio, this timeless special follows melancholy Charlie Brown and his friend Linus as they discover what Christmas truly means.
25. “Fraggle Rock: The Bells of Fraggle Rock” (1984, 30 min.)
When holiday traditions and songs seem pointless, a curious character sets out on a musical journey to find answers. Along with this third-season Christmas special, all five seasons of the award-winning children’s show are available on Apple’s streamer.