About eight years ago, when I was midway through college, my parents moved away from the town I grew up, roughly four hours west and south of the Alabama suburb where I had spent practically every Christmas of my life to Jackson, Mississippi. There were all the attendant adjustments to a new place: Not knowing where the light switches are, trying to figure out if there’s a decent bookstore or bar or coffee spot in town, gradually learning what localisms meant (here, a “happy” is a present and the rallying football call is “Hotty Toddy.”) But because I was only back for holidays and the occasional long weekend at that point, those things were less pressing than the very crucial question: What to do on Christmas Eve?
Before, we had gone to a close family friend’s house for a big Southern to-do, one full of ham and biscuits and over-powdered ladies in spangled sweaters telling me and my brothers, “I hope Santa’s good to y’all.” In Jackson, we had to figure out new traditions. This is not so unusual, of course. People do that all the time, grow up and figure out their own, new holiday rituals with new people and new places. But I was just barely exiting the cocoon of late adolescence, and those kind of real world adjustments were foreign and overwhelming to me. It’s amazing how you imagine that things will continue as they always have in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
I don’t remember who it was, exactly, who hit upon watching Die Hard on Christmas Eve. I have two younger brothers, and often trying to find the median point in our cultural tastes leads us to action movies. (Television series are usually a disaster. One time we watched a good chunk of Burn Notice.) My father, too, has a soft spot for movies with exploding cars and villainous henchmen speaking terrible German, a predilection that I happen to share. We were all at that weird in between stage of Christmas: Too old to be earnestly excited by Santa and present lust, but still young enough to all be gathered at my parents house together. Die Hard just seemed like a good and funny choice. There’s something appealing about the idea of a Christmas movie that is a little bit oblique, festive but not overburdened with sentiment. And so that first Christmas Eve in Jackson, we all settled in with a plate of Christmas cookies to watch Bruce Willis defend the good office workers of Nakatomi Plaza.
Since then, it’s become our own annual ritual. Tonight, after dinner, we’ll sit down on the couch and turn on the movie. My Dad will point out how ridiculously cheap gas prices were and how Bruce Willis is allowed to both smoke and carry a gun on a commercial airline. (Hi, 1988!) My little brother, now in the tech industry, will scoff at the computer scenes. My mother will make a movement halfway through that we switch to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Because I am that member of the family, I will trot out the old IMDB facts that Willis was actually the sixth choice for this role (they originally wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger) and that the Hungarian title of the movie translates to “Give your life expensive.” At a key point, we will all yell together, “Now I Have a Machine Gun, Ho-Ho-Ho.”
It’s not just thanks to the technicality of it being set on Christmas Eve that Die Hard is a good holiday film, nor is it about the crucial inclusion of Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” though both those things help. It’s about Willis killing a lot of morally bankrupt robbers, sure, but it’s also about the unfulfilled expectations of this time of year, and grappling with the way that your own holidays are never quite the picture perfect Hallmark card version you imagine. But even knowing that going in, it’s important to participate. At the beginning of Die Hard, Willis goes to see his estranged wife and kids in Los Angeles, annoyed by himself and unable to understand his wife’s choice to move across the country for her career. Their marriage is on the outs; they’re trying to figure out something. By the end of the movie, they’re riding back to see their children in a battered limo, sleepless and bloodied, just happy to be together and in one piece. There’s nothing like physical calamity to put emotional crisis or just plain inter-personal awkwardness in perspective. The more times that I watch Die Hard, the more I realize that it has the same schmaltzy message of any Christmas-time film: Family, in whatever form you have it, is important. Complicated, weird, and sometimes frustrating, but important. (And never, ever take off your shoes in an office setting.)
Merry Die Hard to you and yours, pals.