ScoreKeeper’s Eight Favorite Christmas Film Scores

He's feeling the holiday spirit.

I love the holiday season for a variety of reasons. One of them is it allows me the opportunity to dust off a handful of cherished Christmas scores that have been waiting patiently for my ears’ attention. I only listen to these scores a few weeks out of the year so they really help establish the spirit of the season.

I thought I’d compile a quick list of my favorite Christmas film scores. This isn’t necessarily a “best of” list where I try to evaluate and rank all the holiday scores that have ever been written. It’s simply a collection of titles that I listen to extensively this time of year. From my iPhone to yours (or whatever you listen to music on), here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Polar Express (2004) by Alan Silvestri
This is absolutely my favorite and most listened to Christmas score during the holiday season. I’m not even the biggest fan of the movie; however, what Silvestri manages to evoke through his music is simply magical. Backed by a huge orchestra and full choir, Silvestri’s original themes laced with pithy quotes of famous carols are not just infectious, they’re outright addictive. While some scores tend to shy away from sentiment, this score goes for the emotional jugular with reckless abandon. It’s unapologetically brimming with joyous wonder and an epic sense of adventure. Christmas shouldn’t be subtle and neither should its film music.

A Christmas Story (1983) by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer
When this film was first released in 1983 it was an epic failure. Now it’s bonafide classic! I watch this film at least two or three times every year. It’s a staple in my family and so is the music. This is one of those scores that can vividly recreate the images of the film in your mind so perfectly you swear you were watching it. The music is infused with oodles of great holiday classics evoking a strong sense of nostalgia no matter which decade you grew up. I’d rather not get presents than go through an entire holiday season without seeing this film or listening to its prized score.

Elf (2003) by John Debney
Such happiness! Whether it comes from family, friends, cinema, or film music, everybody needs a smile at Christmastime. Infused with ubiquitous jingle bells, syrupy-sweet orchestral phrases, whistling melodies, and charming “bum-bum-bum” vocalizations, Debney’s music evokes Will Ferrell’s Buddy to perfection. It falls just shy of parody making this heart-warming charmer a generational classic. I love this score!

Home Alone (1990) by John Williams
Whether or not you enjoy this film, it’s difficult to ignore the tugging of your heart and swelling of your eyes when Williams’ tender strains of “Somewhere In My Memory” chimes in throughout the picture. There is probably no better example of how music can elevate the cinematic experience. The film by itself isn’t anything spectacular, but with Williams’ music painting the emotions and mickeymousing the action, it becomes an experience rarely equaled in cinema.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) by Danny Elfman
This particular score delivers a walloping dual-holiday punch in the face that can last for several months. Is it a Halloween score? Is it a Christmas score? The beauty of Elfman’s music is that it fuses characteristics of both into a best-of-both-worlds super-holiday. Anytime the darkened hues of Elfman’s music infiltrates the typically jolly Christmas holiday, something amazing happens. Like Jack Skellington, our heads spin off our shoulders as we goggle wildly asking ourselves, “What’s this?”

Die Hard (1988) by Michael Kamen
The beauty of this music is that it’s arguably the greatest Christmas action film score ever written, yet you can listen to it all year long and not get weird looks for being the one who starts Christmas “too soon” (no, those weird looks are simply because you listen to film music). Die Hard is a unique score not only because of its Christmas-infused colorations but also because of its reliance upon melody as a vehicle for propelling the action. Even the incorporation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme from the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony takes on a peculiar Christmas vibe making it perfectly suited for the holiday season.

Miracle on 34th Street by Bruce Broughton
Sweet. Magical. Nostalgic. These are three words which wholly describe the magnificence of this score. Expressed through the perspective of a child, Broughton marries the most ubiquitous characteristics of Christmas into a single glorious score. What impresses me most is that Broughton accomplishes this using original themes without much reliance upon the proliferation of traditional carols. Broughton borrows compositional attributes from many well-known carols and incorporates them into his own thematic development making his music strikingly familiar without directly quoting familiar songs.

Scrooged (1988) by Danny Elfman
See? When you merge the darkened hues of Elfman’s music with the jollity of Christmas, amazing things happen. To listen to Elfman during his early years of scoring movies conjuring up renditions of “Jingle Bells,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” among others is utterly delightful! Christmas needs a little darkness to make the lights shine brighter. Elfman is perfect for this role.