Texas’s favorite Christmas movie is, of course, A Christmas Carol, which surely comes as no surprise to you. Jim Carrey’s take on Ebenezer Scrooge recently came first in a study of each state’s favorite Christmas movie conducted by HubScore, which analyzed unspecified “public data” to determine its rankings. Of course, that same public data has also concluded that Texas’s favorite Christmas movie is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, The Grinch, or A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, all of them having claimed the top spot of similar studies, occasionally within the same year.
That Texans appear to have some trouble agreeing on their favorite Christmas movie can be attributed to several factors (not least of which is the general unreliability of holiday trend pieces). I’d say it also speaks to the paucity of broadly popular Christmas movies—a surprisingly slim catalog, judging by how many of the same titles appear over and over again in these kinds of “studies.” But I also wonder if, given Texans’ charming tendencies toward self-absorption, as well as the inordinate pride we often feel toward anything vaguely Texas-shaped, perhaps part of the problem is that Texas doesn’t have a truly great Christmas movie to call its own.
Granted, Texas is not a state that anyone, even Texans, closely associates with Christmas, at least on screen. Although Texas is certainly no slouch when it comes to Christianity, certain areas of the country seem to have a monopoly on Christmas movies, and they probably always will. The Midwest, with its ample snowfalls and air of quiet desperation, lends itself to stories of lovingly dysfunctional families scraping through the holidays. New York, with its silver bells and cold skyscrapers, is the arena where soulless corporate types rediscover their inner children. Texas, for all its mythic pull, has yet to find its Christmas story niche. We’re also just sort of aesthetically lacking when it comes to setting the seasonal mood. As Gene Autry once sang, “We have no jingle bells or sleigh to display on Christmas Day / There’s not much snow down Texas way.”
And yet there are dozens of songs about Christmastime in Texas, with everyone from Bob Wills to George Strait penning their own odes to walking in an unseasonably warm winter wonderland. Is that ironic imagery enough to build a whole movie around? Evidently not, given that the closest we’ve ever come to a truly classic, big-screen Texas Christmas moment is that time Rock Hudson got plastered on eggnog in Giant. We’ve fared little better on television. Dallas didn’t even bother with Christmas, unless you count that time J.R. gifted Sue Ellen with an expensive bottle of perfume that she tried to hurl at his head. King of the Hill had several Christmas episodes over the course of its run, but they also happened to be some of the darkest entries of the series—not the kind of stuff you’d want to revisit year after year. Even Friday Night Lights, the homiest of all our Texas stories, waited until its series finale to celebrate Christmas, and then only in passing. Somehow, Texas’s most Christmassy contribution to pop culture may be that episode of Walker, Texas Ranger in which Chuck Norris delivers a baby inside a Nativity scene.
If you search Google for “Texas Christmas movies,” the most popular result is 2020’s Lonestar Christmas, just one of a long and seemingly self-replicating lineage of made-for-TV holiday movies about uptight career women returning to their small Southern towns and romancing the first guy they meet in jeans. Lonestar Christmas (available to stream on Amazon) is a harmless little trifle, although it earns a few points for regional specificity: its protagonist, a young Austin widow, falls for a cowboy-slash-chef who sells the “best tamale in Texas,” and they embark on a chaste flirtation that takes place across romantic bonfires, an impromptu Texas two-step, and countless exhortations of the phrase “chicken adobo.” One of its minor plot points is the sudden surge of Christmastime demand for tamales, a reflection of a longstanding Texas tradition that somewhat makes up for the film’s otherwise generic, IKEA-display blandness.
Google will also point you toward 2012’s Christmas Twister (available on Amazon, Peacock, and Tubi), a goofy yuletide disaster movie that pits Casper Van Dien’s hunky Hood County meteorologist against a holly-jolly freak storm system that sweeps across Central Texas just in time for the holidays. Several smaller Texas cities that don’t often get the spotlight, including Dublin, Granbury, and Tolar—well, they still don’t, given that Christmas Twister was clearly filmed somewhere around the hilly exurbs of Southern California. Still, Christmas Twister at least demonstrates some fidelity to what December is often like around here, minus the deadly tornadoes, depicting a heat wave that finds most of its cast spending Christmas in denim cutoffs, grilling out by the pool.
And finally, there’s 2013’s Angels Sing, a Hallmark drama based on a novel by Texas’s own Turk Pipkin, and the Texas Christmas film that boasts the most authentic of pedigrees. Set in—and actually filmed around—Austin and Bastrop, it features a cast of Texas actors both adopted, like Friday Night Lights stars Connie Britton and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, and native, like Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett. Angels Sing also stars Willie Nelson as a jolly, saintly character named “Nick,” who magically appears in the life of a grumpy history professor played by Harry Connick Jr., then helps him rediscover the Christmas spirit alongside an extended family played by Austin-area musicians such as Marcia Ball, Charlie Sexton, Kat Edmonson, Bob Schneider, Carolyn Wonderland, Bruce Robison, Sara Hickman, and Dale Watson.
Angels Sing gets the atmosphere right. Here the lights twinkle over brown lawns coated in fake snow, while Lyle Lovett wears a succession of paper-thin and truly demented Christmas sweaters. It does get a tad cartoonish with its Texanness, including a scene where Nelson takes Connick Jr. to his special “place of worship”—the Salt Lick BBQ—and another where Hickman serves her special “fruitcake,” laced with jalapeños, habaneros, and poblanos. It is not a particularly good movie. Not even Britton’s deftly underplayed charms can save a film this sappy and contrived. Still, Angels Sing succeeds as a sort of musical Texas Christmas card, with all that homegrown talent taking turns singing carols that, naturally, include a rendition of Nelson’s own “Pretty Paper.” So far, at least, it seems to be the best Texas Christmas movie we have to offer from a largely undistinguished bounty.
What would a truly great Texas Christmas movie look like? In asking myself this question, I am forced to consider what has defined my own forty-something Christmases here, and what, if anything, made them special. There’s the weather, of course—so many old photos of me and my cousins gathered around the Christmas tree in T-shirts and shorts, unwrapping new sweaters we’d maybe wear for a few weeks in February. In addition to the aforementioned tamales, a mainstay on Christmas Eve, my holidays seem inextricable from pecans, served candied in pralines or in goopy pies. I fondly recall the Christmas I was introduced to hot Dr Pepper, and the Cowboy Santa statue in my grandparents’ den. Mostly I remember hearing songs like “Frosty the Snowman” on the car radio as we drove down bone-dry streets, looking at neighborhood lights and church Nativity scenes blanketed by piles of dead leaves, and knowing that the only white Christmas I’d ever see would come from a can.
Maybe these memories aren’t so unique to Texas, or to any Southern state, really. Still, I can’t help but feel as though there is something intriguing and as yet unexplored in that juxtaposition—a tableau of irony and optimism that lends itself to the particular aura of the Christmas movie, and that I believe is still waiting to be mined by a truly great movie about the peculiarities of the Texas Christmas experience. I don’t know what that movie should be about, exactly, otherwise I would shut up and write it myself. But I do know that Christmas is a time for miracles. And in this case, we’re long overdue.