“You may not ask for anything to do with interpersonal relationships. Got it? This is Santa Claus, not Dear Abby!” exclaims 12-year-old Ethan to his 8-year-old sister Hallie. But independent-minded Hallie is not to be dissuaded. She’s the heroine of All I Want for Christmas, and all she wants for Christmas is for their parents to get back together. Hallie is portrayed by a young Thora Birch, and she expresses so much sincerity that you can’t help but cheer her on.
All I Want for Christmas was released in theaters in 1991. It’s special, and I think it deserves its place among It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, and Miracle on 34th Street as a true Christmas classic.
Things certainly aren’t perfect at the start of the beloved flick. The O’Fallon siblings had a rough year with their family splitting up, and Ethan is understandably protective of his precocious little sister. When he realizes that he can’t dissuade her from asking Santa (the real guy at Macy’s) for their parents to get back together, he goes all in to create a little Christmas magic of their own.
This is where All I Want for Christmas meets The Parent Trap.
Ethan develops a complex and rather illegal scheme to ensure that their parents get back together on Christmas morning.
He muses that he’ll either be a hero or end up in juvenile hall. He enlists the help of his best friend, his little sister, his crush, and even an unwitting Ben & Jerry’s truck driver to pull off the feat. Did I mention things got complicated when their mother announces she’s getting married to the super-annoying Tony right after Hallie makes her Christmas wish? Yikes.
When I went to see All I Want for Christmas when it came to theaters in 1991, I was absolutely enchanted. It was my twelfth Christmas season, and I loved nothing more than being at the cinema. In the dark movie theater when the film started and the adorable Ethan began his choir shenanigans, I was laughing and fully immersed in the idyllic, fictional world of this film.
Set in uptown Manhattan, All I Want for Christmas is a gentle film that refreshingly lacks the stereotypical sibling rivalry that’s seen in too many kids’ shows of the 90s and beyond. This brother and sister genuinely love and take care of each other, even when their well-meaning parents can’t seem to manage the task.
In the world of All I Want for Christmas, Santa Claus is real and some families are just meant to be reunited. Ethan (portrayed by Ethan Randall, who now goes by Ethan Embry) is memorably adorable and oh-so-relatable in his attempts to impress his crush Stephanie (Amy Oberer). He sneaks her into a wedding for free food, poses as an art fan in a museum where he kind of gives himself away, and checks in with her to see how he’s doing. Although he may not seem to have the best game—spoiler alert!—he not only gets his parents back together, but he gets the girl, too.
If you’re not looking for it, you may miss that Santa is portrayed by Leslie Nielsen. It is a small but significant part, and he doesn’t play it for laughs. Another star deserves the spotlight in the film, and that’s Lauren Bacall, who plays Lillian, the grandmother of the O’Fallon kids. Ethan, Hallie, and their mom have been living with with her since the divorce.
Through the lens of 2018, when some radio stations have banned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from the radio because of its content, I’m still warmed by the performance of the song by Hallie and her grandma Lillian. Lauren Bacall and Thora Birch are adorable as they sing the duet at a Christmas party. The performance is apparently a grandmother-granddaughter tradition in the family, and the song feels innocent when I watch the movie.
All I Want for Christmas is a fairy tale. The world gets set right again by the end of the story. Is that kind of film safe for kids who have been through a divorce? Does it give them false hope? Personally, I don’t think so. When I watched the film at the age of 12, I knew my family would never get back together because my dad had died two years earlier. It would have been my greatest wish for all of us to be reunited, and if many kids could have anything for Christmas, they’d want their parents back together.
This movie speaks to that fantasy. It lets the audience have it for just a moment as we live vicariously through the characters.
Like both the Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan versions of The Parent Trap, All I Want for Christmas is the perfect movie to watch over and over again. It has long been a Christmas tradition of mine to relive the fun and comforting reassurance I felt in the theater all those years ago.