Newswise — His profanity-laced tirades notwithstanding, “The Old Man” emerges a hero when he buys Ralphie a coveted Red Rider BB gun.

Scott Calvin, an overworked, detached father, saves Christmas—and his relationship with his son—when he embodies the heart of a believer and giver.

And Walter Hobbs finds the true spirit of Christmas in the childlike wonder of his long lost son, Buddy.

Whether it’s “A Christmas Story,” “The Santa Clause” or “Elf,” dads play a vital role in recent popular Christmas films. In real-life holiday scenarios, fathers do as well…and that’s true whether dads are merry makers or Christmas curmudgeons, notes Dan Strasser, professor of communication studies at Rowan University.

“In many Christmas movies, it’s the dad who realizes the spirit of Christmas,” says Strasser, who studies family, gender and interpersonal communication with emphasis on father-son relationships.

As families watch popular holiday films, they reinforce the way they view the holidays and their family roles in them, Strasser says. Dad suddenly seems just like the turkey-obsessed father and Mom becomes the make-everyone-happy mother in “A Christmas Story.”

“We do change our experiences and project that through media. There is a ritualistic role-playing that we all buy into and there’s a sense that that’s what Christmas is,” says Strasser.

Family systems and patternsWhether Dad embraces “Bah Humbug” and Mom makes merry—or vice versa—that still means Christmas to the family, Strasser notes.

“It’s the people we deal with and share things with that makes Christmas,” says Strasser. “Family systems and family patterns are the fun, cool things that bind us together.”

Though some families today are more “Modern Family” than “Leave it to Beaver,” “they create their own systems and rituals that make them close,” Strasser says. “There’s no such thing as a traditional family any more.”

So, what happens if a Humbug-happy Dad suddenly gets the holiday spirit and starts singing “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” around the family piano? Don’t make a fuss, Strasser says.

“Be sure you don’t say, ‘What’s wrong with Dad?’” he notes. “Acting toward them in a predictable way leaves them in a category of where they think they ‘ought’ to be. Don’t celebrate the fact that they’re celebrating. Just enjoy it.”

Instrumental and utilitarian giftsDads famously are called upon to put things together--lights, toys, game tables--at Christmas. That falls right into their wheelhouse, Strasser says.

“Men want to be seen as useful. Even if they’re ‘Bah Humbugging’ the whole experience, they still want to be part of it. That’s just the way they show it,” says Strasser.

Finally, what do you get Dad for Christmas? When it comes to gifts, gender research shows that most men are instrumental and utilitarian, Strasser notes. They also enjoy gifts with staying power, things that they can use and show off, according to Strasser.

“Men want things they can use. If you do give a gift that’s more sentimental, they’d want something that can be shown over a long period of time, something that they can show as a status symbol,” says Strasser.

“We got my dad a shop vac for Christmas a few years ago and he was like a kid on Christmas morning.”

Even if you go the utilitarian gift-giving route, a little sweetness is nice…even for Dads who have difficulty sharing their emotions, says Strasser.

“Write a card. Don’t buy one,” he says. “Put forth a little bit of effort into expressing the sentiment of the season.”