One of the more surprising things about this year's so-called "Christmas movies" is how many of them really are set during Christmas.

Most Decembers we get the same old stuff - comedy, romance, drama, horror, science fiction, fantasy, car crashes - sometimes all in the same film. But seldom do they have anything to do with Christmas.But 1990's Christmas offerings are surprisingly in keeping with the letter, if not necessarily the spirit, of the holiday:

The season's biggest hit, "Home Alone," which has earned more than $100 million in just five weeks, is set during Christmas and acts as a metaphor for how harried we become during the most frenzied buying season of the year.

"Edward Scissorhands" has its climax on Christmas Eve and there are many humorous moments along the way that demonstrate what Christmas is like in a Southern California suburb. My personal favorite is Alan Arkin stapling reams of cotton to the roof of his home to simulate snow.

"Wait Until Spring, Bandini," set in 1928, has a poor bricklayer trying to get money to buy his kids Christmas presents - and Christmas is very much a presence in the movie. One might even go so far as to say the film acts as a barometer of our frustrations at being unable to always fulfill the holiday wishes of our loved ones.

"Mermaids," set in 1963, features a few scenes toward the end of the film that are set during Christmas, with some subtle jibes at the season's excesses. In fact, it is perhaps the only subtle thing in that movie.

"Havana," set during the week between Christmas and New Year's in 1958, offers the city's decadence and its wartime atmosphere against the backdrop of the season of good cheer.

"Rocky V" has Sylvester Stallone in a street brawl with a younger fighter on Christmas Eve, which somehow seems a fitting way to end this movie series.

Even "Predator 2" is set during the Christmas season, though it's as far removed from family fare as a movie can get.

But then, a lot of movies that use Christmas as a central or minor theme are not family pictures.

Of the movies listed above, my guess is that only "Home Alone" is destined to become a perennial holiday favorite.

After all, there are a great many very famous movies set during the Christmas season or with major scenes that take place during December, but which do not come to mind as "Christmas films," per se.

After Thanksgiving, does anyone really seek out "The Apartment," that classic Billy Wilder social satire with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine? Or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover's violent "Lethal Weapon"? Or how about "We're No Angels," either the Bogart or DeNiro versions? Or Frank Sinatra's rat-pack gangster musical-comedy "Robin and the Seven Hoods"? Or "The Lion in Winter," the medieval serio-comedy with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole? Not to mention John Wayne's brawling "Donovan's Reef," Bob Hope's farcical "The Lemon Drop Kid" or the comedy and drama of "Capt. Newman, M.D.," with Gregory Peck.

Obviously, Christmas in the movies is used as a backdrop for many moods and colors, not just the feel-good "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Story" and "Miracle on 34th Street" kinds of movies we tend to think of this time of year.

And that's quite appropriate.

Christmas is generally thought of as a time of purchasing or making gifts for loved ones, doing kindnesses for the less fortunate and generally wishing others well. As such, to show that a film or a particular moment in a film is set during the holidays quickly establishes a mood.

The film may intend to extrapolate upon our preconceived notions of what Christmas is or it may wish to contrast those notions. Maybe it will spoof or satirize them.

Whatever. One thing's for sure, filmmakers know that Christmas is an easy, quick, manipulative tool - it's a setting that automatically hits us where we live.

And how many annual universal experiences can we say that about?

Merry Christmas.