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Colleen DulleDecember 14, 2018
Alicia Witt and David Alpay star in "The Mistletoe Inn." Copyright 2017 Crown Media 

A pretty, young career woman with a big-city media job reluctantly finds herself in a quaint, snowy village for Christmas. There she meets a rugged family man. The career woman falls in love with the rugged family man, and he shows her the true meaning of both family and Christmas. After some “will they or won’t they” tension, the two almost kiss but are humorously interrupted. A miscommunication between the two arises but is quickly resolved, and career woman decides to pass up the lucrative new opportunity awaiting her in the big city in order to spend a traditional, small-town Christmas with rugged family man and, presumably, his family—all in the course of 90 minutes.

Repeat, ad infinitum, every two hours from the last weekend in October through New Year’s Day, and you have Countdown to Christmas, a nonstop stream of just-add-water (or fake snow, as the case may be) Christmas movies produced by and broadcast on The Hallmark Channel.

For all their cheesiness, I love Hallmark Christmas movies. 

I’ll be honest with you: For all their cheesiness, I love Hallmark Christmas movies. For the last few years, they have almost completely replaced holiday classics like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on my parents’ TV throughout December. We have even made a game out of calling out the repetitive plot points while we binge-watch the movies: “Missed kiss!” “Dead relative!” “Pitch!” (Why “pitch?” Because the protagonist’s vague media job usually involves having a project pitched to her public relations or advertising firm, or she has to pitch a story to her editor, and so on.)

The movies even look the same. They feature the same few actresses in lead roles, including the star of “Queens of Christmas,” Candace Cameron Bure, who viewers might remember as D. J. Tanner from “Full House,” and Lacey Chabert, who played Gretchen Wieners in “Mean Girls.” The two have starred in 18 and 17 Hallmark Christmas movies, respectively. Most of the movies are shot in an area of Vancouver that provides tax breaks for film crews, though producers are running out of cute, wintery towns in the region where they can record. That may be because there are so many of these movies: The Hallmark Channel will debut 22 new Christmas movies this winter, down from 33 last year, bringing the grand total to more than 150, each of which take about three weeks to make and are rebroadcast year after year.

Despite how formulaic the movies are, audiences eat them up. The Hallmark Channel posted record numbers for viewership during the Christmas season last year, reaching more than 72 million viewers and skyrocketing The Hallmark Channel to the highest-rated station for its primary demographics (women ages 25 to 54 and 18 to 49) during the holidays. The success of Countdown to Christmas has also launched a number of profitable spin-off partnerships and collaborations, including a Sirius XM radio station that broadcasts Christmas music and behind-the-scenes content related to Countdown to Christmas, a Netflix-esque all-Hallmark streaming service, and a line of Hallmark engagement rings that enjoy significant product placement in the movies.

So what is it about these cheesy, mass-produced films that make them so irresistible?

Hallmark Christmas movies satisfy, if only in a shallow way, many of the desires that arise in Americans during the holiday season—both the healthy desires and those we might be ashamed of, but are willing to overlook when they come packaged in slickly produced, family-oriented movies that we binge-watch in the privacy of our own homes.

There are no political tensions or even signs of socio-economic differences in Hallmark movies.

The films are an escape. For example, there are no political tensions or even signs of socio-economic differences in Hallmark movies. They whisk viewers into a completely upper-middle-class, almost entirely white world. (The Hallmark Channel is, for the first time, releasing four movies with African-American leads this year, including “A Gingerbread Romance,” in which the former Disney Channel star Tia Mowry plays Taylor, an ambitious young architect who convinces a local baker, who happens to be a single dad, to enter a life-sized gingerbread house building contest with her. Taylor, who, you guessed it, has a promotion waiting for her in another city, falls in love with spending Christmas with the baker and his daughter in Philadelphia, and begins to think she might like to call it home.)

The Hallmark Channel’s lack of diversity isn’t simply limited to race or wealth. It also extends to sexual orientation and even religion. Though the movies are staunchly apolitical and a-religious—Vox describes them as “apolitical in a way that people who blanch at the idea that all art is political call apolitical”—the channel has clearly staked out where it stands in the “War on Christmas.” Viewers will never hear anyone in a Hallmark movie say “Happy Holidays,” though they also can’t expect any signs of Christmas being about anything beyond cozy fireplaces, time with family, decorating trees and giving gifts.

In a comfortable world with no diversity, there are no conflicts, and thus nothing to worry about. And while I can understand that desire for escapism at the cost of diversity, it seems that Hallmark could have embraced a more diverse cast of leads much earlier—after all, it doesn’t change these scripts at all.

The Hallmark Channel’s lack of diversity isn’t simply limited to race or wealth. It also extends to sexual orientation and even religion.

The other criticism I often hear from women my own age, at the younger end of Hallmark’s demographic range, is that the female protagonists in these movies almost always end up turning down career opportunities to embrace more traditional gender roles at home. Young women who were raised to be ambitious in our professions begin to bristle at that plot point after seeing it repeated in three or four movies. Still, there are many Hallmark movies that try to strike a more even balance, like in “Christmas in Love,” in which the protagonist convinces the big-city bakery owner’s son not to automate the bakery, thus saving the jobs of everyone in her small town. She goes on to move with him back to the city in order to advance her crafting business.

But Hallmark Christmas movies don’t exclusively speak to the latent desires our society might have for homogeneity or traditional gender roles. They also speak to the wholesome desires we have to spend time with the people we love. Even if we can’t be home for Christmas, Hallmark movies fill us with some of the warmth of decorating the Christmas tree together, or building gingerbread houses with our families.

The escapes from the big city (whether temporary or more permanent) speak to a desire many overworked Americans have to unplug and unwind from jobs that require them to be available 24 hours a day. They give a temporary sense of family to Americans who are starting families later and later, or whose family members live far away. And the small-town communities portrayed in Hallmark movies, in which neighbors know one another, offer some respite from our increasing sense of isolation, which is even greater in densely populated places.

So, yes, Hallmark movies are cheesy. They need more diversity and could do a better job of making their protagonists well rounded women. But their real magic, beyond the fake snow and the cherub-faced actresses, lies in giving us a sense of what we desire most at Christmas: to set our busyness aside for a while to spend time with the people we love.

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Joan Sheridan
5 years 6 months ago

I use to like Hallmark movies also but no more. Too me it is ridiculous to keep saying how wonderful Christmas is and never mention the reason we are celebrating

5 years 6 months ago

I too used to enjoy these Hallmark movies, but their unrealistic nature defies credibility. Where are these fictitious children who are positively enraptured by family-friendly activities such as: decorating Christmas trees, making Christmas decorations, making snowmen, building and decorating gingerbread houses, or decorating cookies? All the children I know are glued/addicted to their electronics (hand-held or big-screen with remote controllers), refusing to eat meals, whining about going to hockey practice, or being shuffled from one sporting/social activity to the next. They're not interested in any 'family' type activities, nor are they interested in the social lives of the adults in their lives. Even the workplaces depicted in these movies are ridiculous: people with real jobs barely have time to exchange words with colleagues, much less indulge in spending time and money to find the perfect Secret Santa gifts for them. Besides the severe lack of diversity in not only ethnicity but size, shape, appearance and physical disabilities, everything depicted is wholesome and trusting. The only things I've found they are good for is background noise/scenery in the house: at least there is no sex or violence or crime or dead bodies or grime in any of them.

Cynthia Branch
5 years 6 months ago

No, no, no. Those of us who grew up in wildly dysfunctional homes - like mine, where my father was a falling-down drunk - not only don't like Christmas and cheesy movies...we don't yearn for any of that, either. I can't change my Christmas Past. The way for me to get through Christmas Present is to do the holy day uniquely. I have resented from my youth, those who "seemed to" live in Hallmarkland for Christmas. Schmaltz doesn't make anything any better. Enjoy all you want, but please remember that there are some who don't, and never will.

5 years 6 months ago

These so-called "Christmas movies" without Christ have become so commonly associated with Christmas-time that when a Christian screenplay contest (for which I read scripts and write coverage) specifically asked for screenplays that would increase our love and/or knowledge of God, we got several "Christmas scripts" in which neither God nor Jesus Christ was mentioned. Something needs to be done!

Adrian Johnson
5 years 6 months ago

I would SO love to see a "Science Fiction/horror" Christmas movie where the usual godless materialistic secular humanist "holidays" are in full swing when--boom! Three days of darkness! Earthquakes ! Tidal waves! Fire from Heaven! Cities of skyscrapers all destroyed -- the only survivors are pro-life protestors in front of Planned Parenthood; simple devout Catholics scattered over the earth who say the daily rosary; downtrodden Persecuted middle eastern Christians; Chinese Catholics under the Communist heel, and some old devout priests in old-folk's homes.
These are all miraculously protected by their guardian angels, in houses where only blessed wax candles will burn. All the world is in hurricane darkness, where Demons drag away to Hell Bilderburgers, NWO, UN & Eurocrats, human traffickers, arms dealers, Drug dealers, abortionists, lapsed Catholics, atheists, etc.
Surprise developments include the preservation of many pagans and good people who never heard the Gospel. Most of these are cast into a deep coma until the chastisement is over. They awake bewildered but grateful to be alive. On day 3, the world is knocked back to 19th century technology, and 3/4ths of humanity is dead; but all who survive are soon happy to be good Catholics; the old priests and a couple of good bishops elect a new, holy Pope; ordain new priests from devout, eager, converts,
Miraculously, the earth is renewed; no more pollution of land or seas. Healthy forests and plains greet the survivors. Animals, birds, fish start to breed and repopulate the land and sea. The human race returns to an agrarian way of life, with large families. Civilisation is saved !

5 years 6 months ago

Let's not be Grinches about this. These movies are like Hershey's kisses, nondescript chocolate that you nevertheless can't stop once you start.

Anne Couture
5 years 6 months ago

All the Christmas movies are great. One of my favorite is The Grinch

Stanley Kopacz
5 years 6 months ago

It's a niche. At least there's something my elderly mother can watch where they aren't a-humping and a-cursing and a-slaughtering. And they do sneak a little Christ into Christmas via the religious Christmas Carols. They even had a story where the guy love interest was a soldier who went to church before and after deployment. I'm glad Hallmark is there. There's always Game of Thrones if one finds endless uninterrupted nastiness entertaining.

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