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.