We are homesick most for the places we have never known.Carson McCullers
Something strange happened to me a few years ago. I’m not sure what triggered it, probably nothing specific. And I’m not even sure exactly when it happened. It was definitely pre-Covid, and likely just a tick before I hit the half-century birthday marker. What happened to me? Well, for some reason, I started obsessing over Hallmark Christmas movies (Lifetime films can be thrown in here too, along with ancillary networks like UpTV).
Now, a couple notes at the outset here, just to make things a bit interesting. First, once Christmas Day has come and gone, my interest in Hallmark anything drops to zero. I literally have no interest in any other types of Hallmark programming, movies or TV shows or whatever. On December 26th, it’s game over until the following November. I’m not a Christmas in July type, or anything like that. The yule stuff goes on the shelf for 10-plus months after St. Nick retreats to his pole.
Also, I’m a married straight guy, without too much interest in lighthearted camp, beyond the usual. I generally have a boring TV diet of sports, John Oliver, old Law & Order reruns, and any British murder mystery I can find. I don’t think any of that regular fare predisposes me to seasonal addiction to these merry but maudlin movies. So when I first started watching them, I was a little alarmed. What in God’s name was happening? Was this the first sign of an impending mental breakdown, a retreat into the dramatic equivalent of a Thomas Kincade painting?
But then I started to do a little more thinking about how I watched the movies, what specific themes drew my interest, and what functions were inside these things that made millions more tune in. After all, when you start talking to people, it turns out that a hell of a lot of people have the same
problem taste in holiday entertainment.
With all that being said, let’s get down to it and talk about these glorious creations in more detail.
Formula is Everything
As everyone knows, HCMs (Hallmark Christmas Movies) are, above all, predictable. But beyond just being formulaic in plot and theme, these films are predictable in other very specific and useful ways. First of all, the movies are all exactly the same length: two hours, commercials included. This allows for the exact same schedule every night: 6 PM, 8 PM, and 10 PM. Even though HCMs are theoretically standalone pieces of drama, the uniform length lets them slot into the TV schedule just like any other series. This is very convenient for viewers, allowing them to plan their other activities around these powerful shots of schmaltz.
Second, there are only a handful of distinct themes in the HCMs, and these tropes are signaled very early on in the timeline of each movie. You won’t need to wait around long to see what kind of story you’re in for. You’ll know right away if you’re watching: the handsome widower with adorable kids; the unfulfilled career woman returning to her hometown to run the Christmas talent show; the sexy/wholesome strangers on a road trip who get derailed by crummy weather and end up at the Mistletoe Inn for a few days, etc. Again, these limited themes, unveiled very early on, make it very convenient for the viewer. With the predictable schedule and obvious story, I can usually know by 6:05 or 8:05 whether or not I want to settle in. For example, I don’t have any interest in HCMs that deal with country music, time travel, magical life-swapping, or military veteran homecomings. Those are perfectly fine themes for many, but they just don’t do it for me, so I can bail out quick when I run across those entries.
One final note on formula and predictability. Like the themes, the HCMs recycle the same actors and actresses ad nauseum. Candace Cameron Bure, Lacey Chabert, and Danica McKellar are the regulars usually cited here, but my faves also include Bridget Regan, Katrina Law, and Kimberly Sustad. Again, the function of these repeat stars is to allow for quick sorting by the audience. I generally like goofier, self-deprecating leads in the HCMs, so I can easily avoid the other types that just don’t resonate for me, like the glamorous big-city professional or the hard-hearted cynic (note: they obviously all get ‘fixed’ in the end, converted over to yuletide sappiness – but I usually don’t have the patience to sit through the transformation). And I’m sure a lot of people just watch the ones with Winnie Cooper, well, just because. But you get the idea. All of these predictable features make things logistically simple for the viewer, an important factor during a busy time of year.
Now that we’ve gotten the practical stuff out of the way, let’s look at some of the more subterranean themes in the HCMs, to see if there are any less-obvious things that make these movies appealing and interesting, yet sometimes disturbing.
- Movement from City to Country
- While there are certainly some HCMs that are set completely in the city, there aren’t really a lot of those, due to budgetary restrictions (i.e., HCMs are cheap as shit, an observation we’ll return to later on). But beyond the budget, a purely-urban HCM is just kind of, well, useless. If I want to see beautiful city people spouting smart-alecky city stuff, I can just watch any big-budget network show or movie. The HCM is about the movement from urban to rural, rural being where the action is. And ‘rural’ here basically means small towns, not pumpkin patches and cornfields.
- The consistent message of the HCM is that something is lost when people move to the city, something that can be remembered or recovered by going home (home being somewhere, anywhere, less urban). This feeling of loss and recovery is more than just a parent always asking “when are you coming home for a visit?”, but it is in that same vein. The deeper point is that social mobility is a kind of fool’s gold, that moving to the city is really a mistake. The relentless desire to ‘make it’ and ‘find yourself’ results in you losing yourself instead.
- Urban areas are thus almost never portrayed as positive environments where a lot of people are actually from in the first place. Cities are instead transitory places, locales that people don’t really live in unless they are forced into by necessity or tricked into by false dreams. Obviously, the cities that all of these HCM characters come from will still be there, and tons of people will still live in them. But for the HCM protagonist, the city places are just “not for me” anymore.
- Faux Economic Hardship
- An interesting transition wrinkle as we move to our next theme is that the HCM leads usually don’t have to actually give up anything to make the move from city to country. While there is usually some kind of economic conflict in these films, and is even a crucial part of the story arc in most cases, most of the HCMs resolve with this being a false choice, and our hero/ine can indeed have it all: big city ‘success’ in the small town (with soulmate attached).
- Similarly, while economic anxiety is often an integral part of many HCM plots, that anxiety is flattened out, deadened, and molded into very limited channels. The problem is always one of a single person, a single couple, or a single business or organization, while in the background, all of the other people generally just cruise through smilingly, running the Christmas tree lot or the bespoke bakery, or whatever. Now, to be sure, any particular HCM could be about a troubled bakery or tree lot (I have seen both); but then, in those movies, the other businesses take their turn as stable background white noise.
- Now, I’m not expecting any class-strife, Norma Rae thing from these HCMs. It’s just that there is almost never any widespread anxiety in the economic infrastructure of these small towns that our heroes return to, which is definitely not an accurate depiction of rural America. And to loop in the city/country theme again, there’s no feeling in the HCMs that a lot of people are compelled to leave the hinterland and move to the big city in the first place because there is not enough good-paying work in our crumbling rural areas. People head to the city for jobs, not to get their outsider tractor art into a SoHo gallery.
- So economic hardship in the HCMs is thus squashed down and funneled into tightly-circumscribed channels, expressed as isolated problems with individual jobs or businesses. Not that I’m expecting to see broader themes, but it’s still important to note.
- One of the most consistent strategies of the HCMs is compression, the winnowing down of things that normally take months and years of activity, and squeezing them down into a single instance. While this is largely done for practical reasons of plot and budget, the effects are both jarring and comforting at the same time.
- Economically, people are able to find a single thing that saves the day: a gala fundraiser, a breakthrough product, a concert, or an art exhibit will usually do the trick. In the less event-centered approach, a genius business plan to save the lodge is often floated, and the occasional capital investor-angel will come through with the dough like Scrooge saving the day on Christmas morning. In all cases, the economic problem is solved quickly, and is handled on the side while the main action of the romance takes center stage.
- While “tradition” is probably the most used nugget in the HCMs, the actual stuff of these traditions is (literally) cookie-cutter. The tradition is a family baking something, putting together a gingerbread house, or shopping for a tree. And while I know that this might seem like the whole point of these movies – the recycling of tried-and-true yuletide activities – the low budget and slapped-together, montagey nature of these magical “traditions” is mostly just insufferable, and not remotely convincing. The compression tendency really kicks in with these traditions, and they just come off as rushed, pro forma add-ons that are supposed to somehow stand in for what real family tradition should be. A long, meaningful, (cough) religious season of celebration is diamond-pressurized down into a few painted pinecones and a quick lecture on proper gumdrop placement. I swear that every heirloom ornament or treetopper star/angel looks like it was bought at Five Below (probably way below).
- One final compression example is the romance itself, the raison d’être of these movies. They follow the basic rules of the older romcoms: no hanky-panky until the end, where the kiss coincides with the rolling credits. Needless to say, all of the normal pre- and post-coital angst, embarrassment, strife, and struggle is compressed down to easy teenage snippets (woman looks at her girlfriend after the hunky fireman leaves the shop, and says, “What?!”). Due to budget constraints, there can’t be a lot of scripted and dramatic gravitas in these films, and the feel-good therapeutic functions also preclude any super-involved delving into the emotions surrounding actual relationships. Instead, the thing that is romance is compressed into a timeline that is usually no longer than a couple weeks, coinciding with the normal rehearsal and prep periods for the Snow Ball or K. Kringle Gallery Stroll.
The Empty Manger
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about HCMs is that they are utterly agnostic. Now, I am certainly not representing the entirety of the canon in this observation, since I reflexively steer clear of any overtly religious themes. But I gotta tell ya, there ain’t that many anyway. I rarely have to toggle away from an HCM because of too much early God-talk, so I doubt that there is much of that out there. But even if there is a good chunk of religious stuff out there, there is certainly far more non-religious content. As mentioned above, HCMs are basically seasonal overlays on top of 80s-90s vintage romcoms, so any religious element would need to be artificially imported into this genre and grafted on, an endeavor which would be much too difficult to accomplish in the short running times and ephemeral plot structures. Hallmark budgets don’t lend themselves to sophisticated melding of Christian theology and teen-level blushing and almost-kissing. Suffice it to say, the HCM producers don’t bother trying, and in place of any explicit religion, they make due with quasi-holy words like ‘hope,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘magical.’ That should be good enough for Jesus until we can get to church proper on the weekend.
Schmaltzin’ is Easy
In summation, above all, Hallmark Christmas Movies strive to make things easy for the viewer. The predictability and formulaic compression of events and relationships that are – in reality – long, complex, ambiguous, and open-ended, result in a powerful dopamine rush, a rush borne of familiarity, comfort, and closed-endedness. Digging a bit deeper, and hearkening back to the anti-city themes that often crop up in the HCMs, the functioning of these films can be seen as part of a deeper anxiety over the crumbling of the American Dream and the American Project in general. I see this as part of the same swollen river of discontent that fuels Trumpism on one extreme, and the more mainstream, free-floating sense that something has gone off the rails with our economy and society.
What the HCM does, to reiterate, is compress and flatten this discontent, and then focus it on a solution that is simple and that feels good. Yes, it sucks that families and extended families can’t really stay physically connected any more, largely due to economic pressures that push people to move to where the dwindling job prospects are concentrated. And yes, it sucks that heartless big-city corporations come in and wipe out local businesses and jobs. And yes, it would be awesome if fixing all of that was as easy as throwing one perfect fundraising gala, one that also happens to connect me to my perfect soulmate at the same time, conveniently plopped into a fortnight timeline.
And, fuck yeah, it would be really awesome if that climactic kiss with my soulmate ushered in the rolling credits, so that this perfect Christmas fulfillment could be locked into an eternal, unchanging moment, as in amber, where the next Monday of sucky Zoom meetings never comes.
For me, the defiant triumph of the Hallmark Christmas Movie is that it screams a cheesy but deafening “FUCK YOU” to the cascading crumble of industrial civilization. The HCM is saying, “I don’t care how easy we make it look, but this really is how life should be: close-knit, simple, hardships overcome easily through basic effort and cooperation, hokey-but-fun activities made sublime through the alchemy of basic human togetherness. So you go back to your big city hellscapes, where greed and ambition prove to be ruinous. That’s really just not the thing for me.”
That’s the Hallmark movie in a nutshell, a refrain that is becoming a familiar murmur in the back of all of our minds, an indictment of what our civilization has become: “That’s not for me.”
(Photo from hallmarkchannel.com – “Christmas With the Darlings”)