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Illustrations by Maria Alconada Brooks.
Every so often, I crave a shot of pure nostalgic holiday goodness, and for the past few years, that’s meant indulging in a Hallmark-type Christmas movie. They’re so cheesy that I can’t bear to watch them with anyone else — and yet, once or twice a year, I need them. And I’m not going to stop.
Neither, it seems, will many other Americans. 2019 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas,” a 24/7 block of seasonal movies that begins in late October and runs through New Year’s Day. It has changed the landscape of holiday programming — spawning copycats and flooding other channels with movies that are all easily watchable, intensely forgettable and laughably similar.
So much so, that you can easily play bingo while watching.
They’re also profitable: Hallmark consistently overperforms in the ratings during the last quarter of the year, and in the fourth quarter of 2018, it was the most-watched channel on cable among women ages 18 to 54.
So, I wondered: What would the most popular Hallmark Christmas movies tell me about our culture, and even myself? Eager to find out, I procured the list of the top 10 most-watched films from an executive at Hallmark and set out to watch them all.
What I thought would be a fun and somewhat silly experiment turned out slightly differently. Here are the movies:
10. A Christmas Detour (2015)
Think “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but minus the train and the humor. The lead, played by Candace Cameron Bure (D.J. Tanner from “Full House” and the sequel, “Fuller House”), is obsessed with weddings and ends up falling for the cranky guy who drives her home for Christmas. Cameron Bure is sort of the unofficial mascot of the Hallmark Channel, so buckle up: You’re going to be seeing her name a lot in this list. She has very good hair and a friendly, familiar face, and that’s about all I can say about her acting talents.
9. My Christmas Love (2016)
Meredith Hagner plays the typical Hallmark Christmas movie lead (white, barrel curls, sweaters, skinny jeans and boots) who tries to figure out who is sending her themed gifts that correspond to “The 12 Days of Christmas” song. The plot revolves around her failing to realize that her longtime best friend and business partner is in love with her. My favorite moment was when a hot priest/ex-boyfriend tells her, “Destiny shows us that when your intentions are driven by love, they always work out.” This fits perfectly into the irreligious world of Hallmark, where Christianity as a religion is often nonexistent, but everyone worships the Christmas spirit — and romantic love.
8. A Royal Christmas (2014)
Netflix’s hit film “A Christmas Prince” basically owes this movie royalties — so many of the plot points are the same, including a tiny and weirdly named European country and lovable orphans. This movie breaks the Hallmark mold slightly because it’s not a will-they-won’t-they about the romantic couple in question. Instead, the tension stems from the relationship between the lead, Emily (played by Lacey Chabert) and the Queen (Jane Seymour, in all her icy glory).
7. The Christmas Cottage (2017)
This one honestly has the most potential to get risque (but this is Hallmark, so of course it doesn’t). A workaholic architect and a chef who doesn’t want to settle down (or does he?) get trapped in the cottage for a night because of a very small blizzard. And guess what? They end up together. (Spoiler, sorry.)
6. Journey Back to Christmas (2016)
This was my least favorite film of the bunch. Hannah (hello again, Cameron Bure) is a nurse in 1945 whose husband was killed in World War II; she is mysteriously transported to 2016. The movie opens with her crying and saying she has no purpose because her husband died and all she wanted to do was create a happy home for him. She is ultimately adopted into the family of a nice police officer, and the film turns into a fever dream about bland and beautiful and accommodating women.
5. The Christmas Card (2006)
This one is a bit of an outlier as well; the story is about a soldier in Afghanistan who gets a Christmas card from a (young, beautiful) woman and her church community, then decides to visit their town when he is discharged. This is the most overtly Christian of the movies, and the only one to mention religion. It also is the only film with an on-screen death; a soldier dies within the first few minutes. Of course this is a pro-military and patriotic movie, but the stakes do feel a bit higher. (The movie came out in 2006, in the throes of the Afghanistan war.) The other big news is that the female lead has short hair.
4. Christmas at Graceland (2018)
I was so excited for this one, but there is a shocking lack of both Graceland and Elvis in general. (Budget constraints? Licensing fees?) Instead, two people with pretty good voices are paid to be terrible actors for almost two hours.
3. The Christmas Train (2017)
“The Christmas Train” has a star-studded cast (Dermot Mulroney, Danny Glover and — most importantly — Joan Cusack), but it is one big ball of cheese. A cynical journalist and his ex (a writer for a famous Hollywood director) meet up on the Christmas Train, a heavily decorated train that travels from one coast to the other. Hijinks ensue, a Christmas miracle occurs and the cynic and his long-lost love end up engaged in the last 30 seconds. The bigger budget makes this easier on the eyes, but the dialogue is absolutely cringeworthy. However, I will and do watch anything with my queen, Cusack, in it, and she totally steals the show.
2. Switched for Christmas (2017)
Two identical twins switch lives during Christmastime. That’s it, that’s the plot. The important piece of information here is that we get two Cameron Bure performances — she plays both of the twins. Chris is the art teacher/single mom/family woman and Kate is the businesswoman. At one point, Chris meets a big developer and tells him all of his condos will sell if he makes them more family-friendly by including a space for a big table for Christmas dinner. I forgot every other detail of this movie the second I stopped watching it. I’m sorry. There were just so many shots of D.J. Tanner holding a cup of coffee and not offending anyone.
1. Christmas Under Wraps (2014)
I’ve spent too much time trying to figure out why this is the most popular Hallmark Christmas movie of all time, but I don’t have a good answer. Perhaps it just hits all the high points? It has Cameron Bure as a high-powered doctor who is forced to visit a small town in Alaska. It has a subplot involving the real-life Santa Claus. It has lines like, “You can listen to your mind, but you have to follow your heart.” It has a Very Forgettable Man with a chiseled jaw. Sugar cookies figure prominently. There is a Christmas tree decorating party. Priorities are rearranged. Earthly success is pitted against familial happiness, and the right set of values wins out in the end.
Here are my takeaways
In watching these movies, I alternated between feeling bored, incensed and mildly awash in Christmas warmth. There is a good chance you’ve seen some iteration of these movies yourself — a cheery film hoping to cash in on the holiday formula for success.
Bill Abbott, the CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, Hallmark’s parent company, told The Hollywood Reporter’s TV podcast that Hallmark attracts audiences across every demographic, but during the holidays those demographics skew younger and incorporate more male viewers (he said the split was about 60/40 female to male). Among millennials, Abbott said, “There is a passion for the Christmas movies and that branded experience.”
And this is what makes Hallmark unique, according to both Abbott and the realities of Hallmark as a company. Hallmark is a company that has existed for more than 100 years to sell greeting cards and ornaments. Hallmark is known for holiday trinkets, which is as superficial as it sounds, and has resulted in the company lagging far behind competitors when it comes to diversity. Their “branded experience” is one of relentless cheer and caters to people who find anything outside dominant cultural norms frightening or upsetting. That has real consequences, which become clearer the more you watch these movies.
Of the top 10 films, every lead actor is white. Every relationship is heterosexual. Every career person is inferior to a family type. Every small town in America understands the world better than the big-city folks. Every family dispute can be solved by a big holiday dinner. Every person loves celebrating Christmas, regardless of their actual religion and traditions. Long after the pleasant experience of watching good-looking people find noncontroversial love amid a background of snow and twinkly lights fades, the questions remain: Whom are these movies for, and what vision of the world are they upholding?
I think it’s fine to watch these movies for what they are: background noise during a season that, for many, involves nostalgic memories. I know some people watch them purely as escape mechanisms; those who have suffered trauma or are in the throes of depression can find solace in knowing the formula behind these films means they will get a happy ending, even if only experienced vicariously through Cameron Bure. But I think the trouble comes when people view these films not as wish fulfillment, but as representative of the way our actual society should be structured.
Hallmark films purposefully do not branch out in ways that competitors’ films have. The company’s commitment to avoid portraying anything “controversial” — including same-sex relationships — has actually helped its brand. Its brand is homogeneity, its brand is selling holiday memories to a certain kind of person who wants to see a certain kind of world. After watching 10 films in a row — again, the most-watched movies in Hallmark Christmas history — I have to say that the world I actually live in, complete with the complexities and problems and joys of living with true diversity, seems so much better.
If you are looking for a holiday nostalgia fix, I recommend considering the options from Freeform, Lifetime, Netflix and OWN, companies that at least seem open to exploring the possibility of diverse offerings. Let’s listen to both our hearts and our minds, and not just seek out a branded experience. Most importantly, let’s think about the actual world we want to live in, and therefore long to see reflected on our glowing holiday screens.