In October, Jenna Golden embarked on the same ritual she’s been using to mark the holiday season for the last three years: watching all of the Hallmark holiday movies in order and writing pithy reviews, which she tweets.
This winter, the channel best known for its gift-wrapped romances rolled out a record 41 holiday movies, and Golden is committed to watching every single one. When people who know her find out she does this, they’re surprised, she said; she usually watches edgier prestige shows.
Golden, a 37-year-old media and political strategist based in D.C., is Jewish and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. But the formulaic tales of a big-city woman returning to a small town in time to save some Yuletide tradition and find herself — and love — still appeal to her, she said.
When she first started watching them five years ago, she did so ironically. Golden thought that’d she’d “be able to make fun of them. It will be fun, and it will be light, and it will easy,” she said. “And all of that was true. But at the same time, I think there was part of me that started being like, ‘I actually sort of like these.’ ”
Now she describes her viewing and chronicling as “very dedicated.” As much as she enjoys the movies — and some way more than others, she said — she also studies the genre as a cottage industry, as competitors like Lifetime, Netflix and Hulu have jumped into the fray to try to cash in on the holiday flick.
She said she’s watched with approval as the Hallmark Channel has tried to increase diversity with Black or Asian or gay characters, following long-held criticism about its lack of representation on-screen. That’s been especially true, she said, after its parent company, Crown Media Family Networks, appointed Wonya Lucas, who is a Black woman, as the new chief executive earlier this year. The previous chief executive, Bill Abbott, left the company in January after the company faced backlash for pulling an ad featuring a same-sex couple.
Golden’s not the only one. There’s constant chatter on social media about the best holiday movies across networks and platforms. And Baltimore Ravens football coach John Harbaugh recently said that he’s “a Hallmark movie guy” at a news conference.
There are actually psychological underpinnings to why some of us may crave corniness, experts say.
“There’s a lot of dopamine and oxytocin that gets released in watching these things,” said T. Makana Chock, a researcher of media psychology at the Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “They can be very de-stressing. They make you feel happier.”
There’s also the common thread of family and community bonds in the storytelling that as humans we’re hard-wired to crave, Chock said: Usually the heroine or hero has been “isolated from the group” and gone off to pursue a career. When they come back and “wind up saving the Christmas tree farm” or whatever it is, this can be compelling to viewers, she added.
“They are essentially stories about other people with small-scale dramas that are not big, going to war kind of stuff. They're romantic dramas, they’re family stories. We want to know how other people are engaging and it really appeals to our basic drives,” she said.
Like Golden, Lauren Locklear started watching holiday movies ironically. In her early 30s, she was single and living in Colorado and away from many of her family and friends, she said, some of whom were settling into married life with kids. “I just needed a little bit of the equivalent of comfort food, where there is just always a happy ending,” she said.
Then, last year, Locklear moved to Arlington, Va., and the pandemic further stressed her demanding work schedule. That’s when she really upped her viewing, she said. The options available on streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime “are more targeted towards a younger audience, they’ve almost become, like, cool in an ironic sort of way,” she said.
“I think a lot of people are just enjoying them, because they’re so bizarre,” added Locklear, who is now 34. She watches a movie with several of her friends in a group chat every other Monday, she said.
For Ebonie Hill, friends were also a big part of her foray into Hallmark movies. Three years ago, she said, she had gotten divorced, and a friend of hers recommended watching the films as a way to cope with that first holiday as a single parent with two kids.
“The winter was really hard. There was financial strain, there was emotional strain,” the 35-year old program coordinator for the Honors College at Oklahoma State University said.
She had never watched anything on the channel before, but she tuned into “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” a 2008 movie starring Brooke Burns and Henry Winkler.
“I remember sitting there watching it in the middle of my living room, sobbing over it being my first Christmas [alone], trying to figure out how I was going to make it work for my family for me,” she said. “And for those two hours, I was like, ‘This is great.’ ”
After that she was hooked. Hill is Black and Hawaiian, and didn’t expect to see anyone who looked like her in the films, she said. But she has continued to watch as they become more diverse, which she appreciates. She and her friend still make it a point to watch some movies together, over Zoom even, she said.
Even if that first Hallmark movie was “cheesy,” she said, it was the balm she needed. She remembers thinking: “There’s a happily ever after, and I need happily ever afters in my life right now.”