The dark secret at the heart of every made-for-TV Christmas movie

A man and woman sit in a sleigh filled with presents the man wears a santa hat
(Image credit: Hallmark)

"You better watch out, you better not cry You better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town." And in the case of pretty much every made-for-tv Christmas movie that stars the famous gift giver, that tune doesn't bode well for the naughty boys and girls who inhabit them. Why, you may ask? Well, it's because 99% of the time any Santa Claus impersonator or man who looks like Santa is introduced in a holiday flick from the usual suspects... he's really Santa. 

What do I mean? Well, it's simple. In the often similar narratives of the romantic Christmas movies we all love to watch, rag on, and maybe hate, a few things are certain. It all begins with the setup; either A) a career woman will have to head to a small town, or B) a woman with an unreasonably niche job like a professional Christmas gift buyer or Holiday freelance assistant will meet a wealthy but probably cranky benefactor. Once that's happened, you can be sure that they'll likely fall in love by way of an easily solvable and usually relatively forgivable conflict. But like death and taxes, in our world there is another infallible truth of holiday movies: Santa is real and he will pop up to give our hero advice, matchmake them, supply ostentatious presents for poor kids, or occasionally end up being revealed as the lead's soon to be father-in-law. 

The most immediately jarring thing from this is that aside from the concept of living off your passions, owning a home, and the often homogeneously straight and white vision of America, there's nothing overly fantastical about these films. They are rarely supernatural--though there are a couple of time traveler centric ones because why not?--and when they are, those aspects are built in from the beginning. So it can be incredibly surreal to be watching a film ostensibly set in our own world that suddenly pivots to "by the way, Santa is real and he's also obvz magic!"

At first I thought this was a decidedly Hallmark trope after watching the Alicia Witt--she's a Hallmark icon--star vehicle Christmas at Cartwright's (2014), in which she radically gets a job as a mall Santa--but she's a woman! how scandalous!--only to meet the real Santa while she's there. Scarily, in this version no one else sees Harry (Wallace Shawn)--the angel/Santa character--other than her and her small child, so we'll never know if it's just a familial tendency for hallucination. 

This year, though, Lifetime has fully committed to the Christmas movie bit and have two movies which play into this classic trope in an extreme fashion. Christmas Unwrapped (2020) goes for the more 'subtle' approach, with our intrepid journalist headed off to interview a generous enigmatic millionaire who gives away hundreds of dollars of presents to New Yorkers each year. He's not Santa, but our hero does actually meet him because it turns out this hunky philanthropist is being bankrolled by Santa himself. Our reporter would rather quit than tell the truth so now she's one of the few adults on Earth who knows Santa is real and apparently only likes people in New York enough to give them presents via one hunky rich dude. 

Our other entry is The Christmas Yule Blog (2020), which begins with an ultimate made-for-tv holiday movie framework: a woman has to visit a town that's dedicated to Christmas and celebrates it like nowhere else on Earth. In a twist, she's a blogger (how modern!) and isn't going to some snow-capped East Coast enclave but is instead heading off on a steam train to a little town in New Mexico. What does that have to do with Santa? Well, let me explain... see, our stuck up writer has to stay at a family owned BnB which is run by a jolly white-haired couple who love to laugh just as much as they love Christmas. And the husband's name is NICK!! Can you see where this is going? Yes, the couple who own the BnB are actually Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and they just happen to live in New Mexico now. It was a formula they already utilized in the hilarious Snowed-Inn Christmas (2017) when two competing bloggers get trapped at (and have to save) a Christmas inn that is 100% owned by Santa and his wife.

Lifetime has been playing with the 'real Santa' trope for years, although as in the villainous Ashanti masterpiece Christmas in the City (2013), the corporate boss (Ashanti) of a local holiday loving mall actually fires the real life Santa Claus because he's too old fashioned. Instead, she hires sexy Santa strippers and honestly who can even blame her? Why is real Santa just creeping around a mall at Christmas? Doesn't he have better things to do? Toys to make? Reindeers to feed? Also, if Santa is real then where are all of our presents? I know for sure he hasn't been bringing me any each year. But Hallmark are the OGs and their Matchmaker Santa (2012) starring Mean Girls' Lacey Chabert is an earlier 'real Santa' trendsetter. Here, the sweet mall Santa--"Chris" (like Kringle, get it?)--sets up Lacey with a nice baker for Christmas. 

This is such a long-running trend that there are twists on the trope. In Hallmark's Charming Christmas (2015), a cranky woman falls in love with a Christmas-loving man only to discover that he's the spawn of Santa and Mrs. Claus. His name was Nick, which in the made-for-TV movie universe means that he was either going to be Santa, Santa's son, or just a total dick. It's a strange phenomenon but outside of Christmas films characters named Nick are usually terrible people... anyway, that's a different essay for a different time. Hallmark has also widened the spectrum of what fictional festive creatures are real with Northpole (2014), which decided elves too are real and two of them are out to save Christmas via the magic of Christmas tree lightings, which anyone who watches these movies will know are a vital part of any true seasonal celebration. Spoiler alert: Christmas is saved. 

All of that is to say, if you're thinking of being naughty this year beware because that old jolly man you refuse to hold the door for at the store might be Santa and he might have a plan for you this Christmas. Or, even worse, that masked mall Santa who keeps giving you weird looks could be planning on setting you up with that hunky single dad you'd never look at otherwise. 

Rosie Knight

Rosie Knight is an Eisner-winning journalist and author who's been writing professionally since 2005. Her career has taken her around the world and, although she hails from London, she currently resides in Los Angeles where she writes full time. She began as a professional poet but transitioned into journalism, starting at the Eisner-winning WWAC in 2016. Since then she has written over 1500 articles for digital media sites including What to Watch, Nerdist, IGN, The Hollywood Reporter, Esquire, Den of Geek, DC Comics, /Film, BuzzFeed, and Refinery29. She also writes comics including The Haunted High Tops and Cougar and Cub. When she's not writing she spends far too much time watching horror movies and Hallmark films.