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The eternal allure of the Hallmark Christmas movie

Hallmark Christmas movie 2020
(Image credit: Hallmark // Crown Media United States, LLC)

We’re officially into the festive season of 2020. Christmas decorations are being assembled in shop windows, Halloween stock is available at increasingly low prices, and TV adverts compete to see who can make audiences cry the most with their cloying displays of sentimentality. Of course, things are a little different this year, what with the continuing pandemic that has forced millions of us to stay at home and avoid our loved ones while we panic about hand sanitizer quality and decreasing toilet roll supplies. Still, there are constants to the holiday season that not even the might of COVID can stop. We’ll still freak out over Christmas shopping. We’ll Google the same roast turkey recipe every year and still somehow get it wrong. And the Hallmark Channel will air its seemingly ceaseless plethora of holiday movies.

Hallmark, ahead of the game, launched their Countdown to Christmas on October 24, with no fewer than 40 brand-new holiday-themed movies on offer. The titles and plots are exactly what you'd expect: One Royal Holiday features a secret princess, a handsome prince, and a blizzard; Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Sweater brings together a lonely woman and a badly-dressed handsome house guest for the season; Love, Lights, and Hanukkah! allows Jewish Hallmark viewers to get in on the fun with a journey of self-discovery and romance.

Much like porn, you know a Hallmark movie when you see it. They are cheaply made, deeply predictable, sentimental and romantic without anyone going further than a quick peck on the lips, and extremely invested in the (often literal) magic of the holiday season. Cynical career women, usually played by Danica McKeller or Lacey Chabert, find true happiness with approachable handsome men in cable-knit sweaters and the snow always falls on Christmas Eve, even when the films were clearly shot in mid-May. Hallmark's bag of tropes is so familiar that there are drinking games available for erstwhile viewers. Not only that, but an entire culture has sprung up around what was previously considered a walking punchbag of TV. You can buy Hallmark Christmas wines, listen to Hallmark Christmas movie podcasts, and even wear socks informing passing strangers that you're busy watching Hallmark Christmas movies. For such a maligned concept, Hallmark has managed to swing right round from ironic guilty pleasure to unabashed delight for countless viewers.

Hallmark isn’t the only game in town, either. Lifetime has almost as many Christmas movies as Hallmark for eager viewers, with a sprinkle more of TV movie star-power, including Keshia Knight Pulliam, Mario Lopez, and Melissa Joan Hart. Their offerings are also somewhat more diverse, although the genre remains whiter than a blizzard. They do, however, have the first gay romance this season in the form of The Christmas Setup, which includes all the genre's favorite tropes, plus Fran Drescher as a meddling mother.

The most notable competition for Hallmark's sparkly crown, however, is Netflix. The kings of the at-home streaming market have made their name over the past several years with big budgets, major stars, and critical adoration. Yet, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars that the company spent on awards darlings like The Irishman and The Crown, it’s in those small, kitschy holiday rom coms that the bulk of their viewership seems to rest. These films are seldom taken seriously by critics, but that’s hardly the point of something like A Christmas Prince or The Princess Switch. While such titles don’t take themselves particularly seriously – how do you do that when you’ve made a seasonal movie starring Vanessa Hudgens as identical triplets? – they are, like Hallmark’s output, almost tooth-rottingly earnest. They’re the polar opposite of the solemn prestige and psychological entanglements of modern-day glossy event TV. Therein lies the appeal.

Everything that Hallmark movies are criticized for is why they attract such unexpected devotion. We want the soothing simplicity of plots so predictable that you could set your watch to their familiar narrative beats. The formula is its own kind of comfort. Genre fiction in many ways is driven by its adherence to the past, whether it’s the hero’s journey in science fiction and fantasy or a classic jump scare with the final girl in horror. Romance has one promise: there will be a happy ending. It doesn’t matter how they get there, or the increasingly bonkers obstacles flung in their way. The handsome man and the pretty woman will live happily ever after as the snow falls on Christmas Eve. That’s always an alluring concept, but especially during times of precarity and solitude, which will probably be the worldwide default mode for the 2020 holiday season.

The rose-tinted view of the world offered in Hallmark movies is one that can be found in a lot of entertainment, mostly because it’s easy to write and audiences of all kinds can instantly latch onto it. Of course, it’s a worldview not without issues. Those family-first ideals often rely on pushing the notion that women who focus on their careers are doomed to be lonely unless they lighten up and de-prioritize their professional lives. Racial diversity didn’t enter the equation until depressingly recently for the network, and even then, it continues to be maddeningly incremental. Given that romance is the perpetual endgame for these movies, they often act as if sex doesn’t exist. These are stories with deeply traditionalist slants, and that’s clearly what their audiences want, but for outsiders looking in, it can feel somewhat discomfiting to see yet another hard-ass woman in a power suit give it up for a guy.

Sometimes, however, the simplest option is the most appealing one. Hallmark scratches that itch like little else during the holiday season. At a time when everything is so hectic and you're fighting with your family and stresses are at an all-time high, Hallmark provides the salve to all that worries you. Sure, they're crass and cheesy and commodified as all hell, but all those qualities go hand in hand with Christmas. Your own festive season may not be perfect this year, but Hallmark provides the well-polished escape for the holidays, complete with fake snow and copyright-free songs.