Two Christmases ago, one Facebook friend advised another who was feeling glum to “go watch a Hallmark Christmas movie.” But several other FB pals joined the chorus, and I realized she was serious. I was stunned. That slurpy Hallmark Channel stuff? No way.
Fast forward to summer 2016. We are deep into the divisiveness of the nastiest presidential election in my increasingly long memory. One muggy afternoon, making my way through a pile of ironing, I turn on the TV and zap through the guide. “When what to my wandering eyes should appear…” but a Hallmark Christmas movie. With few other options, I figured it would be worth a good laugh.
The movie, Christmas Under Wraps, starred Candace Cameron Bure and David O’Donnell, with Brian Doyle-Murray as the “Santa figure”. Bure comes to a tiny Alaska town to run its equally tiny hospital after her residency application, her greatest “wish,” is rejected. That Doyle-Murray’s character is Santa is never stated outright; but he is rotund with a white beard, wears red flannel and suspenders, and has a reindeer named “Rudy” in his barn. His son is reluctant to be part of the family business, “Holiday Shipping,” about which everyone in town is pretty cagey. A romance evolves slowly and chastely, and when the doctor has a second crack at the Boston opportunity, she ultimately rejects it, perhaps to become the future Mrs. Claus. One can only suppose. No award-winner, for sure, but charming in its way, with a bonus of some stunning flyovers of Alaska-like terrain and a peak at the Northern Lights.
I didn’t admit it to a soul, but I was interested (or needy) enough to stick with these movies during Hallmark’s “Christmas in July ” marathon. At the least, it was a good backdrop for chores. When my husband wandered in to ask what I was watching, I’d replied, “Stupid romantic drivel.” He was smart enough to leave it at that. When the series ended, promising more to come at Thanksgiving, I told myself I was done with it.
Summer passed. The election and then the post-election invective heated up. Friends were calling each other names, mothers were worrying about fights around the Thanksgiving table, and millennials were foretelling Armageddon. Searching for any escape route, I realized I was not only noticing teasers for Hallmark’s 30-day Countdown to Christmas but also anticipating them with minor enthusiasm. Stripped across prime time at two-hour intervals, the nightly movies promised to keep you warm and cozy and Christmas-y through the entire holiday season. And to keep you company while you’re baking and wrapping and cleaning with daytime repeats.
These movies are shot in idyllic places in the US and Canada, with a deliberate sheen worthy of the channel’s Hallmark Cards roots. Watching a Hallmark Christmas movie is like being inside one of those little Golden Books you’ve stashed in the basement for your future grandchildren. You’re kind of sad when you get to the last page.
One night, when Penn State football was on hiatus till the bowl games and news channel pundits were screaming at each other, I invited Hubby into to my Hallmark world. He sat through the movie with me—I don’t remember which and, of course, it doesn’t matter—and lo and behold, afterward said he’d liked it. Turns out he was ready for a warm, cozy , Christmas-y place, too. So we made it a nightly ritual.
We accepted the movies “where they were”. As Oscar Wilde wrote (snidely, of course), “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” If you’re a movie buff, you’ll see a hint of “old chestnut” in Hallmark’s line-up. Borrowing from The Bishop’s Wife, Santa sends a young girl elf to help people in the everyday world save the Christmas spirit and get their priorities straight. Borrowing from Roman Holiday, a young princess escapes her entourage to wander the streets of New York incognito and falls in love with a commoner. There are permutations on the Cinderella story, and a secret admirer theme, not unlike the anonymous love letters in The Shop Around the Corner (Nora Effron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail).
The acting is so-so in some, acceptable in others, and pretty good in a few. If you’re of a certain age, you won’t recognize most of the actors. To be fair, the Hallmark movie world is overwhelmingly white and middle class, although the newer movies appear to be becoming more diverse.
In spite of both the genre and ourselves, we had a fun time counting down to Christmas. Beyond their predictability and deliberate absence of real-world intensity, the Hallmark Christmas movies demand nothing in return for an “Aw, shucks” warmth that attracts and sustains world-weary viewers. Just as the Busby Berkeley movies (42nd Street, for one) and other bits of fluff got frightened, worn-out Americans through the Depression and World War II.
Photo: A street scene in Vieux Quebec during Carnaval.