Hallmark Christmas movies don’t have much to do with Christmas. Or do they?
Have you ever watched a Hallmark Christmas movie? We began watching them ironically. I mean, how terrible could they be? And it turned out, they could be pretty awful. But after a while they became like salty snack food—popcorn or chips: We couldn’t resist watching just one more.
Hallmark Media has announced it will release 40 new Christmas movies in 2023. Since 2009, Hallmark, traditionally known for making greeting cards, has aired more than 300 of these films—and a handful of Hanukkah movies too. These movies are profitable: During the Christmas season, according to ratings, more than 80 million people watch at least a few minutes of a Hallmark movie, and they’re particularly popular with the advertiser-friendly demographic of women 18-54. There’s a Canadian connection, too. Most of these movies are shot in Canada, where tax credits make production less expensive.
Formulaic to a fault, these movies, set at Christmastime, tell pretty much the same story using tropes to create feel- good experiences. A typical plot goes like this: A 30-something career woman, stressed out by her executive job in a large North American city, and with a less than satisfactory romantic life, leaves the big city for Christmas, returning to her roots in some small town where she reconnects with a high school sweetheart. He’s single again (sometimes a widower, sometimes divorced) and raising a child. Usually, it’s unexpected circumstances that lead to their meeting up, and as they spend more time together, doing Christmas things—like choosing a Christmas tree, or going to the town square for a tree-lighting ceremony or participating in a cookie-decorating workshop with his child—they fall in love. Then there’s a complicating factor almost breaking them apart, but after three kisses (an “almost” kiss, a private kiss and then a public one)—snow falling and carollers singing in the background—Christmas has arrived. There’s new love and new life; and the credits roll. You have to wonder why these stories engage such a large audience. Is it because these movies feed a nostalgic longing for a simpler, gentler world? This they do with nary a reference to the nativity of Christ, nor to the mystery of the Incarnation. Sure, a Christmas carol is sometimes included but for the most part these are secular, not religious, films.
What happened? Isn’t Christmas a church festival? There have always been Christmas films in which the gospel story isn’t in the spotlight, like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life. But they’ve tended to be built around some sort of arguably Christian theme—a celebration, for example, of ‘the Christmas spirit.’
In churches across this country the institutional decline of mainline religion has affected even Christmas attendance, with some notable exceptions. Canadian Anglican statistics show, at best, a plateauing of attendance numbers—Christmas isn’t, for churches, what it once was. Understandably many long-time faithful Anglicans are nostalgic, wishing to return a time when Christmas meant full churches and the sense that, on Christmas Eve, the world stood still while the birth of the Christ child was celebrated.
This is an interesting pair of nostalgias, because while while there’s little that the church can do to influence the plots of Hallmark Christmas movies, they do open up an evangelical space. There’s a longing in them for more than just an idealized past but also for the best things offered in the Christian story—things that can address the themes that fill these romcoms, like the stress of life in postmodern society, with all its complexities, or the desire for deeper, truer connection.
Then there’s the theme of finding love in unexpected places—probably the predominant theme of Hallmark Christmas movies. Is this not the theme of the Christian story too?
In the Christmas of the gospels it’s God that shows up, incognito, as a baby in a manger, to young parents in stressful circumstances, in a Holy Land rocked with violence and fear. Sure, there’s no tree lighting ceremony in the nativity narratives, nor hot chocolate; but there are, as it were, three kisses. There’s the “almost” kiss of the eternal God bending close to earth at the annunciation of Mary; the private kiss of a mother upon her newborn son; and the public kiss of the divine in the songs of the angels and the worship of the shepherds and the magi. For a moment, on that first silent night, heaven and earth became one, the divine was revealed in human form and a new possibility for life was revealed.
With a little creativity and imagination, perhaps churches can learn to better recognize and feed the yearning of so many for this new possibility, and for a boundless and unexpected love.