‘Tis the season for schmaltzy romance. C.J. Lines says maybe it’s time to give all those Hallmark Christmas movies a second chance. Or even a first one.
I first discovered Christmas romance while searching for Haylie Duff films I hadn’t seen…
Yep. That’s an opener guaranteed to lose about 99% of Reprobate readers! You may think there isn’t a place for mass-manufactured fluff on a website devoted to “difficult ideas for difficult times” but surely the fact that you’re already hovering over the ‘x’, ready to close this article down in a fit of rage, indicates it’s pushing your buttons somehow, no?
So bear with me. You’ll have to get past the hurdle that I enjoy the work of the Duff Sisters first and I admit that by the time I’d sat through Haylie’s no-budget horror fare like Fear Island, The Lost Episode, Backwoods and Desecrated, I’d passed the point of discernment. Watching a movie called Hats Off To Christmas! (2013) was totally normal to me, even if it turned out to be as weird and awkward as the title promised. I’d never seen a movie quite like it.
Duff plays the manager of a shop called Hats Off To Christmas! that only sells Christmas hats. ALL YEAR ROUND. No, really. Christmas hats – just hats – 12 months of the year. Despite many years of success, the company’s fortunes are changing, so her boss (who has a gigantic office in a separate building for reasons one can only attribute to the high demand for Christmas hats in July?) enlists his hotshot son to fix things. At first, Duff is resistant to this interloper but soon, through working together and taking in the joys of the season, they fall in love. She has a kid in a wheelchair too, who may yet walk again if only the film could end with a Christmas miracle…
It is an overwhelming amount of sentimentality but when mixed with the sheer absurdity and the festive setting, it was enough to hook me. I wanted… more? What I didn’t realise back then is that Hats Off To Christmas! forms part of a truly gigantic Christmas romance industry. The number of these films is pushing quadruple figures now and yet hardly anyone ever talks about them. I’ve watched maybe 20 – 30 per year since I made my discovery and I’m still not bored. Every November, I start again and there’s always a bumper crop of new ones to work through… You could say I have a problem but I see it as an opportunity. FOR JOY.
These films are made for TV, largely by the Hallmark Channel in the US, but Lifetime also have a go (not as glossy or, usually, as good as Hallmark’s), and various indie channels pump out their own lower-budget versions. You can tell which ones are genuine Hallmark by how much it actually looks like winter. If the cast is clearly wearing jumpers in the sun and mock-shivering at the height of a Toronto summer while CGI snow flutters past, it’s probably not the ‘real thing’. More recently, streaming titans Netflix have tried to get in on the act, but we’ll come to that later…
These films all tell the same kind of story. They have titles like A Christmas Duet, An Angel For Christmas, A Bride For Christmas, A Shoe Addict’s Christmas, Christmas Festival of Ice, Check Inn To Christmas, etc, to give you an idea of which variant you’re going to get. Broadly though, they all involve two characters, often with festive names like Holly or Noel. One will be a little chaotic and clumsy, but a Christmas lover with a big heart. The other will be more of a control freak, all business all the time, probably not that into Christmas. Although this unforgivable attitude stems from some past trauma – an uncaring parent, a dead spouse, a tarnishing of something once pure, leaving a surprise love of Christmas buried beneath, waiting to burst out and bring glad tidings.
These characters will somehow come together in a snowy little storybook town, with a name like Chestnut. They clash at first but find themselves forced to collaborate on a task that must be completed before Christmas. The town’s beloved snowman-building festival is on the cusp of cancellation; a carolling concert may not happen because all the singers are stuck in a storm; a special Christmas café may be closed down if they can’t stop a big corporation demolishing it to build a skyscraper, etc. Whatever the overarching mission is, it will involve our heroes picking out a Christmas tree, baking Christmas cookies, singing carols, decorating the tree, taking a carriage ride, or maybe going sledging (budget dependant). They will put on red and green jumpers and fall madly, hopelessly, irreversibly in love. How could they not with all this snow-capped magic all around them? Christmas is saved and so are their broken hearts.
I know it’s not cool to admit this but I love formula. I don’t mean I want things to be drearily predictable identikit products, made without flair. But if I pick a passion, I want that passion fed. I love horror movies and that love stemmed from wanting to see gore, monsters, spookiness, stabbiness, overblown gothic nonsense, gratuitous splatter, all the good stuff. You can subvert this a little, you can play with it a lot, but if you stray too far and don’t deliver the basic goods, you’ve lost me. It’s the conventions – not the trends and trickery – of a genre that endure and you’ve got to respect them. But people don’t appreciate this. The consensus is that convention = cliché, that unchallenging = uninteresting or untalented filmmaking. In my opinion, this fails to acknowledge the nuance. The Devil (or in this case, Krampus) is in the details. Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that many prolific directors of Christmas romance films come from horror backgrounds (e.g. Ron Oliver (Prom Night 2 & 3) or Steven Monroe (I Spit On Your Grave, Mongolian Death Worm). Both genres go straight for the heart.
The love story at the centre of these narratives is engineered for visceral impact. Each of our protagonists has something missing – often something relatable like a bereavement or a breakup or a lack of direction in life – and it gets retrieved, nurtured and completed by the other. What they need may be in the last place they expect it (or would realistically find it), but any contrivances or improbabilities are glossed over when someone, at some point, exclaims “it’s a Christmas miracle!” and we all cheer.
Beyond the obvious romance, one of our heroes – normally the clumsy one – will have a job in the arts. They’ll be a novelist, a dancer, an actor or a baker, the kind of creatively fulfilling profession we romance fans dream of. Whatever is standing in the way of their ultimate career success/fulfilment is also found through the lessons learnt from their new love interest and the power of Christmas. Another nice easy fix.
Then, of course, the third and final part of the fantasy is just… who wouldn’t want to spend Christmas in a place that looks like a gingerbread house? Most of us rarely even see snow at Christmas. let alone go to the Thomas Kinkade village of a thousand candy canes. The ‘ideal’ Christmas vista can feel as elusive as the perfect job or the perfect partner and the Christmas romance movie gives us all three and more. The void is satiated for 90 glorious minutes of escape.
There are some acceptable minor variations on the formula. One popular twist right now involves royalty of some description. A Prince or Princess of a kingdom with a faintly magical/eastern European name like Cordonia or Aldovia will be lonely and yearning for a mate. Enter the loveable ditzy journalist. You can guess the rest. Sometimes there are supernatural variants too – genies or time travellers both popping up quite frequently. In A Timeless Christmas, a Victorian gentleman from Christmas past winds up a magic Christmas clock and gets beamed into Christmas present to find love (it’s what Dickens would’ve wanted). In A Very Nutty Christmas, a wooden nutcracker comes to life as the romantic lead. A Cinderella Christmas retells the classic fairytale with our heroine repainted as an events planner. There’s even one about Santa’s own wayward daughter running away from the North Pole and finding love (Santa Girl).
However, it’s not as easy as it looks to get all this right. It’s a delicate hand that keeps your pristine snow sculpture from turning into an unsightly pile of slush. Casting is important. Material that looks similar on the page can come magically to life or die a horrible corny death, depending on the charm and comic timing of the leads. Likewise, the setting is key. A Christmassy inn or a snowman festival is pretty much a no-brainer but when you go off-piste and try an Italian restaurant (Christmas Romance Al Dente) or a Tinder-style app dev house (A Date By Christmas Eve), you’re gonna really need skill to stay on course. Likewise, the romance itself is tough to balance. If your dude is too much of an asshole at the start, he’ll never redeem himself. But if everyone’s too nice and hits it off straight away, the stakes are too low for ‘unexpected’ love to blossom and the story doesn’t feel like a journey. When you’ve watched as many of these films as I have, you start to pick up on exactly where and when it goes wrong and to demand perfection.
Netflix, surprisingly, don’t ‘get’ it, despite muscling in on the market over the last few years and arguably bringing the genre out into the ‘true’ mainstream. Some recent efforts like Holiday in the Wild (in which Charlotte from Sex & The City plays a doctor who shares Christmas in Zambia with hunky bush pilot Rob Lowe) and A Castle For Christmas (in which romance author Brooke Shields finds love with grumpy Scottish laird Cary Elwes) don’t quite cut it. The premises and the locations are fine and the cast of big-name actors is impressive (Brooke Shields is 100% undiluted Christmas spirit all by herself, I won’t have a word said against her) but the films miss the mark on the little things. For example, neither of them actually get to the Christmas part until after the one-hour mark. Not a single tree goes up, not a string of fairy lights is hung until way too late in the movie. Your average Hallmark movie, by contrast, offers a kaleidoscopic orgy of nutcrackers, snowmen, neon Santas, flashing lights and tumbling candy canes before the credits have even finished rolling and that is what we came here for.
What’s worse is that Netflix’s flagship series of films – A Christmas Prince – assumes that the Hallmark audience are watching ironically and pokes fun at some of the tropes, but in ways that feel snarky rather than loving. Sure, it delivers the same plot – but in a way that winks at the audience and, trust me, die-hard Christmas Romance fans don’t want to be winked at. We want to be swept the fuck away. If you watch the Hallmark movie A Royal Christmas and then the first Christmas Prince movie (both, curiously, directed by Alex Zamm) you’ll see the difference. The plots are almost identical but the tone? Way off.
The far lower budget A Christmas Movie Christmas (from UpTV – an “uplifting entertainment” channel!) proves you can be meta but still warm and genuine. In this utter delight, a girl named Eve Bell (!) makes a wish for her life to be like a Christmas movie and (thanks to a magical wishing Santa who happens to be listening) wakes up to find herself… stuck in a Christmas movie. Unlike A Christmas Prince, this one sends up the tropes with both knowledge and sincerity, managing to pull off a heartfelt romance at the same time. Rather than saying “we’re self-aware, and aware we’re a bit crap” it goes with “we’re self-aware, and aware we’re brilliant”, which is a much better approach…
Sure, there’s an audience (a sizeable one, no less) who wants to watch these films to poke fun at them and they’ll enjoy all Christmas Prince’s yuks at the genre’s expense. More power to them, but these aren’t my people. My people are the ones sat crying on the sofa over a film like A Snowed Inn Christmas, rather than scoffing about how weird it would be if its two heroes – Jenna Hudson and Kevin Jenner – got married afterwards and she became Jenna Jenner. Although, actually, yeah, that one is a bit weird now I think about it…
I could go on, singing the praises of A Heavenly Christmas (a magnificent Hallmark weepie with Charlotte from Sex & The City as a woman who dies and comes back as a Christmas angel) or Snowmance (a genuinely hilarious romance where a woman brings a snowman to life with Christmas magic, believing she can “make the perfect man”), but part of the fun is sifting through them. The best thing is that – unlike, say, the horror genre – they haven’t morphed into something unrecognisable yet. We’re still in the golden age of Christmas romance. There’s somewhere in the region of 60 – 100 of these films made each year. You can never hit the bottom. It’s jingles all the way down.
There’s also something peculiarly subversive about them. Hear me out on this. Yes, they are chaste, wholesome and clean-cut almost to the point of perversion (as a rule, the protagonists cannot even kiss until the very last frame before the credits roll) but they are also quite niche as art goes. Not everyone is going to enjoy these movies. Most people will be put off by the whimsical humour, the far-fetched plots, the melodramatic sentimentality or the festive aesthetic. Self-proclaimed cinephiles will be flat-out disgusted. If you’re having a conversation with the normal folk and ask about their favourite Christmas films, it’ll be all Scrooged or Home Alone or Love Actually or Gremlins or (if you’re talking to a particularly tedious person) Die Hard. You’ll almost never get anyone saying Snowed Inn Christmas or Christmas By Starlight or ‘Tis The Season For Love. And if you do? Well, you’ll know they’re someone who walks their own path, loves what they love and is flying in the face of ‘good taste’. In fact, you may well have found your own seasonal soulmate.
It’s a Christmas miracle!
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