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On October 27, the Hallmark Channel began its annual “Countdown to Christmas” movie series with Christmas at Pemberly Manor. You read that right: Since 2016, the channel’s traditional slate of original holiday movies has started before Halloween. How else could Hallmark air 37 entirely new Christmas films before the end of the year?
No, that’s not a typo. Hallmark really is releasing more than three dozen entirely new holiday movies for 2018 — and I’m going to watch all of them.
I’ve become a Hallmark original holiday movie nerd. It’s a recent development: My fandom began in the middle of October 2017, when my wife informed me we would watch all 33 of Hallmark’s 2017 Christmas films and do a podcast on them. At that point, all I knew about these movies was that they were cheesy, schmaltzy, and utterly formulaic. But I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
My wife suffers from depression, and 2017 had been an especially rough year for her. There were many reasons, including difficulties at work and the continuing fallout of the new presidential administration — not that the chemicals in her brain need “reasons,” of course. Just as she began to dig herself out, she broke her hip running in September. After the surgery in mid-October, she was effectively trapped in our apartment for weeks. Given her confinement, the ludicrous amount of movies and the time we would need to watch and podcast about them was actually a boon. (That podcast, A Very Hallmark Christmas, can be found here, if you’re curious.)
While I was determined to stick it out, I was genuinely worried that the films would be so formulaic and numerous that I would get bored and need to feign excitement. I was even more worried that she would get bored and give up on the podcast entirely, which might give her more opportunities to fixate on her depression. (I should probably add that this wasn’t my first rodeo, and she has purchased tickets to my rodeo on many occasions, too.)
I was right to worry in the sense that we quickly discovered all of these movies are basically the same. They star a hetero couple, one of whom has made the cardinal sin of not loving a secular vision of Christmas to the core of his or her being. Over the course of the film, the lead relentlessly bludgeons the other with Christmas cheer until he or she gives in, and the two fall in love.
That’s basically it.
If you’re wondering where the drama comes in, well, it generally doesn’t. Occasionally there’s a brief moment where someone misunderstands a situation and thinks the other doesn’t love them, but this usually only happens around the 1-hour-45-minute mark of the 2-hour movie, and is solved 10 minutes later. That time frame includes a sizable commercial break.
Here’s what I didn’t expect: Despite all of these movies being essentially the same, they were somehow… different? Although all the movies adhered to the same formula, there was a wide range of variables that could be computed to reach the same answer. Some of these details could be plot-related, like whether the story would add the stakes of staging a small New England town’s Christmas festival, or someone would somehow end up in a gingerbread cookie–baking competition they needed help on, or, memorably, if magical Christmas ornaments were in play (please watch the movie Magical Christmas Ornaments for more details).
There are plenty of other variables, too. There’s the chemistry between the two leads, whether the story tries to do anything unique within the formula, whether its jokes are actually funny, and whether its plot makes any sense whatsoever. A personal highlight last year was Christmas in Angel Falls, in which a real — but non-denominational — angel comes to Earth to help a town regain its Christmas spirit. The angel impressively neglects to mention the birth of Jesus even once, falls in love, and turns human to stay with her man, raising several million theological questions.
Watching these movies is like drinking dozens of different types of Chardonnay: They’re all the same wine, but they all have subtle differences and bouquets and flavor profiles, and after you drink too many of them you badly need to use the bathroom and may be on the verge of passing out.
But my wife and I were surprised to discover how much we enjoyed them. (Usually, anyway: of course there were a few stinkers.) After a shitty day at the hospital, or a shitty day of work, or a shitty day on planet Earth, we eventually realized how nice it was to come home and have this block on our DVR. These movies would not make us feel concern or stress, challenge us, or fail to provide a happy ending. A Hallmark holiday movie became a warm, cozy blanket for our brains to get comfy and sleepy under.
Mock them if you want, but many, many people agree with me. More than 72 million people watched last year’s two-month “Countdown to Christmas” event, which explains why Hallmark is churning out more of them than ever. This year’s 37 movies outnumber the 33 entries in 2017, already an increase from 25 in 2016.
You could argue that’s way too many — I would personally agree with you, having sat through an entire season’s worth of them myself — but there’s a bigger problem. The overwhelming number of films is also overwhelmingly white.
This year, only four of these 37 movies star people of color, up from virtually zero in 2017. Zero films included any LGBTQ characters last year; it remains to be seen if that will improve this year.
You don’t have to be cisgender, heterosexual, and white to enjoy the charming cheesiness of these movies, but these privileged perspectives are baked into this massive pop culture event. All I can say is my wife and I were fortunate enough to have this escape available to us at a time when we badly needed it.
My spouse and I will still try to watch all 37 movies, because we had fun last year and podcast glory awaits. And 2018 had its own share of challenges: My eyesight has deteriorated to the point where I need a series of surgeries. I’ve had one, but there are two more to go, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see. Luckily, Hallmark films don’t require eagle-eyed vision to enjoy.
There’s one last reason we’re back for more, and it shocked us the most about this project: We’ve actually never been much for Christmas. We’ve had a tree for only a handful of our 14 years of marriage, with virtually no other decorations. We often don’t even wrap our presents, which is the bane of my holiday-loving mother-in-law.
But at some point, after watching people learn to love Christmas in these films, something happened. We purchased a Christmas tree — probably owing to the several million or so advertisements for Balsam Hill artificial models we had seen. After we set it up, we decorated it with the paltry few ornaments we had managed to accrue over the years. We played Christmas music.
This year, to commemorate the project and salute the audacity of our 2018 Hallmark movie extravaganza, I put up our Christmas tree on October 27, the same day “Countdown to Christmas” kicked off. In the span of a single year, we’ve transformed from quasi-scrooges into those people.
Somehow these movies made a difference. We’ve actually begun celebrating the season as something more than just a chance to chip away at each other’s Amazon wishlists. These ridiculous movies are genuinely bringing us tidings of comfort and, well, joy might be too strong a word, but something like it. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a Christmas miracle, but it’s been a gift all the same.