December 14, 2022

Missing the (Hall)mark

According to Jodi Walker in this article at The Ringer, the 2022 Christmas season will see 169 original holiday movies on various cable and streaming services—Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, and the like. (To put that in some perspective, there were 99 two years ago; that number jumped up to 147 last year.) It's no wonder there are so many of them: they're relatively inexpensive to make; they require almost no effort to write, since they all use basically the same plot; and they're extremely popular among viewers.

The hallmark of these movies (no pun intended) is a hero or heroine who returns to their hometown, disillusioned with the life they have lived regardless of the success it may have brought them, who finds a sensitive soulmate, often recovering from a brokenness of their own, who leads them to a better understanding of themselves; overcoming a series of obstacles (with the help of a man who may or may not be Santa Claus), the two come together in a loving embrace under the twinkling of the stars or the sparkle of the Christmas tree, and everyone presumably lives happily ever after. 

About that popularity—according to Walker, more than 80 million people watched at least a few minutes of a Hallmark movie last year.* Their appeal is no mystery, either: says Walker, tongue-somewhat-in-cheek, "These movies are specifically built to be discovered in fits of Thanksgiving boredom so debilitating that no member of the family is able to muster the physical or mental strength to change the channel. They are intended to temporarily uplift spirits, smooth gray matter to silk, and make you laugh at their ludicrous conceits." Even the worst holiday movie, Walker points out, "is the best holiday movie because it takes no effort to consume, and there are inevitably cookies involved." You know how even exhibition football games get larger TV audiences than regular season baseball or basketball games? Well, that's how it works with holiday movies. 

*Although there's no proof to support it, my theory is that some of them could only make it through a few minutes before they had to go to the bathroom and throw up. 

Most of these movies are colloquially billed as Christmas movies; many of them even have the word "Christmas" in their titles. I have to admit, though, that I have more respect for a network like Paramount+ that simply refers to them as holiday movies, though there's no question about what particular holiday we're talking about. Because, as Walker put it in an earlier Ringer article, "The holidays are about finding romantic love, wish-related magic, and firing up IMDb to see where you recognize that person from." But "they’re certainly not about organized religion." 

That's a matter of opinion, I suppose, the part about holidays not being about organized religion. I mean, I'll grant you that Independence Day and Labor Day are pretty much religion-free, but nobody makes rom-coms to show on a July 4 marathon. (Shhh—don't give them any ideas.) But there's a real feeling of a missed opportunity here. Not that your average holiday movie has anything to do with love, any more than a given season of The Bachelor; the characters may talk about love, but the stories really deal with romance, which I suppose is why they're not called luv-coms. But this holiday that dares not speak its name—Christmas—is filled with nothing but love, a love that's deeper and more profound than anything you'll see in these movies.

l  l  l

Bishop Fulton Sheen, in an episode of Life Is Worth Living, said that there are three kinds of love, and used their Greek words to describe them, because there was no English word that could really measure the distinction between them. The first is eros, or affectionate love, which is probably the closest thing to what you see in holiday movies, since eros is where we get the word erotic. Then, there's philia, which is love for others made in the likeness of God. Brotherly love, as the name Philadelphia might indicate. The third is agape, or sacrificial, divine love of God for man. Pure love.

That third kind, agape, is what Christmas is all about. It's the love of God become man, to live among us, with feelings and emotions; to die among us, with the most unimaginable physical and supernatural pain imaginable; and to conquer death in the Resurrection and show us the world available to us after this life has ended. It's a love greater than the love that the handsome but sensitive cafe owner has for the beautiful heroine who's lost her way and returned home to find it. 

And here's another missed opportunity, because the subtext to these movies is frequently that the modern world is not all it's cracked up to be, that the high price required for success in Corporate America is not worth paying. It's the kind of introspection that Christmas demands, getting in touch with the things that matter most: not the number of presents under the tree, not who has the best light display, not the new Lexus in the driveway (although all of these can be pleasurable in moderation), but the love of a God Who gave us the most precious of gifts. These movies may see it obliquely, as if through a glass darkly, but until they give up the childish things, until they replace feelings and sentimentality with something more substantial, they'll never quite get there. And, essential as it is for the protagonist in our movie to succeed in this journey to self-discovery, the German philosopher Josef Pieper understood that self-knowledge is not enough; "we simply cannot satisfy our hunger from within. No amount of self-knowledge will satiate us entirely."

How strange it is that the true meaning of a holiday that is all about love is virtually ignored in favor of movies that talk about romance without going much deeper than, "love means never having to say you're sorry." 

l  l  l

Now, I know what you're thinking: what's this burr I have in my saddle (or the thorn in my side, or the bug up my, well, you know what I mean) when it comes to Christmas movies? We'll use Hallmark as a stand-in for all the various providers of the genre, since they were the first originators. Literally.

The very first episode of the Hallmark Hall of Fame was a Christmas story. An opera, to be precise. It was called "Amahl and the Night Visitors," and it aired live on December 24, 1951. The composer, Gian-Carlo Menotti, took as his inspiration Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Adoration of the Magi." the original of which was brought to the studio for Menotti's introduction to the program.

The opera tells the story of a young shepherd, Amahl, who suffers from a crippled leg. One night he and his widowed mother are visited by three kings travelling East, following a star. They carry with them containers filled with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, meant as gifts for a newborn King they have heard about. Amahl, too, wants to pay honor to the Child, but he has nothing to give other than his crutch. when he offers it to the kings, his leg is miraculously healed. The opera ends with Amahl leaving with the kings to present his crutch to Jesus in person.

"Amahl and the Night Visitors" was an overnight sensation, garnering headlines and praise from around the country. It was restaged the following Easter, and then during the Christmas season every year through 1966, in the process becoming television's first Christmas tradition. I wrote an article about this many years ago, so you'll forgive me for being biased.

Over the years, Hall of Fame continued to provide high-quality, literate presentations, including the occasional Christmas drama. Many of Shakespeare's plays make an appearance, performed by America's finest actors. "The Lark" adapts a play by Jean Anouilh on the trial of Joan of Arc; "The Green Pastures" tells stories from the Old Testament and features an all-black cast (in 1957!). There are biographical stories on Churchill and Disraeli, adaptations of well-known movies such as "Dial M for Murder," and dramas by Shaw, Rostand, and Hellman. Well into the 1990s, you could count on Hall of Fame for thoughtful movies like "Sarah, Plain and Tall" and "Breathing Lessons." Over the decades, Hall of Fame was known as presenting some of the best in television, appealing to the viewer's desire for quality, middlebrow entertainment. More people probably saw one of its three telecasts of "Macbeth" than all the people who'd ever seen the play in-person up to that point.

Quality, literate, thoughtful television. "The Borrowers," "Man and Superman," "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," "Give Us Barabbas." Not Noel Next Door, A Kismet Christmas, A Magical Christmas Village, and A Christmas Cookie CatastropheThat's what the bug is.

l  l  l

Google some variant of "Christmas movies criticism" and you'll get stories from the last few years about how the casts are too white and too heterosexual, how Hallmark nixed gay relationships, how Hallmark backed away from nixing gay relationships, how Lindsay Lohan is using her Netflix holiday movie to reboot her career, and so on. As far as criticism of the content or quality of these movies is concerned, there's not a whole lot to be seen. Most people seem to understand that their plots are derivative, their content is sugary, they won't tax your brain too much, and their goal is escapism. Most people seem to like them. 

Now, I'm the first to acknowledge that I'm not a romantic. I'm actually more neo-Baroque. (A little classical music humor there.) Given the choice between a movie by, say, Nora Ephron and one by Bergman, you can probably guess which one I'm going to choose. But there's nothing wrong with being a romantic, or with making extremely successful movies. One of the problems with today's Academy Awards is that it panders to movies that virtually nobody has seen, so there's a lot to be said for popular culture in films.

My problem, I think, is the same problem that Martin Scorsese has with superhero movies. Scorsese, you might recall, once said of the superhero movie that, while "Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger … They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption." I see much of the same in the Christmas cookie-cutter holiday movie.

I know, I know, people want the sameness, the story of boy-meets-girl, trouble ensues, love overcomes all. And it would be great if that's the way life was. But it isn't. As Scorsese says about cinema, so he could have said about life: it's full of revelation and mystery. The emotional danger is real because you're not guaranteed an ending that's happily-ever-after—that's up to you. But if you don't seek out that drama in your entertainment, how are you going to recognize it in your life?

Am I a hypocrite, considering how many times I say about television that it's OK to watch a show not for its realism or its intellectual content, but just because it's fun? Well, maybe; I was a political science major, which means I know a lot about hypocrisy. But if you'll recall, I also make the point that man does not live on dessert alone. Just as you need a well-balanced diet for your nutritional health, you need it for your intellectual health as well.

l  l  l

My goal is never to unintentionally offend; if I'm going to offend someone, I want the satisfaction of knowing I did it. So if you're a fan of the rom-com and you're sipping warm coco from the authentic Hallmark Christmas Movie-Watching Mug™, I'm not calling you stupid, or saying your brain is full of mush. A man who watched The Gong Show daily has no place saying that. Besides, my wife used to watch these movies for years, and I know for a fact that she's none of those things. It's just that, like the old Peggy Lee song, I'm left asking "Is That All There Is?". 

People gravitate towards movies like these because they offer comfort and hope. But as St. Augustine wrote, "Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are." That was a major theme of Dickens in A Christmas Carol, and the story's held up pretty well for the past 180 or so years. Don't worry that viewers can't handle it: we can. And we, as viewers, can be more discriminating; we need to start challenging ourselves more: to be better, and to demand better. 

As I said, I'm not a romantic. And I'll admit to being a bit of a contrarian, but I'm not a humbug. If your Christmas isn't complete without a Christmas movie on Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix or Paramount+, by all means enjoy. It won't surprise you that I won't be watching any of them; I'll be sticking with the classics, with their subtle subtexts: How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street, which remind us that Christmas is about more than commercialism; Amahl, which shows the power of sacrificial love; the various versions of A Christmas Carol, which demonstrates the importance of repentance, and, echoing the Parable of the Workers, reminds us that it's never too late, no matter how old you are, no matter what you've done in the past. That ought to be as comforting to us as a warm Christmas cookie.

So my wish, this Christmas, is that Hallmark might consider, just once, returning to its roots and doing a movie with quality, depth, and gravitas; and that all of the networks might produce even one movie out of 169 that tells the true Christmas story without some vague allusion to an amorphous spirituality—perhaps something like The Fourth Wise Man, a fine TV-movie with Martin Sheen from years ago. Two or even three movies would make up less than two percent of your annual new output, not including reruns from past years.

Christmas is more than sugar and spice and everything nice. (That's what little boys are made of.) It's more than giving and receiving gifts, more than discovering the things in life that really matter. For that matter, it's more important than crafting the most literate movie ever made. Most important, it's far, far more important than mere romance. Christmas is part of the Greatest Love Story Ever Told, and the challenge in accepting that love.

We deserve better than what we're being given. We need better than that. TV  


  1. You gave the Hallmark Channel an idea.

    July 4th romance movies!

    Like "Romantic Fireworks": Lacey Chabet plays a woman who attends a local July 4th fireworks show, meets her high school boyfriend for the first time in ten years, fall head over heels again and has a good old summertime romance.

    Or "Love On The Esplenade", where a divorced musician is called in as a last minute replacement for a member of the Boston Pops hours before their famous July 4th concert and fireworks show. He discovers a gorgeous blonde musician sitting next to him and sparks fly. After the concert, he takes her to an all night coffee shop, and it goes from there.

  2. I actually watched one Christmas romance movie this season: "A Show-Stopping Christmas" on Lifetime.

    My girlfriend and I saw it only because it had been filmed in our suburban Boston hometown. Otherwise, she and I would never have watched it.

    Although it had it's American TV premiere on Lifetime on November 29, 2022, the movie (filmed in April, 2021) was actually first telecast in Canada on CBC-TV in December, 2021.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!