My name is Bryan, and I have a problem. It’s not as damaging as drugs or as commonplace as coffee, but it ranks right up there with having an actual monkey on my back. I’m referring to my secret shame: the irresistible jones to boot up schmaltzy Hallmark Christmas movies virtually every single night of the holiday season.
What are Hallmark Christmas movies, you ask? They’re a lot like Lifetime movies, minus the psychotic nanny who has invaded the happy family with a kitchen knife and deeply ill intentions. With their soap-flake snow, precious tots, and urban families getting stranded in lumber towns—where they rediscover the Christmas spirit in the local pageant—they are predictable, cheesy, by-the-numbers piffles. (Written, I discover in the course of my research for this piece, by such literary giants as romance novelist Debbie Macomber, author of Rainy Day Kisses and Lone Star Lovin’. Though they could just as easily be dreamed up by some dude scarfing down a turkey sandwich in a windowless room on a back lot in Burbank, feeding a few market-tested themes and characters into a beat-up Mac that spits out, à la Willy Wonka and the Everlasting Gobstopper, the requisite ration of zaniness, contrived conflict, romance, and weepy reconciliation.)
The Hallmark Channel refers to this season as “Countdown to Christmas.” For its fourth consecutive year, the cable network is pumping out a viewing-marathon-ready torrent of programming: 1,200-plus hours of original movies, holiday classics, and Christmas episodes of syndicated television series, according to Hallmark spokeswoman Pam Slay. Which, if last year is any guide, will be watched by more than 75 million people.
The plots usually revolve around someone who has lost a spouse, lost a home, lost a child, lost a sibling, or—simply—lost the love of Christmas. Nearly all involve certain ironclad “truths.” All orphans are both precocious and lovable; they will first hate, then love, then become disillusioned by, then finally accept their equally conflicted-at-first adoptive parents. Single women will always push away hunky, adorable men who could have walked off the set of an Old Spice commercial, but will invariably fall in love with them by the end. There will always be snow, but even in the frigid cold of the Christmas-tree lot that the cruel owner is trying to shut down, you will never see anyone’s breath.
The cast inevitably includes some former television star who has come to the not-so-feel-good realization that this kind of gig—plus Lifetime movies and autograph-signing shows—is now the best he or she can get. (Growing Pains’s Alan Thicke and Full House’s Candace Cameron Bure are this year’s has-beens, starring in the Hallmark original movie Let It Snow, scheduled to premiere November 30.) But even more painful is the fact that the movies feature some real actors, even Oscar winners. Oh, it hurts to see Olympia Dukakis mugging her way through made-for-TV mush with Desperate Housewife Nicollette Sheridan. Or Jami Gertz, once a member of the ’80s Brat Pack, as a gum-snapping cocktail waitress pretending to be the wife of an FBI agent who is tasked with protecting her from her billionaire ex-boyfriend (Spoiler alert: Even though they can’t stand each other, they fall in love!).
For committed hate-watchers everywhere, such movies are a Christmas miracle. Heckling the screen during a particularly improbable tearjerker. Being able to say to your wife at least three times per movie: “We could write this crap.”
But to pretend that I watch only ironically would be to tell a Christmas fib. (And as any Hallmark holiday junkie will tell you, fibbing usually ends in public humiliation, such as getting kicked by a donkey while gathered townsfolk giggle through cupped hands.)
The complete truth is that every once in a while—through the mawkishness, the bathos, the stilted characters, the horrendous writing, the appalling acting, the tugs on your heartstrings so blatant and so strong that you could use them to send an arrow through an apple—a moment will rise up to stir some long-buried memory: a relationship forgotten, a family member lost. Something real. Something that matters.
As I slog through the holiday season, seeing all the reasons so many people are cynical about everything, there’s something weirdly comforting about knowing these movies are on pretty much around the clock. It’s a sort of white noise that feels almost like family. And like family, Hallmark Christmas movies are silly and awkward and I sometimes get sick of them. But I always come back.