If there was ever a year America needed some Christmas magic, it’s 2016. We’re divided, angry, afraid, and really goddamn sick of the Mannequin Challenge. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the Hallmark Channel is currently taking Christmas spirit to absurd new heights. These guys had no less than 19 (!) original TV movies premiering this season, starting on October 29 all the way through January 1. These aren’t cheap productions either. Last year, one of their films starred Mariah Carey, who also directed and rode atop a Hallmark float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade to promote it.
At first this Christmas glut seems like absurd overkill, but it turns out that the Hallmark Channel currently gets the second-highest ratings of any cable network, behind only mighty ESPN. It’s the #1 cable channel with women 25-54 (the crucial mom demo), and ratings for the Christmas programming are up double digits over 2015. Clearly, Hallmark has tapped into a massive appetite for holiday cheer. According to the executive in charge, “We all still want to have hope, faith, and love in our lives. Our movies are about tradition and the excitement of the season.”
Let’s take a look at a representative example, Christmas Under Wraps, the channel’s biggest rating hit of the 2014 season.
Here’s the channel’s official synopsis:
Dr. Lauren Brunell (Candace Cameron Bure) has her whole life planned out. As a third year surgery resident, she is counting on being accepted into a prestigious hospital fellowship to follow in the footsteps of her supportive father, Henry (Pine). But when those plans quickly fall apart, and Lauren is put on the wait list, she must take the only other opening available: a head doctor position in the small, remote town of Garland, Alaska. Convincing herself it is only temporary, Lauren moves to Garland where she is immediately charmed by Andy, a handsome local who soon starts to show her the importance of living in the moment and enjoying her unexpected adventure. As Lauren excels as Garland’s trusted doctor, she warms up to the friendly town. But Andy’s father, Frank, is hiding something from her in his top-secret shipping warehouse. Just as Lauren decides to get to the bottom of her suspicions, she receives news that will force her to make a life-changing decision, while knowing for certain that the Christmas season will never be the same.
When I read this summary I naturally assumed Frank was hiding drugs or guns in his top-secret shipping warehouse. That’s definitely a sign I’ve been watching way too much prestige television, because it’s not how the Hallmark Channel rolls. I’d hate to spoil the ending for you, but I’ll give you a hint: Frank has a white beard.
This plot summary is basically gender-flipped Doc Hollywood: hot shot big city woman is exposed to idyllic small town life, rolls her eyes at first, but then is completely charmed. (If you’re too young to remember Doc Hollywood, the Pixar movie Cars is basically the same thing.) The Hallmark Channel uses this template over and over again. Here are some of the offerings for 2016, as described in the official marketing materials:
- “When a TV personality has an on-air snafu and admits she hates Christmas, she is invited to the Most Christmas-y town in the US to try and repair her image.”
- “Aunt Sally’s Christmas Cookie Company is sold to a large conglomerate and executive Hannah must seal the deal and shut down the factory, which is the small town of Cookie Jar’s lifeblood.”
- “One of the most famous actresses in the world heads to the Christmas-obsessed town of Homestead, Iowa, to shoot a holiday-themed movie.”
- And maybe the most Doc Hollywood of all: “Maddie, a high-powered marketing executive, is on her way to a client’s wedding but her plans are derailed by car trouble. When a fork in the road leads her to Christmas Valley, a town in love with Christmas, an unexpected encounter and a group of strangers that start to feel like family will have her questioning what she’s really been missing in life.”
This is a story that’s clearly resonating deeply with women 25-54: the superiority of the small town way of life over the big city way of life. In the real world, these small towns are emptying out all over America as the jobs dry up. In the Hallmark world, people are ditching their Manhattan apartments for split level colonials in the middle of nowhere. “No one ever wants to leave!” chirps a resident literally one minute into this year’s Christmas Cookies. “It’s pretty much the best place on earth,” another agrees.
So there’s certainly some “maybe my kids will wise up and move back here” wish fulfillment, but more importantly there are several powerful strains of nostalgia at work. First there’s nostalgia triggered by the casting. Candace Cameron Bure, for instance, starred in Full House, an association strengthened when Christmas Under Wraps begins with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hallmark movies for this year are toplined by Lacey Chabert (Party of Five), Kristin Davis (Sex In the City), Lori Loughlin (also Full House), and Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All & Sabrina, the Teenage Witch). There’s a meta-nostalgia too, with the same actresses starring in new Hallmark movies year after year. Bure and Alicia Witt have both done four Christmas films in the past four years.
Secondly, there’s a nostalgia for a younger and more optimistic stage of life. I think it’s safe to say that most of the Hallmark Channel’s target viewers are married, but almost none of the movies are about married people. Instead we get movie after movie about single women finding love and giving speeches about family values. These movies are meant to reassure viewers that their own choices were the right ones and their lives are enviable.
But while the movies are about people falling in love and putting down roots, the lead actresses are closer in age to the married viewers. For the 19 Christmas movies that premiered this year, the average age of the lead actress was 38.5. In Christmas Under Wraps, Candace Cameron was 38 but playing a young doctor trying to get a prestigious fellowship. The marketing materials describe the protagonist of A Dream of Christmas as “a restless young married woman,” and the actress is 37. These ages are not necessarily unrealistic, but the Hallmark Channel reverses normal Hollywood logic by casting woman who are a little older than you’d imagine the characters to be based on the story. It’s like they know their viewers want to see stories about 20-something characters, but they don’t actually want to see 20-somethings starring in them.
But most importantly, there’s nostalgia for a sepia-colored past. For a long time, Christmas in this country has been about recapturing a brief post-war golden age. It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Bing Crosby singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, etc. Christmastime nostalgia is nothing new. But recently, nostalgia is becoming an increasingly powerful force year round. For a scholarly take on this, check out Yuval Levin’s excellent book The Fractured Republic. (Full disclosure: he’s my brother-in-law, but he’s also right.) For a pop culture spin, just watch South Park‘s most recent season, in which everyone becomes addicted to Member Berries:
The difference is that while the Berries play on fond memories of stuff that actually happened, the Hallmark Christmas movies are doing something more complex; they’re selling nostalgia for a beloved fantasy, blurring the line between the Christmas you remember and the Christmas you always wanted. Every town has a picturesque coat of snow. Everybody wears colored-coordinated scarves. There are no Walmarts or Burger Kings. Nobody ever takes out a cell phone to check Instagram. (Perhaps more concerningly, there are no people of color, gay people, or people who don’t celebrate Christmas.) It’s a Norman Rockwell America with all the poverty, shrinking prospects, and anger wrapping-papered over.
But if you peel back the jolly exterior, you can see glimpses of the real America peeking through here. Take another look at that Christmas Under Wraps trailer. “You haven’t had a doctor here in a year?” Candace Cameron asks incredulously. “That’s Garland for you!” shrugs the hunky guy with a grin. Sure, this town may basically be a third world country as far as basic healthcare is concerned, but look at how pretty that wreath is! Then there’s this year’s Christmas Cookies, in which a big New York company buys a small town cookie factory and plans to outsource production. The female executive saves the jobs, but there’s something real dark about an idyllic Christmas town basically being bought by a major conglomerate to profit off of their holiday spirit. That’s what passes as a happy ending here: benevolent corporate overlords.
I’ve been tiptoeing around the orange elephant in the room, but take a look at one of Trump’s recent rallies:
A lot of people on the Left assume that the heavy-handed Christmas stuff is just meant to be a jab at liberals and their supposed War on Christmas. That’s definitely part of it! But I also think Christmas nostalgia is the most powerful form of the more generalized nostalgia that made Trump such a unique political force. If you want to see what “make America great again” looks like, just turn on any of these Hallmark Channel productions. I’m not blaming the Hallmark Channel or saying that they have a political agenda. They’re selling a fantasy, and that’s what they do; they’re Hallmark. A politician hitching his wagon to the Christmas Valley star is more troubling.
In any case, we aren’t anywhere near Peak Christmas yet. Hallmark has already announced plans to ramp up to 29 movies for the 2018 season, and they’re expanding their Christmas in July event. It seems that the darker the real world becomes, the more we flock to a world of mistletoe, tinsel, and pumpkin-spice flavored Member Berries.