“The Tube Meaning of Christmas”: A Meditation on the Hallmark Channel at Christmastime
My violin teacher, Ken Wollberg, asked me, if, since I study movies for a living, whether that included the Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel. With the exception of some cultural studies scholars like myself—I did, after all, spend a decade writing books on Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island—generally film and television studies practitioners either analyze films that have positive aesthetic or political significance, or audio-visual material that they deem ideologically dangerous.
It is likely that many of my colleagues would place the nearly 150 made-for-cable TV Christmas movies churned out by the Hallmark Corporation over the past two decades unequivocally into the latter category. The political orientation of the films is deeply conservative: the big city is always a place of evil, while small towns in rural America are the only locations where the true meaning of Christmas (henceforth, the TMOC) can be discovered. Given the country’s contemporary political divide, the films might as well equate Republicans with Santa Claus, ever so much healthier than the holiday Democratic Party-poopers.
Aesthetically and narratively, the films are indeed bland and reductionist. They tend to all look the same, shot with artificial snow on simulated main streets, since in real life such vibrant communal places have long since been devoured by Walmart. That merchandizing giant is the apotheosis of corporate America of which Hallmark is only a minor player.
With the exception of actresses known as the “queens of Christmas,” the films mostly feature actors who vaguely look like more famous movie stars. The scripts are literally cookie-cutters. All of the films feature the most banal of Christmas clichés: baking said cookies, trimming the tree with an angel on top, assembling gingerbread houses, ice skating, having snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, drinking hot chocolate, among dozens more.
And yet, my wife and I obsessively watch these films. We have dozens of them sitting on our DVR. Just today, we watched three of them. We have our favorite stars: mine is Alicia Witt, on whom I shall lavish praise momentarily. Many of the films we’ve seen year after year, but forget that we’ve seen them until well into the second act. We tend to choose which one to watch from the DVR based on the TiVo descriptions embedded in the video files: every time we see that The Nine Lives of Christmas (2014) is about a cat, we watch it as our own cat, Mia prowls around.
Figure #1: The Nine Lives of Christmas
The film is endearing: a Christmas-hating fireman finds a cat on his doorstep. He eventually falls in love with a struggling veterinary medical student when his supermodel girlfriend cruelly gets the nice girl fired from her job at her father’s pet store.
But, dog people do not fret! There is a Hallmark Christmas movie for every occasion: The Christmas Shepherd (2014) features a not only a wonderful pun slippage between a German dog and the witness to Christ’s birth, but a heart-wrenching story of a woman whose military husband has died and must take care of his canine friend, Buddy.
Figure #2: The Christmas Shepherd
The Hallmark Christmas films tend to divide into a small set of sub-genres. Some are up-conversions of Christmas carols: My Christmas Love (2016) involves a woman who begins receiving the twelve days of Christmas gifts from a secret admirer.
Figure #3: My Christmas Love
Other films feature plucky American women falling in love with European royalty. In A Royal Christmas (2014), the Queen is upset that her son the Prince is dating a working class woman from Philadelphia, played by one of the queens of Christmas, Lacey Chabert. In A Crown for Christmas (2015), a woman takes a job as a governess for the King’s children, only to fall in love with him, complicating his engagement to the Countess.
Figure #4: A Royal Christmas
A spate of other films feature plots about men and women in the military separated from their families for the holidays.
Given the demands of the Hallmark Channel’s marketing of the films as lighthearted, inspirational dramas, the scripts are incredibly tightly constrained. And yet, as the sub-genres indicate, each one has to be distinctive at the same time.
In the classical Hollywood cinema, this is known as the standardization and differentiation of product. In the 1930s, Universal wanted audience members to keep coming to see their horror movies (first Tod Browning’s Dracula in February 1931, then James Whale’s Frankenstein in November of that same year).
This strategy allowed the studio an economy of scale such that they could use the same sets, crew, cast, and dozens of other cost saving strategies. Boris Karloff appeared in Murders in the Rue Morgue in February 1932, and then again in The Mummy in December of that same year. By keeping the actor under contract, the studio could deploy his talents whenever they were needed for a new film.
Standardization maximizes profits and minimizes costs. On the other hand, movie-goers would not want to keep seeing Dracula over and over again. Innovation is required to make each new product appear different.
Marketing campaigns rely on these alterations: Universal could position 1935’s Werewolf of London as far scarier than 1933’s The Invisible Man. This is what Andre Bazin called “the genius of the system”: studio-based filmmaking actually demands innovation despite its obviously crass formulaic economic scaffolding.
With the Hallmark Christmas movies, despite the endlessly repeated clichés, there is a great deal of plot modulation, innovations within sub-genres that result in not only watchable, but highly enjoyable bursts of creativity.
One example is what we might call the workplace competition film in which a man and a woman vie for corporate success, but then learn the TMOC as they come to care about each other. These characters fall in love, sealed with a chaste kiss at the close, a formulaic requirement that projects matrimonial happiness into a future that lies beyond the Christmas season.
In Naughty and Nice (2014), a Christmas-hating Los Angeles radio personality comes to a small town in Colorado to co-host a dating show with a local Colorado D.J. who believes earnestly in true love.
In Window Wonderland (2013), a man and a woman who work at a department store are given the chance for a promotion for constructing the best display window to capture the holiday spirit. By the end of the film, their love for each other overcomes their ability to play capitalism’s games of competition. Fritz Lang’s film noir masterpiece, The Woman in the Window (1944) the Hallmark film is not, and yet if you would have told me the new movie would make me cry, I would have scoffed. And yet, cry I did, and still do five years hence.
Figure #5: The former competitors work together to create the department store window display in Window Wonderland
Figure #6: The finished window display in Window Wonderland
During the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Hallmark dominates basic cable television ratings, particularly with the treasured female demographic. The queens of Christmas, actresses to whom the network returns annually, drive this success. The most lucrative for the network is Candace Cameron Bure, a former child actress who played D.J. Tanner on the sitcom, Full House (ABC, 1987-1995). Bure and her brother, Kirk Cameron are highly visible evangelicals, and thus deeply admired by the Christian Right for their dedication to Faith.
Figure #7: Candace Cameron as D.J. Tanner on Full House
Featuring Bure, Christmas Under Wraps (2014) earned the highest rating for any Hallmark Christmas movie ever. In the film, Lauren, a big city doctor (played by the now 40-something Bure) ends up in Garland, a small town in Alaska. She falls in love with a local guy, whose father turns out to be Santa Claus (Brian Doyle-Murray).
Figure #8: Lauren discovers her boyfriend is the son of Santa Claus in Christmas Under Wraps
Bure has been appearing in Hallmark Christmas movies longer than any of the other queens of Christmas: Moonlight and Mistletoe (2008) was her first foray. Since 2013, Bure has appeared in a movie every year. Some of them are standard formula entries.
In Let It Snow (2013), an evil corporation sends her on a hostile takeover mission to buy up a mom-and-pop snow lodge. However, she falls in love with the owners’ son and learns the TMOC. In A Christmas Detour (2015), Bure’s character gets trapped with a man in a snowstorm in Buffalo; they fall in love while trying to get to Connecticut.
However, Bure has also starred in some of the more inventive entries. In Journey Back to Christmas (2016), she plays a World War II nurse who time travels to the present to learn the TMOC.
In Switched for Christmas (2017), Bure plays twin sisters bored with their humdrum lives. They decide to switch families until Christmas. Not only do they learn the TMOC, but like the “Job Switching” episode of I Love Lucy, they realize that what they had in the first place was the best of all.
This year’s Bure entry, A Shoe Addict’s Christmas, which premiered on November 25, 2018, does not disappoint. Despite being named Noelle, Bure’s character hates Christmas because she has to work in a department store during the holidays. In a capitalist reworking of Charles Dickens’ distinctly anti-capitalist, A Christmas Carol (1843), a guardian angel (Jean Smart) takes Noelle to visit Christmas past, present, and future, each transition effected by trying on a new pair of expensive, designer shoes.
Figure #9: Jean Smart and Candace Cameron Bure in A Shoe Addict’s Christmas
Despite the Hallmark Channel’s centering of Bure in their televisual wonderland, the queen of Christmas who most interests me is Alicia Witt, who has also appeared in a Hallmark Christmas movie in each of the past five years.
However, whereas Bure’s history from the treacle of Full House glides smoothly into Hallmark’s sentimental Christmas ornament commercials, Witt emerges from the most unlikely of places, the world of David Lynch.
From my hometown of Worcester, MA, I first remember a newspaper story in The Worcester Telegram and Gazette about an eight-year-old child actress, Alicia Roanne Witt selected by Lynch to play Alia in his film adaptation of Dune (1984). In her teenage years, Witt played Dr. Hayward’s daughter, Gersten on the original run of Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991), briefly returning to the role in Twin Peaks: The Return in the summer of 2017.
Figure #10: Alicia Witt in David Lynch’s Dune
Figure #11: Alicia Witt in Twin Peaks
In 2013, Witt appeared in two Christmas-related movies. In the first, Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, Witt has a small role as the wife of an angry, abusive husband and father. She protects her son from the brunt of his rage, but Madea fixes things for good, as is her way.
Figure #12: Alicia Witt in A Madea Christmas
Also in 2013, Witt appeared in the rival cable network, Lifetime’s holiday movie, A Snow Globe Christmas (2013). Witt plays Meg, a Christmas-hating TV executive visited by an angel who arranges for her to get knocked unconscious by a snow globe hitting her on the head.
Meg wakes up within the snow globe’s dream world, in which she is married to Ted (Donald Faison), her college boyfriend; the couple have an ideal family including two beautiful children. Meg’s boyfriend from the real world, Eric appears as a cad, not only a philanderer, but a capitalist villain bent on turning the idealized small town’s beautiful forest into a golf course.
Figure #13: Alicia Witt and Donald Faison in A Snow Globe Christmas
Meg awakens from the snow globe fantasy, having learned the TMOC. She sends her beleaguered TV crew home to be with their families. Meg then finds Ted, and rekindles their relationship. Ten years later, Meg is living the life from the snow globe, fulfilled at Christmastime with Ted and their two children.
Figure #14: Meg learns the true meaning of Christmas in A Snow Globe Christmas
Witt’s star persona from the Surrealist world of David Lynch casts a strange pall around her performances in the Christmas movies. Because of Witt’s star persona, A Snow Globe Christmas seems like a cruel revocation of the Surrealistic parody of suburbia in the work of David Lynch.
Twin Peaks is a typical Lynchian town, in which the superficial familiarity hides repressed worlds of murder and mayhem. Even Tyler Perry’s film merely hints at such dark places, but notably via Witt’s character as the fulcrum between the world Madea can control with her sassiness, and the dark netherworld where comedy dare not tread.
In her transition to the world of Hallmark Christmas movies, Witt’s star persona brought the legacy of Lynch’s Surrealism with her. Also produced in 2013, A Very Merry-Mix Up presents even the idealized Hallmark town as a slightly disturbing place. Alice travels to meet her soon-to-be in-laws. She lands at the airport not having the correct address; her fiancé is supposed to join her after he’s done with work.
Figure #15: Alice finds true love with her almost brother-in-law in A Very Merry Mix-Up
When Alice accidentally breaks her phone, she loses any ability to find her new family’s house. She acclimates to the new town, falling in love with a man who would have been her brother-in-law. While not the story of incest that Twin Peaks is, the residue of that dark tale leaves us to question just how merry the mix-up actually might be.
Witt’s more recent Hallmark films, increasingly stripped of Surrealism, continue to be among the most interesting films aired on the network. Her 2016 entry, The Christmas List is a virtual deconstruction of the Hallmark cinematic brand.
Witt plays Isobel, a woman whose capitalism-obsessed boyfriend abandons her for work, leaving her alone to pursue her dream of an ideal Christmas in a snowy town. She has brought a list of all the things she’s wanted to do at the holidays since childhood, but has been too busy to pursue as an adult.
Figure #16: Alicia Witt in The Christmas List
With the help of a local construction worker, she completes the cliched Christmas activities—assembling a gingerbread house and going ice skating, among them—saving one secret item on the list for last. When she realizes she is smitten with the local man, and not her big city boyfriend, Isobel has completed her list, to have fallen in love at Christmastime.
Witt’s 2017 entry continues the self-reflexive play with the genre from The Christmas List. The Mistletoe Inn is about the production of romance novels. Kim dreams of becoming such a writer, but is crushed when her boyfriend lands a book contract and then breaks up with her. To overcome the set-back, she travels to a cozy inn in Vermont, the location of a writing seminar.
Kim is looking forward to meeting one of the top romance novelists in the business at the workshop. However, he is not scheduled to arrive until the end of the weekend. In the meantime, Kim meets Zeke, an apparently struggling writer with whom she has much conflict, masking their growing attraction to one another. At the end of the film, Kim declares her love for Zeke, who only then reveals himself as the successful writer for whom she has been waiting.
Even more than The Christmas List, The Mistletoe Inn simultaneously deconstructs the Hallmark production of romance while enthusiastically embracing it. The film encourages us to consider how plots are formulated to achieve emotional effects. But, at the same time, the film delivers the standard Hallmark Christmas movie clichés: lives must be reconstructed via encounters with quaint rural towns in which one finds one’s soul mate.
Figure #17: Aspiring author Kim falls in love with a famous romance novelist in The Mistletoe Inn
This year’s entry is as compelling as ever. In Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane, which premiered on November 24, 2018, Witt plays Emma, who returns to the house in the small town where she grew up. Her siblings have converged, determined to sell the homestead now that their parents have passed. But Emma discovers a hidden message left by her mother in her antique desk, encouraging her to re-evaluate her life and learn the TMOC.
Figure #18: Emma discovers her mother’s secret hidden in an antique desk in Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane
The revelation of the secret which drove the ending of The Mistletoe Inn—the author’s control over the narrative—becomes embedded in the very production design of Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane. Through messages embedded in furniture, even the dead can pass on family traditions that seek to replicate conventional lives defined by the values on which the Hallmark corporation is built.
The clichés of Christmas—finding true love, bringing families together, celebrating holidays ritualistically—enrich us even when the world around us seems most bleak. It seems that, of all the Hallmark films, the ones featuring Alicia Witt allow me most clearly to reflect upon their profound contradiction. The more cliched the experience of Christmas becomes, the more desperate I am to grasp at it.