In Defense of Hallmark Christmas Movies

by John Ellis

A fascinating aspect of human psychology, that is likely more pronounced in modernity, is the apparent felt need to express character traits that are actually flaws and negative traits. Most of us do it. I must confess that I do it from time to time. For example, I’ve been guilty in the past of tweeting vainglorious pronouncements detailing my aversion to shaking hands, hugging, and small talk. But why tweet or Facebook about it? Shirking from human contact is a character flaw and not something worthy of publicly boasting about. Unless it’s a subconscious plea for help (and I don’t think it is, but if I did think so, it wouldn’t be subconscious, now would it?) there’s little reason to out myself as an antisocial jerk. As stated, others do it, too, and I’ll come to an example momentarily. Most likely, our felt need to shape other’s perception of us, even via negative character traits and flaws, is driven, in large part, by the ceaseless demands of an individualized pursuit of autonomy that is weighed down by the innate existentialism that comes with being communal creatures. We want to be known communally but while retaining our uniqueness. However, those last few sentences lead into an entirely different article, and, no doubt, this entire introductory paragraph is probably causing you to wonder if I incorrectly published an article with a title meant for another article. Nope. You’re at the right place; this article is my defense of Hallmark Christmas movies.

*for the sake of space, I’m grouping the Christmas movies of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Lifetime, etc. under the heading of Hallmark. We all know what kinds of movies I’m talking about.

The Hallmark Christmas movie season is delightful, and I look forward to it every year. Regrettably, it’s also the time of year when a wide-range of people take some sort of deluded pleasure in outing themselves as a grinch. A mean old green grinch who not only hates joy in his or her own life but isn’t content unless he or she takes the proverbial piss on the joy of others. It’s that time of year when people boast on social media about their disdain for Christmas music before some arbitrarily set date[1] and Hallmark Christmas movies. A character flaw. Something to be ashamed of. Seriously. Whenever I read or hear someone’s pronouncement of their dislike of Hallmark Christmas movies, I think to myself (and say to their face if they’re standing in front of me), “why would you tell people that?”

For starters, like adults who claim to be afraid of clowns, I harbor a deep suspicion that the Hallmark-Christmas-movie-hating speaker is not being truthful but trying to demonstrate a pretense of sophistication via stating a nonsensical and oddly self-insulting opinion. Because like how there’s no reason for anyone who didn’t grow up in Derry, ME, to be afraid of clowns as an adult, there’s no reason to dislike Hallmark Christmas movies. In fact, there are reasons to love and enjoy what has become an annual time of delight for many, including myself.

Most people are initially taken aback upon discovering how much I love Hallmark Christmas movies. Considering my disdain for the “Christian” entertainment industry – War Room, Pure Flix, Sight and Sound, etc. – it’s seems plausible for some to question my sincerity when I declare my love for Hallmark Christmas movies. Make no mistake, though, I am sincere. I sincerely disdain much of the “Christian” entertainment industry, and I sincerely love Hallmark Christmas movies. And there is no contradiction nor hypocrisy in that.

Much of what’s tagged “Christian” in the entertainment industry not only exhibits poor to heretical theology, but the aesthetics are also woefully bad. As much as I’d love to break down the ways in which Sight and Sound, for example, offends me, I’ll leave that for another day. If you’re interested, though, you can click here to read some of my thoughts on how bad art lies about God. Click here, here, and here if you’re interested in reading the theory/ies that drive my theatre aesthetics and that also inform my thoughts about “Christian” entertainment. As far as Hallmark Christmas movies go, my love for the genre can be summed up thusly: Hallmark Christmas movies provide a needed respite from our milieu’s ethos of cynicism and irony.

Before explaining that, I’m going to briefly tackle what is possibly the most common criticism of Hallmark Christmas movies floated by killjoys. Wrinkling their upturned noses, they snort, “Hallmark Christmas movies are soooo predictable.”

Yeah. So what?

Stories have a pattern (outside of arguably(?) stories within aesthetic tributaries like avant-garde stream of consciousness and Dadaist, and I’m not necessarily willing to even concede here – I have a professor friend whose expertise is James Joyce and I’d have to hear his thoughts before removing this disclaimer, though). There’s a point where all stories are predictable. The problem is that people often confuse stories (plots) with plot devices. The Story of the Bible, while having surprising plot devices is predictable because it’s faithful to the Pattern. And that Pattern is either mirrored in the pattern of all other stories or rebelled against, and rebellious stories include their own patterns and predictability because no matter how hard they may try, they can’t escape the Pattern. There is nothing new under the sun is an oft quoted aphorism for a reason.

For example, if you are familiar with Dostoevsky and the themes he swims in, my favorite novel, Crime and Punishment, is predictable. It doesn’t take long before the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen to Raskolnikov. For sure, there are moments – plot devices and character arcs – that surprise, but the story itself follows a pattern, self-consciously so. Same with my favorite play, Hamlet.

If you know Shakespeare and his themes (really, if you understand humanity), his greatest work is predictable. Standing over Claudius in Act 3 scene iii, Hamlet decides to reject his role as the instrument of God’s justice and, instead, become the instrument of his own self-serving vengeance. Upon Hamlet making that choice, the audience knows how the play is going to end, and there is still a lot of play to go (frankly, that pattern is begun in Act 1 scene i, but that would take many more paragraphs than I’m willing to write at this moment to show and defend). Crime and Punishment and Hamlet’s predictability doesn’t cheapen their power nor lessen their artistry. Hallmark Christmas movies being predictable puts them in the impressive category of almost-every-other-story-ever-told.

The rejoinder will undoubtedly be that Hallmark Christmas movies are too predictable, too easy. Okay. I don’t know what that means. I mean, I know what that means, I just believe that it demonstrates a lack of awareness of where much of Hallmark Christmas movies’ power lies.

Certainty is a lost art today. Our cultural cynicism and near-constant state of irony leaves us adrift. Suicides are up. Rates of self-harm among both boys and girls are not only rising, but rates are also rising frighteningly quickly among younger and younger children. Feelings of disconnectedness threaten many of us. Eating disorders. Depression. Anxiety. Look, I doubt that I have to defend the argument that existential angst is baked into our society. So, it’s odd to me that I need to defend the optimistic certainty that is thematically woven into the aesthetic fabric of Hallmark Christmas movies.

Hallmark Christmas movies do not wink at the audience. By that, I mean that the genre’s optimism is honest, and self-consciously so. The writers, producers, directors, actors, and other artists involved in the making of Hallmark Christmas movies know their role and their movie’s purpose. Bad art often traffics in unearned nostalgia, requiring an attempted end run around the Fall and fallen human nature to do so. Hallmark Christmas movies understand the Fall and fallen human nature. But while antagonists and consequences do occupy an earned place within the worlds created by the movies, Hallmark Christmas movies are fables that remind us that the Curse is not forever, that grace is a gift, and that redemption exists. They are not a Thomas Kincade painting lying to us that all is already well in the world. While recognizing conflict, they show us the optimism that exists in all of our stories because of the Story. And they tell us that conflict is beatable.[2]

Does this mean that bad Hallmark Christmas movies don’t exist? Of course not. The art of filmmaking has objective standards pertaining to lighting, sound, cinematography, acting, editing, etc., and I have seen Hallmark Christmas movies that violate many of those standards. As a whole, though, especially movies produced by Hallmark, Netflix, and other legitimate production companies with real budgets, the genre is characterized by aesthetic competence within the various disciplines that comprise it.

As a general rule, Hallmark Christmas movies are well produced with actors who understand their craft and are edited tightly so as not to distract from the simple yet joyful story. More importantly, they remind us that the darkness will not get the final say. The criticisms of Hallmark Christmas movies are misguided, at best. Look, it’s one thing for the genre to not be your cup of tea. I’m not a fan of opera, but that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the artform. Likewise, I’m not a fan of animated movies. Again, though, my personal preference is not indicative of any flaws in the art of animated movies. If you don’t like Hallmark Christmas movies, then don’t watch them. But to trumpet your dislike for a genre that is self-consciously optimistic and filled with joy says far more about you than you realize. And for my fellow Hallmark Christmas movie lovers, welcome back to the most joyous television season of the year!

[1] If listening to Jingle Bells or White Christmas or if a cheerily decorated Christmas tree is within your sight while chowing down on your Thanksgiving turkey causes you to be less thankful or enjoy the feast less, something is seriously wrong with you. What type of person hates festive joy?

[2] Just because artists aren’t consciously reflecting the Divine Artist doesn’t mean that their creations don’t remind us of Him and His Story.

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