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In a quaint Oregon firehouse decorated with more Christmas trees than would seem fire code compliant, a bewildered fireman places a cardboard box, teeming with kittens, on a table. Beside him, his silver-haired colleague chuckles as a mewling tabby paws his chest. “There are only seven kittens here,” exclaims the younger, “but we started with nine!” The kittens gambol and chirp, a plucky score accompanying the men as they try to control the roving felines. The elder assesses where this life has taken him, so unlike what he had planned. He sighs – “We’re gonna need a bigger box.”
So begins and ends the most violent scene in Hallmark’s The Nine Kittens of Christmas, which premiered on American Thanksgiving to 3.4 million viewers – the channel’s most-watched original movie of the year at that point. “Nobody stepped on those little kitties,” says David Winning, director of the sequel to 2014′s much-loved The Nine Lives of Christmas and another 20 Hallmark movies, “15 or so” of them in the Christmas canon. “We just rolled cameras and the actors would walk in with the box of kittens … it would just explode like popcorn, and they’d be grabbing them out of midair,” he says happily. Firemen, Christmas trees, herding cats: this is the Hallmark Holiday Experience.
I, a Jew, have never felt the frenzied drive toward the Christmas season. Christmas is something I side-step on my way to get egg rolls and fried rice – background noise – like professional sports or bitcoin. And yet, since mid-November, I have woken up most days with the pressing sensation that Christmas is here, baby. This mild delirium was caused by my decision to partake in the Hallmark Channel’s annual Countdown to Christmas, a red sweater bloodbath of TV movies that kicked off on Oct. 22 and will conclude, after a two-month run, at the titular holiday itself.
For Hallmark, Christmas never really ends. Rather, it flows from one season to the next, getting hotter as it nears the source of its power: the birth of our lord Jesus, but in secular terms. This year alone sees the release of 41 new Christmas movies on its own cable channel in the United States, and on W Network, the Global TV app, and StackTV in Canada. Of these 41 movies, 34 of them were filmed in Canada with a majority of Canadian actors and crew (get those tax credits). Standing in for Denver, Montana, Chicago and the like, we see locations such as Langley and Maple Ridge, B.C., (as well as other picturesque Canadian cities) perform so convincingly that fans of the movies will visit these places in order to feel like they’re stepping into one of them.
“Canada’s small towns are perfect for these types of movies,” says Jesse Prupas, senior vice-president of development and distribution for Muse Entertainment, who has made, by his own calculation, too many Hallmark movies to count. “The citizens and mayors of these small towns have been very welcoming to the film industry – and are generally happy about the economic activity and publicity we bring.” Throughout the pandemic, a scaled-back film crew stands at about 90 people, plus 15 to 20 actors, and then another 20 people to work on post-production. Extras typically are local, although crowd scenes have been scant in recent years.
To those outside the fandom, Hallmark is best known as an American greeting card company owned by Crown Media, which in the early 2000s leveraged its brand into TV movie production that would in time come to stand for a genre (never not Christmas), a star system (Lacey Chabert; Danica McKellar) and a low-budget industry (most Hallmark movies are priced in the range of US$2-million). With an annual audience of more than 85 million in the U.S. and 14 million in Canada, Crown, via Hallmark, has built a TV empire, inspiring multiple companies to devise their own holiday fare using variations of the model (Lifetime, Netflix and the Great American Country channel recently bought by Crown’s former CEO Bill Abbott are just a few). Despite some delays and adjustments due to COVID, Hallmark has hardly slowed their schedule in the past few years, and viewership only continues to expand.
Having watched a mere seven of these 86-minute (on average), made-in-Canada movies, I am by no means an expert, but I have been indoctrinated. I can feel them snaking into my subconscious with their hot chocolate and fragrant spruces and charismatic big-eyed stars – attractive, but not too attractive. Denver (secretly a Vancouver suburb) sure is cute! It’s like Diet Coke – I do not objectively love the taste of it, but I still want to drink it all the time.
The first one I watched, Boyfriends of Christmas Past (filmed in Ottawa), perplexed me slightly with its stilted dialogue and abrupt transitions. The flat anonymity of the office scenes brought to mind Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave, without the comically grotesque dissolution. Intrigued, I selected another one, Coyote Creek Christmas (Vancouver), because it starred Janel Parrish of Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars, a show I became fixated on late in the pandemic. Set in a snowy inn, the movie had me relaxing into the placid pace and simple plotline that I now recognize as a Hallmark hallmark. By the time I watched my third Christmas joint, The Nine Lives of Christmas (Fort Langley, B.C.), starring Hallmark darling Kimberley Sustad and Superman Returns’ Brandon Routh, I had been fully Christmaspilled.
“[Hallmark] is really good at creating, as corny as it sounds, a glitter-filled alternate universe where everyone’s happy and safe and in love – or about to be,” Winning says. “There’s security in a good Hallmark movie.”
As I continued through my queue, The Christmas House (Vancouver, Victoria), The Santa Stakeout (Vancouver) and Christmas by Starlight (Winnipeg), I took intense comfort in the lack of suffering in these movies; no tears that aren’t followed by a tender smile, no dark secrets that end in a family torn apart. Sometimes there is mention of divorce, or a deceased parent, but all these things are in the past, and within the Hallmark Christmas Cinematic Universe, past hurt is something that bonds two charming 30-year-olds as they chastely discuss cat food. They are incredibly safe to watch, mollifying and easily metabolized while lying supine.
Winning explains it thusly, “When I get the script, I think: how can I make this emotional? I love stuff like that! I love a good Canadian Tire commercial that gets you crying. I’m a sucker for it.” As I watched the most recent episode of HBO’s Succession, the world of the Roys seemed especially cruel juxtaposed against my recent Hallmark diet, a world without sin, sex or swear words.
Featuring mostly white stars in typically heteronormative romantic pairings, it’s easy to project an old-fashioned agenda on these movies with their lack of discernible politics and love of traditional family models. But the values espoused within these films – generosity, understanding, a need to be cared for, heard and loved – make it hard to reject them on terms of crypto-conservatism. Hallmark Christmas movies are, to paraphrase Winning, long-form Canadian Tire commercials whipped to a creamy mousseline, perfect for days when the sun sets at 4:30 p.m. and life is feeling just a little too real. “It’s a fantasy world,” Winning says. “A healthy place to spend time, even if it’s Pleasantville, even if it’s not reality.” While some would like the movies to be more overtly conservative, Hallmark has begun to push in the opposite direction, introducing queer characters to classic plots and casting more actors of colour in central roles.
Ultimately, the Hallmark fantasy is a modest one, of perfect snowfalls, sprawling feasts and tuxedo kittens. And with most of these movies filmed in the off-season, Hallmark has fake snow down to an art. “We roll cotton batting onto the grass,” Winning tells me, “and we use fish ice,” factory-made ice that’s used for storing fish in markets. “It’s totally sanitary, and they truck it into the film sets and put it down.” In addition to maintaining the fantasy by frantically re-upping the fish ice as it melts under the July sun, it’s up to the actors to sell that brrrrr fantasy while bundled into wool coats and toques in 30-degree heat. “We have teams just off camera on sweat dabbing duty,” Winning says.
To their credit, you never do see them sweat, literally or otherwise. “You always know things are going to work out,” Winning says. To that end, all nine of the Christmas kittens were adopted by cast and crew once filming ended, a Hallmark-worthy conclusion. “As simple as it sounds. I think that’s what we need,” Winning tells me. “Simple stories about saving farms and falling in love. It gives people hope.”