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It’s a tale as old as time.
Or at least as far back as the year 2000.
Girl goes to a charming northern village. The exact location is never precise. It’s called something like Hope Falls or Angel Cove or something non-denominational like Spruce Valley. This main character may or may not have grown up there. She works for either a resort conglomerate or a toy manufacturer or for big gingerbread. She might have even been sent by her slick editor at a slick magazine to write an exposé on the charming village. Or she is there to shut down the mill or bulldoze the bed and breakfast or steal the family cookie recipe and sell it to the money-loving soulless suits back in the big city.
These are minor expositions meant to last until the Act 1 break. Because before she can complete her mission, she falls into a romance with the mill’s chief lumberjack/surly hotelier/secret millionaire-turned-Christmas tree lot owner.
And how do I know all this? Because this is the North American art form known as the holiday movie.
The plots are as predictable as the seasons. As we know the leaves will change colour and temperatures will drop, we know that movie titles such as The Christmas Caper or Countdown to Christmas or Love and Christmas will deliver a happy ending. By the last act, the guy will get the girl, the small idyllic town that never bothered to diversify its industries will be saved and everything will culminate with a chaste kiss as the town lights its tree in the centre of the square.
Yes, it’s implausible. Yes, I have to suspend all disbelief. Yes, the whole thing is as saccharin as the hot cocoa the sweet elderly lady-type character will serve with a glint in her eyes at the beginning of Act 2. And yes, I might have a better time getting through one of these with an enormous helping of spiked eggnog, but the holiday television movie is, like it or not, an art form.
In much the same ways that cavemen adorned their walls with scenes of wildlife – probably exaggerated meadows full of stags, the artists at the Hallmark channel and other such movie makers are using their broad strokes to create a world that is only marginally more realistic than their cave-dwelling ancestors. I’m sure those watching Ug or Zog paint by firelight, called the endings of their masterpieces before they finished. “Now he’ll make a handprint,” one would say to the other. And they’d invent the synchronized eye roll.
But unlike those watchers, I don’t watch to be surprised. I watch because I know the rhythms. I know the premise. I know the ending before the movie starts.
I watch because there is beauty in these stories. And while it may not be apparent to the naked eye, once I watched a few hundred hours of holiday movies, I began to spot the intricacies of the master’s hand. As my eyes glazed over and my amygdala slowed its synapses, I began to immerse myself in their world.
In this world, everyone looks like they belong on daytime TV. Because they did, when daytime TV was a thing. Everyone has a familiarity to them – their facial shape is reminiscent of a 1980s sitcom star and the dim sparkle in their Botoxed eyes reminds me of a starlet of yesteryear (or another movie playing concurrently on another channel). Was that guy in the flannel shirt a guest star on Sex and the City? The answer is yes. And his presence is comforting.
You can’t call these rom-coms. Because they are not funny and because the romance in them is hardly traditional. Love happens as a by-product of planning a Christmas concert. It happens despite the motivations of the characters. The busy businessman or woman is way too focused on themselves or their career to see the other conventionally attractive lead opposite them as a potential suitor. In this genre, it’s completely feasible for Santa to exist and for adults to not question where all the gifts are coming from.
I was raised on these movies. Growing up in a house without a fireplace, we gathered as a family around the TV. I watched with a mother who loved the stilted sweetness and a group of ruthless siblings that delighted in pointing out every continuity error and lambasting every trope. Even my dad, between lamenting at having to watch but still neglecting to change the channel, couldn’t look away. In the silver glow of the TV, we accomplished what every character fighting to give her precocious child the perfect Christmas learns to do before the last commercial break – we started a new tradition.
These movies may not be nourishing, but they do sate a craving. While the critics decry that everything is a sequel or a franchise these days, the movie makers Hallmark and Lifetime and Netflix are cranking out original content by the shovel full.
Holiday movies aren’t stagnant either. They may not remake the wheel, but they roll it forward every once in a while. In the past few years, we’ve seen an evolution. While there is still work to be done, we have seen gay couples on screen. We have seen interracial leads. And buried under the powdered snow the dialogue speaks of small-town values and of the little guy battling the big corporation – is it just me, or does that ring anti-capitalist?
Holiday movies are where romance exists in its sincerest guise. Where two people fall in love without sleeping with each other (or at least sending each other nudes) first. Where opposites attract but in the least toxic way. Where people can decide to officially commit to each other over the course of a winter storm, or a cookie decorating montage.
It’s these contrary differences to the way the world works that make these movies so watchable. On the Hallmark small screen, characters are spared the lashes of modern life. So much so that a lead player can consider walking away from their corporate job – like they don’t have thousands of dollars owing in student loans or other societal pressures – simply to support themselves from the sales of one (albeit magic) ye olde ornament shoppe. In holiday movies, all the cast has to do is wish on a Christmas star. And isn’t that a realm worth visiting, even just for an hour or two?
Daniel Dalman lives in Saskatoon.