Jane Borden | Longreads | December 2018 | 12 minutes (3,211 words)
In a big city, a woman lives a fast-paced life until something forces her to visit a small town, just before Christmas. Shortly after arriving, she connects with a charming small-town man. Commence ice-skating, hot chocolate, a tree lot, tree decorating, caroling, gift giving, charity work, big family meals, snow, snowmen, snowballs, snowball fights, red scarves, cookie decorating, a grand old house or country inn, sleigh bells, giddy children, and the soft plucking of stringed instruments whenever a character delivers a joke.
Every made-for-TV Christmas movie tracks the above plot. And yet, the uniformity does not prevent proliferation: This year alone, Hallmark made 38 holiday films across its two channels. Lifetime made 14. “The word is insatiable,” says Meghan Hooper, senior vice president at Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network. “We don’t seem to be able to do enough to make the audience happy.”
“Suddenly, Hallmark is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s just a pleasure,“ says writer-director Ron Oliver, who has made 13 Christmas movies for TV since 2004, mostly for Hallmark, which has become synonymous with heartfelt, holiday romantic comedies (it’s the Xerox of them, or, if you will, the Kleenex). “I have not seen this happen until this year. Everybody jumped on board.“
In 2017, 83 million people watched at least one Hallmark Christmas movie during their Countdown to Christmas and Miracle of Christmas events. The Hallmark Channel was last year’s number one cable network among women 25 to 54 in quarter four, and is shaping up to remain in that spot for 2018. Both Hallmark and Lifetime boast double-digit ratings increases during December. And the field is getting crowded: UPtv produced seven original holiday movies this year, Netflix made four, and Freeform made three.
How did America become obsessed with sappy, predictable, low-budget Christmas movies? Before we delve into history and psychology, let’s finish the plot:
Our protagonist falls in love, of course. She also rights an ethical wrong, always something from the past awaiting resolution and absolution. “It all goes back to Dickens,” Oliver says, referencing Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge, our modern-day heroine receives help, her three ghosts being her new love interest, the small-town community, and a stranger who slightly resembles Santa (what Hooper calls “a Santa-like”). At the film’s end, she and the love interest kiss, usually for the first time (these are family films), and she either moves to the small town or is forever changed by it. No one asks why the moms and aunts look only 10 years older than the protagonist. Roll credits, start the next one, begin to confuse which characters are in what.
It’s easy to assume that viewers enjoy these movies in spite of the repetitive plotlines, as if the networks greedily scam us. But Hallmark and Lifetime both do extensive focus grouping and ratings analysis. They know what works — we watch these movies because the plots are the same. In fact, Oliver calls the plots peripheral: “The real elements of these movies that make people love them is this sense of returning to your own past, your own childhood and sense of innocence from that era.” The slightly varying setups and environs must be similar to deliver us. These films are not art or even entertainment — they serve a function. They are ritual, a ritual as pagan as Christmas’s origins. And their key piece of iconography is the kind of American small town that’s quickly disappearing.
“Small towns have always been the iconic image for human relationships,” says Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College, whose work specializes in nostalgia. “The older woman lives here and the nice young family lives here. When you present the imagery of the small town, it’s portraying how we can get along in peaceful ways and help one another.”
Oliver grew up in one of these towns. He recalls, “It was this absolute Norman Rockwell Christmas town.” However, he adds, “I went back, maybe 20 years ago, and it is now strip malls. There is nothing to hold onto from there, so you hold the memories and recreate them in stories.”
He uses his hometown as a template when designing scenes and sets, but admits a challenge: “A few places exist, but they are getting harder and harder to find. We have to make them. We use every trick in the book.” Christmas Everlasting, one of this year’s Hallmark films, is partially shot in Covington, Georgia, because Oliver was drawn to its charming town square. “But when you go two blocks from there, it’s Walmart and CVS,” he says. Ultimately, the setting of the film is an amalgamation of three different small towns, plus a healthy dose of CGI.
Suddenly, Hallmark is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s just a pleasure.
So these movies deliver a fantasy of a memory — except, for most of us, it’s a false memory we internalized through Norman Rockwell art, and Rockwell was also delivering the fantasy of a memory. You can trace the line of American Christmas imagery all the way to Queen Victoria: In 1848, The Illustrated London News published an etching of Victoria and Prince Albert standing around a Christmas tree with their family. It was published two years later in the States, and had a lasting impact of popularizing the tradition. “Christmas was not always a family-centered celebration,” explains Bruce Forbes, professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Morningside College, and author of Christmas: A Candid History. It became a family holiday in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to the wild popularity of Queen Victoria, and to Charles Dickens, who published A Christmas Carol in 1843. “Dickens was not telling you what was happening in England, he was trying to create a Christmas that didn’t exist yet,” says Forbes. “When we talk about the ‘spirit of Christmas’ now, we talk about generosity. That’s a Dickens creation.“
What did exist prior? In England, not much. As a result of the lasting effects of the Puritan revolution in the 1600s, the English hardly celebrated Christmas at all. The Puritans’ beef was twofold: Christmas was not celebrated by early Christians (the holiday didn’t appear until the 300s) and those who did celebrate Christmas, Forbes says, “went to midnight mass and then to the tavern and got drunk.” So Puritans wiped it from the English consciousness.
Taking the baton from the Victorian image was Currier and Ives. The phenomenal success of this New York City lithography firm in the mid- and late-19th century put affordable prints of snowy landscapes into the hands of a nation. Then in the 20th century, Norman Rockwell paired nostalgia for 19th-century Christmas with images of our mid-century obsessions: the nuclear family and suburban life. It was a powder keg. Today, pulp-like TV Christmas movies recreate these images again — in their own way as prolifically as Currier and Ives — but this time they’re more reflective of our modern world. Additions include both the mundane (texting) and the imperative (finally, after years of criticism, we see characters of color). Nostalgia is meta by nature.
ART IMITATES ART
A few years ago, Hallmark Cards, Inc., the parent company of the two Hallmark networks (aka Crown Media), tapped one of its senior illustrators, Geoff Greenleaf, to create a series of images about a fictional town called Evergreen. The series of snowy scenes in a small town, featuring quaint shops and an iconic vintage red truck, became a bestseller. In response, Crown Media turned the cards into a 2017 film titled Christmas in Evergreen. The movie, and its 2018 sequel, Christmas in Evergreen: Letters to Santa, were shot at Burnaby Village Museum in British Columbia, itself a fictional setting designed to preserve and romanticize small towns of yore.
Dickens was not telling you what was happening in England, he was trying to create a Christmas that didn’t exist yet.
Oliver believes the mid-century American imagery that these films capitalize on is so effective because it speaks to a time “when America was truly powerful and firing with all six cylinders: making great cars and great music, going to the moon, for crying out loud.” But, of course, Rockwell and his ilk rarely painted the whole picture. “It’s sanitized,” says Forbes. “It ignores all kinds of things: race, teenage pregnancy, poverty. But it was the image that white Americans had of themselves.”
TV Christmas movies have certainly perpetuated this brand of whitewashed nostalgia. As the films’ popularity rose, networks received ample criticism. Still, just five of Hallmark’s 38 holiday films this year feature leads of color. This includes Christmas Everlasting, starring Tatyana Ali, who also stars in this year’s Jingle Belle on Lifetime. “It speaks to a shift in our culture, that suddenly there is a move afoot to have more and more of our real world look like our television world,” says Oliver. Still missing in the genre are LGBTQ love stories; no lead to date has been gay.
As American as a proclivity towards heteronormative whitewashing, so too is the tendency towards consumerism — some of the imagery within the films is for sale. Christmas in Evergreen has an adjacent product line: a keepsake ornament of the red truck, a magic snow globe, a mystery key, Santa’s mailbox. “We worked in partnership to look at a couple of the products they had that we could weave into the overall storyline,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. And of course they did: Hallmark was a retailer long before it got into content creation. “Not all brands evoke emotional connections,” Vicary says, “but that is at the top of what this brand promises and it has been since the beginning.”
CAPTIVE ON THE CAROUSEL OF TIME
These films are not merely delivering the past; the stories achieve a delicate balance between familiarity and novelty. In them, we see a “constant struggle between wanting to hold onto certain things from the past but wanting a new beginning,” says Batcho. That new beginning is provided primarily by the love interest — TV Christmas movies are never not romantic comedies. Hooper says her team at Lifetime learned the importance of adding a romance element, after trying other versions of holiday films without it.
This makes sense to Batcho. “Like nostalgia, romantic stories focus on relationships and the sense of the ideal,” she says, adding that early brain imaging studies suggest that romance and nostalgia produce similar hormonal releases in the brain, “the loving, feel-good, pro-social feelings.” Plus, of course, as important as it is for us to protect the village, we need new relationships to strengthen the gene pool. But Batcho also says novelty is intrinsically linked to nostalgia. She likens cyclical markings of time, such as holiday celebrations, to a carousel: Each time it goes around, the horses look the same, but different people may be sitting in different places. “By being different and new, [novelty] allows you to escape so you’re not trapped in the past,” Batcho says. “Nostalgic people tend to be more optimistic, forward-looking people.”
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Although nostalgia was originally defined as homesickness and categorized as a disease, scientists now understand its healthy and profound psychological function. Studies suggest that exercising nostalgia enhances mood, reduces stress, and increases both social connectedness and self-regard. “Nostalgia helps us rediscover aspects of our authentic self, by going into our past,” says Batcho. Studies even suggest it helps us ascertain a meaning or purpose to our lives. Batcho also describes nostalgia as a social experience, since we identify ourselves in terms of relationships. “Nostalgia actually helps diminish loneliness by reminding people that, even if you are not physically with those who have loved you, you were once loved,” she says. Further, the process isn’t random. We specifically seek past memories that will help our current state.
“Every time you turn the television on,” Oliver says, “you’re seeing news about another betrayal of an ideal that America held close for a long time. I think the country is trying to find its moral center again. There’s a consistency to these stories that people hold onto like a life raft in the middle of a cultural storm.” Perhaps, as viewers, we also try to right a wrong.
The makers of TV Christmas movies wisely trigger nostalgia in several ways. “We certainly have gone after a certain type of talent, in terms of recognizable faces we grew up with from ’80s and ’90s shows,” says Lifetime exec Hooper. Nostalgia serves us. A 2018 survey by Cigna reports that most adults are lonely — as in, the average score, on a scale from one to lonely, was at least lonely. Other studies have shown loneliness to be a major predictor of poor physical health, leading some researchers to declare loneliness both a health crisis and an epidemic.
Further, cohorts aged 18 to 22 and 23 to 37 reported more loneliness than older generations. “That’s new,“ Batcho says. A press representative for Hallmark identifies the network’s demographic as women 25 to 54, but says that during the fourth quarter – our holiday season – “our women and adults 18 to 34 are through the roof,” suggesting a potential link between loneliness and viewership.
WE ARE ALL JUST PAGANS BY A FIRE
Nostalgia TV has been booming for a few years now, and the seemingly endless reboots and remakes premiere all year long. So why this huge surge in viewers around Christmas? Even otherwise prestige-TV-obsessed viewers, who turn up their noses at predictable schmaltz, now indulge in made-for-TV Christmas movies. “I don’t know if the season causes it as much as the season gives you permission,” opines Oliver. “From Thanksgiving night onward, you are allowed to be sentimental.”
“It’s something about the holidays that is just built in: indulgence. Drink the hot chocolate, eat the food, lay on the couch, enjoy your family,” says Hooper.
And when Batcho is asked why people insatiably consume this kind of content during the holidays, she says, “Winter represents nature dying and taking a pause. It makes you feel very sad and hoping to look forward to a rebirth in the spring, which tells us that it is very fundamental and natural for people to like cycles. Bears hibernate. Even human beings need to take a pause.”
In one way or another, they are all saying the same thing, which is that we watch Hallmark around Christmas for the same reason Christmas happens at Christmas: the solstice. In the 300s, when the church designated the holiday, it likely chose December 25th for a litany of savvy reasons: some political and some for convenience, some building off already established pagan rituals. “You could guess them even if you didn’t study the cultures,“ says Forbes. “If it’s a midwinter festival, it would be a festival of lights to push back the darkness. It would feature evergreens because they look alive when everything else has died. To get past the isolation of winter, you would have feasts. And you would have dancing, singing, and drinking.“
From Thanksgiving night onward, you are allowed to be sentimental.
Part of why we’ve celebrated midwinter festivals since before recorded time is because, as Batcho said, we like cycles. They help us predict regular change: It’s cold and dark now, but abundant spring will come again, and we know it. They also help us deal with the constancy of change, with whatever on the carousel is new. “We can’t stop change. What do we do instead? Build cycles,” Batcho says. These cycles come in the form of temporal landmarks, which trigger nostalgia: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays … holiday movies. “We anchor ourselves. It is important for psychological well-being to have a sense that we are not out of control.”
The consistency of plot and its predictable ending therefore serve an important purpose: we need the films to be predictable because they are another icon of the midwinter festival. We see one and our brains not only know what to expect, but also what to do. If we seek this iconography now more than ever, then we must feel especially out of control.
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
It would be easy to attribute the popularity of these films to a kind of escapism resulting from the current division in our country, from the fear and hatred that many feel on both sides. But the rise of both Lifetime and Hallmark TV holiday movies started ramping up around 2012 (see graph). Perhaps the division in our country and the popularity of holiday films (and nostalgia programming in general) are effects of the same cause: an almost unfathomable acceleration of rates of cultural change.
In the 1980s, architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller (he of Dymaxion House and Geodesic Dome fame) posited a theory known as the knowledge-doubling curve. This sort of stuff isn’t 100 percent measurable, but the basic idea is: The amount of information we know, as a species, doubled about every 1500 years back when we were cavemen, and every 100 years in the modern era, up until World War I, at which point, it started doubling at an ever increasing rate. In the ‘90s, Artificial Intelligence researchers estimated the amount of information in the world doubles every 20 months. Today, varying estimates suggest that the amount of information in the world doubles every 10 to 13 months, and that, in our lifetimes, it could begin to double every 11 hours.
Change is coming at a furiously accelerating rate, providing us with greater and greater dominion. However, Yuval Noah Harari argues in his bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, evolution did not equip us to handle this kind of rapidly increasing power. For millions of years, Genus Homo was positioned in the middle of the food chain. Only in the past 100,000 years did we jump to the top. “Humankind ascended … so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence.” Our genus, by contrast, stumbles along with far less than a majestic prowess: “many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this overhasty jump.”
We need help adapting to cataclysmic change. Nostalgia provides aid, and so does story. Researchers discovered that character-driven narratives cause the brain to release oxytocin, which can enhance empathy, thereby motivating cooperation and leading us to trust strangers. The study, led by Paul J. Zak at Claremont Graduate University, also found that we continue to mimic the actions and feelings of characters after the story ends. If a protagonist accepts shifts in her life and finds optimism for the future, then so may we.
We know that loneliness is on the rise. We know that both nostalgia and story help us create and sustain relationships. And we know that more than 83 million of us are turning to nostalgic stories during the annual month when humans anchor themselves against change, all during a time in history when the pace of change threatens to destroy us. Maybe we’re obsessed with schmaltzy TV Christmas movies because humans understand, deep down, that the real savior, this season and every season, is each other. Come on, you knew this article would have a Hallmark ending.
Jane Borden is a freelance culture writer based in Los Angeles.
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