In late November, I made my way to the Hallmark Channel’s “Museum of Christmas,” a pop-up nestled near Manhattan’s tourist-jammed Chelsea Market. It mostly consisted of cheery, slightly goofy sets for photo ops—peppermint-striped tire swings, hanging swings painted like ornaments, an actual sleigh—designed to flood Instagram with selfies to promote the network’s “Countdown to Christmas,” an aggressively festive, round-the-clock extravaganza of chaste holiday-set love stories.
I stepped into the Christmas light infinity room, a high-end name for a small, somewhat flimsy-looking box lined with a reflective coating to create the illusion of an endless plain of multicolored Christmas lights. Closed inside, you could clearly see the outline of the door. A low-budget, family friendly take on the highly Instagrammable Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room, it was not a premium, high-gloss experience. But for the 90 seconds or so you stood inside, it was delightful—like a haunting aluminum Christmas tree from 1954. The cracks in the infinity room’s surface were accidental, but also the perfect metaphor to explain the appeal of the Hallmark Channel itself and, more broadly, the enduring success of campy holiday movies.
The “Museum of Christmas” was part of an aggressive marketing push that this year has seen Hallmark crowned king of a very crowded market. Cozy, made-for-TV Christmas movies featuring uncomplicated romances you can watch while wrapping presents or doing housework are an extensive genre with a long history; Hallmark has no monopoly on it, but it’s one the network has perfected. Freeform pioneered this kind of programming block, beginning in 1996 when it was still The Family Channel; their contributions include Desperately Seeking Santa, 12 Dates of Christmas, The Dog Who Saved Christmas, and Chasing Christmas. Lifetime—with its extensive history of making low-budget movies that enthusiastically cater to women—has its own slate, with offerings that this year include Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez as feuding toy-store owners banding together against a new, big-box competitor. Even Ion—a channel I know primarily for Law and Order reruns—has its own original holiday movies.
Netflix has also gotten into the game this year, heavily promoting holiday movies for which they’ve acquired streaming rights and doing an impressive job of parlaying their primary 2017 addition to the field—A Christmas Prince, a blatant attempt to cash in on a distinctive style quietly beloved by young women who grew up on basic cable, using sets and prom-style costuming that appears borrowed from The Princess Diaries 2—into a viral sensation. Only, as their tweet roasting the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince daily for 18 days straight suggests, the company seems a little embarrassed about the enterprise. There’s something sheepish about A Christmas Prince, a failure to fully and lovingly commit to schmaltz, that gives it the impression of diet fudge. It’ll do, and you don’t want to be left out if everybody else is getting some, but in attempting to dabble without fully embracing glorious, teeth-rotting sugar, it fails to satisfy completely.
But this year, Hallmark has eclipsed them all, becoming a byword for the whole style, achieving total cultural saturation with headlines in the Wall Street Journal, Slate, Business Insider, Vox, and elsewhere. Their numbers, too, are impressive. AdWeek reported it was “the most-watched cable network last month in total day among 18- to 49-year-old and 25- to 54-year-old women,” and together with “The Most Wonderful Movies of Christmas” on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, the season brings in a third of the channel’s ad revenue.
This sudden ubiquity is, in fact, the result of years of steady, even relentless efforts, presumably not unrelated to the fact that greeting cards aren’t the thriving concern they once were. Hallmark produced six original Christmas movies in 2010, head of programming and holiday whisperer Michelle Vicary informed Fortune in an interview two years ago. Between late October and New Year’s Day this year, the Wall Street Journal reported, Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, will premiere an astounding 33 new, original holiday movies. Countdown to Christmas alone features 21 premieres. The network has determinedly clawed their way out of Lifetime’s shadow and wrested from Christmas from ABC Family. “We put our stake in the ground, or whatever that cliché is, and said, ‘We are going to be your Christmas destination,’ ” Vicary told Bloomberg Businessweek. “The more we’ve done, the more they want.”
But Hallmark’s not exactly putting out the Christmas cookies and waiting for the neighborhood kids to arrive. This year’s marketing has been ruthless even if it’s buried under stockings and Christmas cheer. In addition to the Museum of Christmas, they’ve also sponsored the holiday windows at Lord & Taylor’s Manhattan flagship and part of the Macy’s Santaland experience, as well as events at Six Flags theme parks; “Christmas experiences” at four Gaylord resorts; and involvement with holiday shows by Mariah Carey, Martina McBride, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. They’re also counting down to Christmas in all of the company’s 400 brick-and-mortar stores, many of them suburban, a handy deployment of legacy advantages from the salad days of greeting cards.
Over the years they’ve settled into a formula that is the exact opposite of the gritty prestige dramas that so many networks and streaming services are chasing. These movies are a marzipan Christmas village; a piece of cheap, charming, sparkly novelty Christmas jewelry; a sentimental Christmas mug that once belonged to your grandma. Common tropes include families reconciled, slower-paced lives embraced, and cozy, fulfilling passions pursued. The setting is typically a small town or, in a pinch, an ambiguously European principality. The working theory seems to be that it’s impossible to have too many Christmas decorations, cheerfully wrapped presents, happy gatherings, or seasonal baked treats.
Every setting is obsessed with Christmas; one is a town named “Cookie Jar.” “Every year we get scripts with something like, ‘It’s the first year in the country’s snowiest city that they had no snow.’ Nope. Not on Hallmark it’s not,” Vicary told the Wall Street Journal. If the breakneck pace demanded by such a packed slate of movies doesn’t allow filming with real snow, their producers fabricate it. These movies are often characterized in the media as schlock, and they are made fast and affordably—Business Insider says in three weeks, for roughly $2 million.
But they’re camp, not crap, and they’re consistent, professionally produced, and cleverly packaged, which is part of why they stand out from the competition. In both tone and business strategy, Hallmark’s Christmas campaign most closely resembles Harlequin’s category romance novels. (I am not the only one to notice this similarity, though the astonished business press has not seemed to see it.) Harlequin books are typically short and hewn out of stricter-than-average guidelines provided by one of several clearly defined lines, with clear parameters for tone and sensuality level and tropes. For instance, “Love Inspired” titles are chaste and religiously inflected; “Blaze,” meanwhile, features more sex and more cities. Hallmark’s fast-paced romances wouldn’t be out of place in Harlequin’s stable—though only in the chaste wing—and their vibe reminds me of nothing so much as their homiest novels of the early 1990s. They have similar creative challenges, too—how do you keep the stories fresh at such a high pace of production, within such tight confines? Nora Roberts compared writing categories to performing Swan Lake inside a phone booth, but the difficulty of pulling it off inspires some really delightfully zany plots in both entertainment forms. For instance, 2015’s Ice Sculpture Christmas revolves around a young woman pursuing her passion for ice sculpting in a Christmastime competition alongside a childhood friend who (obviously) becomes more.
And to look at the packaging, you’d almost think Hallmark execs snuck into Harlequin HQ under the cover of night and stole their playbook. Compare the images they use for their movies and books from the line that’s perhaps the closest analog, Heartwarming, which “celebrates wholesome, heartfelt relationships imbued with the traditional values so important to you: home, family, community and love”—
—to the way Hallmark markets movies on its website and Twitter:
Despite the tight budget, they do get a fascinating grab-bag of recognizable faces. Dermot Mulroney and Danny Glover appeared in their marquee property for 2017—The Christmas Train—and I’ve recently spotted Henry Winkler and a Property Brother in movies. Brandon Routh once appeared as a kitten-rescuing firefighter, and unlike Netflix, they got Jane Seymour for one of their Christmas prince movies. They have their own crew of Hallmark-specific stars who appear again and again, including Lacey Chabert, for instance, who you’ll recognize from Mean Girls.
But why have these movies so thoroughly swallowed up the entertainment landscape in 2017? One interpretation comes via Zachary Jason at Slate, who describes the channel’s lineup as “42 hours of sugary, sexist, preposterously plotted, plot hole–festooned, belligerently traditional, ecstatically Caucasian cheer,” and suggests that, “as much as these movies offer giddy, predictable escapes from Trumpian chaos, they all depict a fantasy world in which America has been Made Great Again.”
It’s true that the Hallmark Channel is very popular in the South and Midwest, comparatively red swaths of the country. If a woman has a hard-charging corporate career in these movies, it’s generally so she can turn her back on it for something cozier and more stereotypically feminine, presented as a passion. The star of the Hallmark lineup is Candace Cameron Bure, the reigning entertainment queen of conservative evangelicals. So far, the closest Hallmark has come to diversifying their romantic leads is casting Alexa and Carlos PenaVega in this year’s Enchanted Christmas. (Which is about a couple reunited through the power of dance, preparing for a Christmas Eve show.) Otherwise, so far, it’s a very white universe—though it would be letting the rest of the entertainment world skate to suggest that this is the only place in pop culture where that’s true.
And while examples of this genre from other networks enthusiastically use the holiday as a setting and feature plenty of speeches about the meaning of Christmas and what’s important in life, none of them are quite as determinedly, aggressively pro-Christmas as Hallmark, and Christmas itself is also highly politicized right now. In fact our very notion of a “traditional” version of the holiday, based on home and family, is in no small part a product of the 19th-century anxieties about industrialization and urban disorder and the working class and, of course, immigrants. The Puritans, for their part, disapproved of the boisterous celebration of the holiday and would be appalled at the current materialist state of things. But this programming block’s existence—and the commercials woven among every scene—is a testament to the conservative currency that these images now have. One gets the impression Netflix sees the audience for A Prince for Christmas as nostalgic young women, but not necessarily conservative ones; Hallmark skews slightly older, more suburban, and more “traditional.”
Despite the advertising bonanza that these movies represent, heartless business practices and runaway capitalism are often the villains of Hallmark movies; male protagonists turn their backs on corporate America, too. There’s a whiff of soft-focus Victorian paternalism about their alternative, however. Who hasn’t wanted to run away from their job and open a warm bakery devoted to gingerbread? But it leaves a slightly gritty aftertaste when part of the fantasy hints that maybe providing love from a kitchen—whether at home or in the most local, low-key market—is somehow a woman’s proper place in the world. Actually, no; I’m just tired of deadlines and love the smell of dough.
But it’s short-sighted to attribute Hallmark’s total Christmas dominance to a specific political climate. Hallmark didn’t invent this type of movie, and their conquering of the genre is the culmination of several years’ work. Additionally, the audience is far broader than foot soldiers in the culture war against “Happy Holidays.” These movies maintain a certain appeal to viewers who’d rather jump in a fire than vote for Trump, because they are so determinedly scrubbed of anything explicitly provocative. And besides, the widespread delight in Netflix’s A Prince for Christmas—underwhelming as it is—suggests there’s something broader happening here. Despite the fact it was clearly made for pennies, it’s been received with more genuine engagement than some of the network’s pricier projects, including Godless, Bloodline, and even GirlBoss.
The truth is, it’s very easy to love sugary stories about snow and silver bells and family, where no problem is so massive it can’t be solved with a low-stakes conversation and a cup of warm cocoa and there’s always time for your loved ones, if you simply choose to carve it out. Again, Harlequin provides a useful point of comparison. Their much-maligned novels—so similar in tone and marketing—have always had a strong constituency among women who do grinding, often thankless care work, whether that’s mothers of small children or healthcare professionals. (Watching the network recently, I caught an ad from Johnson & Johnson thanking hospice nurses.) “In every Hallmark Christmas movie, the opioid epidemic has given way to Christmas Fever,” notes Slate. Well, you probably aren’t relaxing with Breaking Bad reruns if you’ve taken over raising your grandchildren thanks to the ravages of your child’s addiction.
It’s clear these movies are so popular right now because they provide an escape hatch into a snowglobe world where pain and uncertainty and fear are easily soothed. What’s more, the opportunity to take a brief break from near-constant stress is actually valuable in carrying on with one’s life—escapist entertainment isn’t merely a fantasyland for people who can’t hack the chaos of reality. That makes it all the more disappointing that Hallmark is so very white. In fact, Hallmark shares one of the frustrating features of Harlequin, which over its long history has tended to cluster authors of color into a specific “multicultural” line that’s due to shutter after 2018, leaving many of their lines very white and very straight. Escapism can be restorative, even lifesaving. It’s frustrating that so often, many of the people who need it most—members of vulnerable populations who are having the shittiest year—don’t get access to it. They don’t get to see themselves in these stories.
Instead of “escapism,” it would perhaps be better to think of these movies in terms of refuges. Which presents the question: How can we build better, more welcoming, affirming refuges for everyone? How can we desegregate these fantasy spaces? Imagine a series of holiday movies made on the relative cheap by the creators of Jane the Virgin, or executive produced by Shonda Rhimes—who, let us not forget, wrote The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement—running somewhere like ABC. I think of how lovely so many of the diverse stories in the romance world are and I would love to see that inclusive sweetness manifest on screen. Without it, my eyes will always be drawn inexorably, disruptively back to those cracks in Hallmark’s infinity room, to that outline of the doorway to the real world.