Anyone flipping through any television in America between late October and January—whether it’s connected to cable or just Netflix—is practically guaranteed to stumble across a rom-com with protagonists unnervingly dedicated to Christmas cookies. Often, it will follow the emotional journey of a woman with a big-city corporate job as she slowly realizes, thanks to the power of a nostalgic family celebration, that she wants a slower pace of life with her high school sweetheart, whom she never quite forgot.
It is a cliche at this point that the lawyers and Very Important Businesswomen of the made-for-TV Christmas movie will inevitably find themselves disenchanted with their stressful careers. The specifics of those careers don’t matter and therefore are glossed over; what matters is that the job prevents them from slowing down and savoring life with a hunky Christmas tree farmer or Christmas cookie company owner. Less discussed: the jobs which the heroines of these movies do have. Normie jobs with decent salaries and work-life balance that leave room and money for a passionate hobby of handcrafting Christmas village houses simply won’t do. Rather, these movies often feature fantasy jobs that bear a closer resemblance to Pinterest than any stats from the Department of Labor. The kind of job that makes the viewer idly build a fantasy life in rural Vermont around the concept while melting into the couch wearing pajama pants, even if they’ve never, ever handmade a batch of cookies.
One acceptable career option is to be, specifically, a small-town doctor who knows everybody, delivers every baby, and splints every Little League injury before handing a lollipop to that scamp Timmy Sanders—but never, ever has to deal with the opioid epidemic or a particularly terrible workplace injury down at the local factory. In The Christmas Cure, an emergency-room doctor has to decide if she’s going to take over her father’s family practice. In Christmas Under Wraps, Candace Cameron Bure’s prestigious fellowship falls through and she finds herself running a doctor’s office in Garland, Alaska. (In that one, she ends up marrying the literal son of Santa.)
Then you’ve got your retailers. The protagonists of A Very Vintage Christmas and A Very Merry Mix-Up own antique stores. (The heroine of A Merry Christmas Match works at her mother’s antique store, but she spends much of the movie planning the town Christmas pageant and wondering if she should have been a theater director instead.) In Nantucket Noel, she’s a toy-store owner and her store is located picturesquely on a wharf. The hilariously named A Very Merry Toy Store features competing toy store owners—forced to work together to defeat a big-box store. (Played by Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez, no less.) In Christmas with Holly, the protagonist has already dumped her big-city life after being left at the altar when she opens her toy store.
Another entrepreneurial option: event planner. Admittedly, sometimes they’re big-city party planners who will ultimately decide to slow down, like the heroine of Christmas at Pemberley Manor, who entrances a local Scrooge while helping organize an annual small-town Christmas festival. But in A Storybook Christmas and Focus on Love, she just needs a little Christmastime assist from a man who will also help her find love. Sometimes they even plan Christmas events, like the heroine of Best Christmas Party Ever, who is planning a party for—you guessed it—a toy store.
A less-crowded category, but nevertheless important, is writers of varying stripes—specifically, in a meta touch, romance novelists. which includes Brooke Shields’ appearance this year in A Castle for Christmas, as well as A Christmas Village—in which a romance writer attempts to save the local living history attraction, a distraction from her professional worries: “If my readers find out I’ve never been in love… they’ll think I’m a fraud!” In The Mistletoe Inn, she’s an aspiring romance novelist freshly dumped by a romance novelist on the verge of publication. (Harsh.)
However, the ultimate Christmas movie gig is baker. Every possible category of baker, but generally a struggling one whose problems will be solved through the magic of Christmas. See: The Christmas Calendar, in which she receives a special advent calendar from a secret admirer; The Princess Switch, in which baker Vanessa Hudgens switches places with princess Vanessa Hudgens while in Europe for a baking competition; A Very Nutty Christmas, in which Melissa Joan Hart is a busy baker who romances a literal nutcracker. In The Sweetest Christmas, Lacey Chabert is a “struggling pastry chef” who hopes to turn it all around with an appearance in the American Gingerbread Competition. In Christmas in Love, she works at a bakery making Christmas Kringles—but she really wants to be a professional crafter. Sadly, I’ve never seen this one, so I cannot tell you how in the world she plans to make that work.
The heroine of Finding Santa takes the cake by owning, literally, a Christmas store.
The parade of jobs in these movies is slightly reminiscent of the romance genre in the 1980s, when seemingly every month brought a batch of heroines with interesting and sometimes completely bizarre jobs. She owns a chain of bagel stores! She works in ad sales at a radio station! She’s a truck driver! She’s a ballet dancer! It was partly because the romance publishing business was in a series of explosive growth, which created enormous pressure to do something new and different, and partly because so many new careers were opening up to women. The Harlequins and Silhouettes of the 1980s weren’t just about the fantasy of an attractive man—often, they offered a temporary peek into interesting kinds of work, and they testify to the excitement in the air at the sense of all the possibilities that might be opening before women.
Christmas movie jobs, though, seem to involve very little actual labor. Rather, they’re about establishing the heroine as sufficiently warm, nurturing, and dedicated to Christmas as defined by these movies—family-focused, domestically festive, and safe for children. Think church pageants and town parades, not liquored-up adult ragers. Often, the jobs are essentially pretexts for the heroine to engage in some sort of wildly romantic Christmastime shenanigans. In A Very Vintage Christmas, the antique store owner played by Tia Mowry—“a hopeless romantic who loves all things vintage”—finds a box of romantic mementos and commits herself to finding the original owner.
From one angle—if you squint—you could see the made-for-TV Christmas movie heroine as a rejection of the GirlBoss ethos. Perhaps even a rejection of the concept of work entirely! But these jobs are aggressively, even oppressively gendered, particularly Hallmark’s offerings. In the 2017 production Marry Me at Christmas, for instance, the heroine is a bridal shop owner who branches out into wedding planning. She’s on the verge of losing her store, but she does it because she just really wants to help a bride in a time crunch. Turns out the bride’s big brother is a movie star—but our heroine refuses to capitalize on his name to get free publicity that might save her store, even as her business partner insists with greater and greater urgency. In fact, she agrees to take on the job without even considering how much she should charge. Even when she knows that a very successful movie star is picking up the tab, she worries about not overcharging him for what is, again, a rush job that would typically incur a steep markup. Her job exists as a quirky way to characterize her as self-sacrificing and nurturing.
The reality is that running a small business like a bakery is a serious and demanding career that involves dozens of skill sets, from marketing to supply chain management. But the reality of these jobs has nothing to do with the Christmas-movie fantasy, and at some point, the implication of all those fantasy bakers smiling above their cutesy aprons and pans full of perfectly decorated treats—particularly when juxtaposed against all the big-city lawyers—is that women are expected to spend their time decorating for Christmas, making cookies, worrying about everybody else’s feelings, and meeting everybody else’s needs.
The rules do vary subtly from platform to platform and the formula does, maybe, appear to be changing a bit. Christmas Unleashed, a Lifetime production from 2019 in which a beautiful yellow lab attempts to reunite his owner (played by Vanessa Lachey) with her hunky ex-boyfriend, closes on a resolution that is cute, but absolutely will not work, in which the hero (dedicated to his small-town vet practice) and the heroine (a big-city lawyer) seemingly agree to split their time between the two spots. Not gonna happen before the advent of covid, and probably not even then, but still—not a wholesale rejection of the idea of a woman having ambition. This year’s Hallmark production Next Stop, Christmas is ridiculous for its decision to turn the MetroNorth train to Yonkers into a magical time-traveling second chance at love—the only adventure on the Hudson line at rush hour is whether you will get a seat that isn’t next to the bathroom—but the heroine is allowed to keep her stressful career as a neurosurgeon. It’s the love interest who changes to a more nurturing job, opting for family law rather than corporate practice, thereby enabling the heroine’s sister to adopt her second child in time for Christmas. (Please don’t try to parse the magical logic of this movie; you will get a migraine.)
Let’s face it, these ridiculously specific fantasy jobs are extremely entertaining; half the reason to tune in is for the pleasure of learning that somebody’s job is running a literal Christmas store and planning the town Christmas parade. The genre’s tropes are nostalgic and therefore small-c conservative almost by definition, but it helps when you aren’t simply beaten over the head with gendered expectations, and men get to be professional Christmas bakers, too. Everybody should get their shot at a completely absurd, unrealistic, and cozily nurturing fantasy career—isn’t that, ultimately, what Christmas is all about?