“Whoah! I did not see that ending coming.” This is a reaction that no one has ever had while watching a Christmas movie on the Hallmark Channel. The endless loop of these seasonal movies is nothing if not formulaic.
If you’re not familiar with the genre, every movie has several common elements. They allstar a vaguely familiar-looking actress who used to star in Full House or the Wonder Years convinced that she will, once again, be spending Christmas alone. They take place in cleverly named fictional midwestern towns like Evergreen, North Dakota or Holly, Iowa. The male love interest is a chiseled, young widower with a perky elementary school-aged daughter. There’s a kindly white-bearded grandfatherly type named Nick who works at the small town hardware store and dispenses timely life advice. The budding romance has a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — a failing family business or a job opportunity in the big city. In the end, the obstacles are overcome, the couple falls hopelessly, if unexpectedly, in love just as it begins to snow, the Christmas soundtrack crescendoes, and the credits roll.
Hallmark Christmas movies are cheesy, predictable, and incredibly popular. Millions tune in during the weeks leading up to Christmas and for many, these movies have become an integral part of the season — at least as important as hearing an endless stream of carols in the mall or picking up a peppermint latte at Starbucks.
How do I have any clue about the plot structure of these movies, you ask? Hallmark Christmas movies are one of my wife’s seasonal guilty pleasures. She’s not addicted or anything but after a full day of work, she’ll sometimes relax by making a big bowl of popcorn and clicking over to the Hallmark Channel. I end up catching enough to predict the ending after watching for two minutes. They are that predictable.
But I think that’s the whole point. In a world full of uncertainty, people are drawn to the familiar and formulaic. There’s something comforting about knowing precisely how things will end up. Since we don’t have that luxury in our daily lives, we crave such control in other areas. Enter Hallmark who understands this at a deep and highly lucrative level. As one Hallmark executive recently put it, “We own Christmas.”
But this is where the Christmas of Hallmark and the Christmas of faith differ. People of faith are not seeking to “own” Christmas but to live Christmas. And when living Christmas, there are no formulaic endings. The Christmas of faith is about wonder and surprise and transformation. It doesn’t always go according to plan because that’s not how life works. There is pain and grief and anxiety and unmet expectations. Jesus enters the world to offer hope and light amid the dark places of our lives, not to tie everything up with a beautiful bow.
I don’t begrudge anyone watching a Hallmark Christmas movie. Go ahead, pour some hot chocolate, put on your most comfortable PJs, and enjoy this seasonal cotton candy. But I encourage you to also embrace the comfort of the Christmas story this year. Christians draw comfort in the familiarity of Mary and Joseph and the manger and we know how the story turns out. We revel in the liturgy of Christmas, in singing the traditional hymns, in celebrating with one another.
Yet we also know that many in our midst stand outside the warm glow of the idealized Christmas, and that God entered the world in human form to bring comfort to the lost, the lonely, and the least. This may not make for the picture-perfect, expected ending but it does add hope and meaning to the reality of the human condition.