A Hallmark Christmas Afterthoughts

from Erin

Does that equation look familiar to you? It’s the simple pendulum equation. I’m guessing I saw this in high school physics, but my brain couldn’t retrieve it yesterday when I was “helping” (i.e., using the Google machine) my nephew study for his upcoming finals.

Crunching formulas like that was never easy for my brain to process or retain. I much preferred words and essays and speeches. Maybe this is where my aversion to anything formulaic began.

I first noticed my frustration with predictability not in math but in reading. If the narrative or the dialogue in a book I had picked up were too predictable, my interest would wane. That same response arises in movies and TV shows. Which may be where my initial aversion to Hallmark movies is rooted. Hallmark movies are known to be squeaky clean, good-vibes-only programming with a blossoming romance that hangs in the balance when miscommunication or an old flame threaten to undo it all. So standard is this narrative, someone even created a movie-plot generator:

Even so, Hallmark movies are big business. According to a 2018 CNN report:

Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” programming reached more than 72 million viewers, according to data provided by the network. It ranked as the top-rated cable channel for women aged 25 to 54 during the holidays.

All that viewership brings in ad dollars. S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Kagan research group projects that the Hallmark Channel brought in $370 million in advertising revenue for 2017. It expects that number to increase to more than $390 million this year.

In this week’s Persuasion, “A Hallmark Christmas,” Hannah and I used the Hallmark movie phenomenon as the basis of our conversation, the first in our 2019 holiday mini-series, A Persuasion Christmas. Our aim in this series is to look at how pop culture fuels various approaches to Christmas celebrations. A Hallmark approach to Christmas is our shorthand for society’s longing for all things merry and bright and for all things to turn out right in the end.

To that I am not opposed. There is plenty wrong in the world and in my corner of it; I often need to be reminded that all is not terrible. Still, I figured I would be annoyed and bored. I had not embraced the Hallmark movie-watching craze because I couldn’t see watching movies with formulaic dialogue and plot points.

Until now. This year has been especially wrenching and full of tragic loss. I’m heart weary. So right after Thanksgiving, when there was a down moment, I found myself watching Hallmark’s The Sweetest Christmas. It’s about a struggling pastry chef who must embrace the Christmas spirit or risk losing both the baking contest and a second chance at love. It was exactly what I thought it would be: forced situations (even one where the woman tumbles into the man who steadies her), unsurprising dialogue exchanges, and picture-perfect everything. It was everything I expected. But it fed my soul in unexpected ways.

During my conversation about this with Hannah, she mentioned that Hallmark movie formulas offer us Christmas liturgy in a structure-hungry season. The stories may be predictable, but that steady offering allows us to enter in to the story knowing that all will be well in the end. Modern life has stripped away so much of the sacred from our days. There are very few structures left that keep us moving along through life’s ups and downs, the way that the church calendar used to. Perhaps, in a small way, the Hallmark movie craze is highlighting a bit of missing structure right where we need it.

And that’s what I’ve needed in this year of grief. Sure, I know that all will be well in the grand scheme of things because Jesus put on flesh and walked among us. But right here, in this moment, I need reminders that not all is lost, not all is hopeless. In a very unexpected way, Hallmark movies delivered that to me. Our world—our hearts—could certainly use way more of that.

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