Friday, December 29, 2017

The Tyranny of Hallmark Christmas Movies

For decades, I believed my family's Christmas celebrations should be, feel, and look like Hallmark holiday movies, although I'd never actually watched one of Hallmark's pretty fantasy films until the last few weeks. 

You know... those gently paced films featuring stately Christmas trees twinkling with tiny white lights and shiny, traditional ornaments. With cozy yet spacious, tasteful homes generously furnished in warm tones. Set in adorable snowy towns with cute, local shops and friendly shopkeepers, and nary a Big Box retailer in sight. 

Movies that invariably include homey activities done together... cookie baking, parade planning, float decorating, gingerbread house building, making angels in freshly-fallen white snow. Tree decorating seems part of every Hallmark Christmas movie, as if the tree was the sacred center of a retail-based, rather than religious-based, holiday.

Movies in which people save all manner of things. Save Santa. Save belief in Santa. Save a beloved Christmas store. Save a charming cottage. Save a Christmas celebration. Save dogs, cats, or horses. Save a small theater or church pageant. Save small town history.  Save the town gazebo. Save the Christmas spirit. Save a woman from time travel. Save love, most of all. 

In Hallmark Christmas movies, people are attractive and immaculately groomed. They wear lovely but never edgy clothes. Certainly no tattoos, no stray piercings, no blue-streaked tresses. They behave with patience, kindness, and impeccable manners. They smile a lot. They speak in dulcet tones and slow cadences, even when calmly disagreeing over tiffs that will be resolved, usually with a kiss, in two hours. 

Sneer as you might at the cheesy dialogue, formulaic feel-good stories, white-bread actors, and impossible plots. Reality is that Hallmark's Christmas movie kingdom is a wildly-profitable smash hit, with 85 million viewers just in November and December 2017. 

"The Hallmark Channel was the No. 1 cable network among women ages 25 to 54 in the fourth quarter of 2016, and its ratings have seen even more growth in 2017," per the Washington Post. The Washington Post column, penned by comedian Cassie Belek, continues:
"While other cable networks have been losing viewers, the Hallmark Channel has been a success story. Theories of the ratings spike range from viewers seeking an escape from the daily fresh hells of 2017 to viewers seeking to embrace the 'traditional values' of a country made great again...
"I am the first to admit that Hallmark Christmas movies are flawed...  I love these movies filled with fake snow, small towns, Folgers coffee cans, dead moms, Taylor Townsend from 'The O.C.' and that one cafe that they keep using in multiple movies without changing the name...
"As divisive as 2017 has been, my female friends and family of all races and political beliefs have been talking about and watching Hallmark Christmas movies more than ever...  
"... women need a little Christmas in 2017. We need 90 minutes to sit down with the people we care about and watch characters love, cry, learn, forgive and get into snowball fights while living in beautiful homes they can’t afford and building elaborate gingerbread houses in impossible amounts of time."
Count me in as one who  is "seeking an escape from the daily fresh hells of 2017."  I can scarcely bear to hear political headlines, especially during this holiday season. And I can't fathom watching programs depicting death, violence, cruelty, broken relationships, or general ugliness.  Life in 2017 is packed with darkness. I don't hunger for darkness in escapist doses of culture.

I thirst for beauty in my entertainment. For charm and possibly cleverness. For loveliness. For positive thinking, and for altruism. For saving things, all for good, if often local or small, causes.  I yearn to sleep well at night, placated with visions of happy people, happy lives, a peaceful world.  My version of sugarplum fairies dancing in my head, I guess. 

Where's the tyranny of Hallmark Christmas movies?  

So where's the tyranny of Hallmark Christmas movies?  The impossible standards set by Hallmark's film fantasies.  Like comparing ourselves to young, lithe Vogue magazine models, almost none of us can emulate the sheer perfection of Hallmark's glossy holiday dreams.

The tyranny is that for decades, thanks to my mother's impossible standards, I believed my family's Christmas celebrations should be, feel, and look like Hallmark holiday movies, although I'd never watched one of Hallmark's films until the last few weeks. 

Now, Hallmark Christmas movies actively reinforce my sense of holiday inferiority. Of not doing enough, not being enough. not giving enough, not having enough.  Of my family not being happy enough.  Of my home not being warm or lavish enough. Of our gifts not being thoughtful enough. Of our celebrations and rituals not being festive enough.  

Of our Christmas decor not being pretty or elaborate enough. (At commercial breaks, Hallmark sells trees, wreaths, decorations, and ornaments so you can duplicate the look of their movies. And spend money to feed your fantasies. See their Shop the Look of Christmas website.) 

This year, my family of 9 (7 adults, 2 grandchildren) enjoyed a sublime Christmas Day at our home, blessed with a delicious feast, piles of thoughtful presents, and plenty of love. 

But over the course of our 4 days of festivities (movies, a round of golf, dinners out, football watching, cookie munching, gift wrapping), our Christmas was also messy and imperfect. None of us behaved with consistent patience, kindness, and impeccable manners. No one spoke in dulcet tones and slow cadences. 

There was a meltdown one evening by one who feels strangled by holiday relentlessness. There was an hour of boorish behavior by one who feels left out of family intimacies. There was disappointment by one who felt childish jealousy of another's presents. Three days after Christmas, our home remains brightly littered with wrapping paper, ribbons, and boxes. 

We are grateful for a long Christmas weekend as an imperfect, divinely human family. But we didn't measure up to Hallmark's picturesque high-bar for what Christmas celebrations "should be."

And I, a fool who unconsciously aspires to perfection in most things, felt twinges of remorse and pain over the challenging small moments with my loved ones. I am wrong. Hallmark is partially the culprit for my shallow guilt.  

After all... ours is a wonderful life, albeit laced with bumps and potholes in the road. To quote Jimmy Stewart, "It's a Wonderful Life!"