While their predictable scripts and perfect endings have produced a lot of criticism over the years, Hallmark Christmas movies are rising in popularity and viewership.
In 2018, 85 million viewers tuned into Hallmark Christmas movies, according to multiple news sources and the Hallmark Channel. This season, between Oct 25 (the launch of their first Christmas movie) and November 24, 40.1 million viewers tuned in, according to analysis by the Hollywood Reporter, setting them on track to surpass their viewership last season. Women ages 25 to 54 are the largest demographic watching these movies, and in fact, the Hollywood Reporter also reported that during Oct 25–Nov 24 of this year, the Hallmark Channel had the highest ratings on cable in the categories of households, total viewers, and women ages 25 to 54.
With numbers like those, it’d be difficult to presume viewers are tuning in just to mock a movie.
As this genre of storytelling has grown, with networks like Lifetime and streaming services like Netflix adding their own it-always-works-out holiday movies to their repertoire, cultural commentary and analysis has emerged. The question being asked: why has the mainstream public, women particularly, become attached to made-for-TV movies that are overly scripted and unbelievably predictable?
To begin, as it turns out there are mental health benefits to indulging in predictable scripts, full of feel good moments, romantic happily-ever-afters, and good triumphing over the evil financial lords or emotional burdens that threaten to ruin Christmas.
Pamela Rutledge, behavioral scientist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center and Media Psychology faculty at Fielding Graduate University, spoke with Danielle Page at NBC News earlier this year about this theory.
“Those predictable story arcs that draw on the standard patterns we recognize from fairy tales offer comfort by presenting life as simple and moralistic,” Rutledge explains. “Which can serve as a much-needed break from the complexity of real-life holiday chaos,” adds Page in her piece, “Here’s why it feels so good to watch those Hallmark holiday movies.”
But it’s more than just everything working out that appeals to us. The interpersonal relationships model a sort of experience we ourselves desire, Rutledge told Page.
“While few of us are going to switch places with a doppelgänger, save Christmas for ourselves or someone else, marry a prince/princess, fall for a person who turns out to be a billionaire, or find true love in the span of an hour, [Hallmark movies] still allow us to experience the emotions associated with social validation, the yearning for connection, compassion and empathy,” says Rutledge. “The movies provide simplistic solutions to all those stressors that the holidays can bring: family conflict, isolation, or financial pressures.”
The emotions we experience along with the protagonists trigger a powerful response—one that Rutledge says actually makes us feel more optimistic and resilient, which can help offset stress, depression, and anxiety (which tend to be at an all time high during this time of year).”
Perhaps most satisfying about this emotional journey is that viewers may, as Rutledge notes, identify with some of the story line, they can see the pieces falling together as the movie progresses, but the conflicts of the plot are often rapidly resolved in one fell swoop that lasts approximately 15 minutes.
The it-always-works-out moments
To illustrate this point, consider a scene near the end of Reunited at Christmas, a 2018 Hallmark Channel original movie.
Throughout the movie, newly engaged Samantha, an author living in New York City, has expressed a significant degree of uncertainty about getting married. Namely, she feels it’s not the right time to be getting married, citing the recent loss of her beloved grandmother and significant writer’s block on her novel. There are hints her hesitation is rooted in deeper concerns—stemming from a previous engagement, which was broken off the day before the wedding, and her parents’ divorce a few years prior.
Her fiancé, Simon, has indicated that he doesn’t want to force the engagement if she’s not ready, while also trying to enter into Samantha’s family’s holiday traditions in order to show his loyalty to her. For her part, it’s clear Samantha loves him, and it’s even more clear that Simon is feeling heartbreak at her reluctance to proceed with the engagement. Love and marriage should never be forced, and both Samantha and Simon are trying to find a delicate balance in the confusion their relationship is facing.
In a tender moment while dancing on Christmas Eve, at an event in her late grandmother’s hometown, Simon tells a nodding Samantha, “We love each other.” He assures her that while he knows she’s been hurt in the past, he’ll always be there for her. The conviction he displays is moving, and it’s hard not to be swept into the emotion he’s expressing.
The moment is interrupted by Samantha’s parents, whom viewers see throughout the movie may be rekindling their own love, happily suggesting that Christmas would be a great time for Samantha and Simon’s wedding. The awkwardness is palpable, and Samantha and Simon politely say they’re still discussing time frames.
In actuality, they’re still discussing the engagement.
Once her parents have danced out of earshot, a heartbroken Simon turns to Samantha, who looks even more unsure. “I can’t do this anymore,” he tells Samantha. “You’re not ready for this, and I don’t know to do to change that for you.” He decides he’ll leave to spend Christmas with his family, and tells her they can discuss their future when they’re both back in NYC. It’s not a dramatic lovers’ quarrel viewers see; it’s a heartbreakingly quiet moment for both Simon and Samantha.
Samantha’s mother approaches her to inquire what has happened. Samantha confesses the truth:
“He asked, I said ‘yes,’ and I panicked. I couldn’t stop thinking about Paul breaking off the engagement and what that did to me. And I couldn’t stop thinking about you and Dad. When we were growing up, you were the happiest. You were the perfect couple. And even with all of that, you just couldn’t make it work.”
It’s a startlingly relatable admission.
Any woman who has lost a deep love—whether from a broken engagement or a long-term relationship—can feel the mistrust and unease Samantha is feeling. Similarly, having divorced parents, even when the divorce happens once the children are adults, can bring a child to worry they’ll repeat the mistakes of their parents.
But what happens next is the sort of magic that can only happen in the last 15 minutes of a Hallmark movie.
Samantha’s mother gently places her hands on her shoulders and responds to her:
Sweetheart, your father and I got a divorce, but that does not mean that we regret a moment that we spent together. We have so many wonderful memories. We have two beautiful daughters. Those were the happiest days of our lives. I don’t know what the future holds for us, or even if we have a future. But just imagine what we would have missed out on if we didn’t even try. Sweetheart, sometimes you’ve just got to take a leap of faith. If you love him, the rest will work itself out.
And just like that, Samantha understands she’s ready to marry Simon. She rushes to catch him, calling him on the phone, asking him to turn around and come back. He returns to her family home; they embrace while she explains herself. He proposes again to a gleeful Samantha; the next morning, we see that she has broken through her writer’s block, and they announce their plans for a Christmas wedding the following year.
It’s hard not to roll your eyes at a happily-ever-after that bypasses the years of therapy most women would likely go through to overcome the fears and insecurities Samantha healed from in just a brief conversation with her mom. And yet, it wouldn’t be a Hallmark movie if it didn’t predictably end with a happy couple, embracing in love. That’s the magic of Hallmark movies.
Escapism that serves real life
Widely categorized as escapism, Hallmark movies aren’t real, which is part of what makes them enjoyable and stress-free entertainment. But unlike the escapism portrayed in fantasy and sci-fi, for example, this form of escapism has an element of realism. The stresses portrayed are ones that viewers can identify with—bosses with tough deadlines before the holidays, expectations for life that don’t always match their current life trajectory, and longing for connection, romance, or just simply a merry holiday season. The characters aren’t overly glamorized, either—in fact, many of the lead characters are women and men in their thirties or even forties, with gray hairs on the heads of men, particularly, not colored out for effect. They dress and look like ordinary people.
And therein lies another reason so many viewers are tuning in: the true-to-life characters and scenarios, though heavily scripted, remind viewers that their own life can be good, too. Michelle Vicary, the executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel, speaking to Buzzfeed News, explains, “[I]n the huge spectrum of the human experience, things can also turn out okay. Life can be good and life can be positive, and people need that too. That’s where we come in and that’s where our brand comes in and delivers on an emotional experience that says, ‘You know what, things are going to turn out okay, and you’re good and life is good.’”
Watch one or more Hallmark Christmas movie, and you’ll notice that for the most part, the characters are unbelievably kind to each other. If there is sarcasm, it’s difficult to notice among the graciousness and forthrightness predominantly portrayed in conversations. More than reminding viewers that life can be good, one could say that they give hope that humanity, ourselves included, can be better to each other.
The magic of the last 15 minutes of a Hallmark movie typically includes a character who at a pivotal moment achieves deep self-awareness about her fears or her weaknesses, and how she’s pushed people away because of those insecurities. She’s a workaholic because she doesn’t trust love or believe herself capable of holding onto it, or she just hasn’t taken the time to examine how her actions are or are not fulfilling her desires. She’s reluctant to end up with the small town man she’s met over the holiday, who is unimaginably kind, because she’s holding onto a disappointment from childhood, and moving back to that town would force her to face that past hurt. She’s distant with people she loves because she’s jealous or holding onto assumptions she hadn’t been courageous enough to talk about until the fateful Christmas portrayed in the movie.
The conclusion of the problem in each movie is almost always instantly resolved after this moment of self-realization occurs.
While this moment is often one of the most unrealistic parts of the Hallmark scripts, it also might be one of the most fascinating elements of the Hallmark movie virality. Watch enough Hallmark movies, and you might find yourself picking up a bit of that courage modeled in the protagonist’s triumph—to say what you haven’t said before to family, romantic partners, or bosses; to lean into creativity and strength in talents, drowning out the skeptics around you; to embrace love, be it familial or romantic, by seeing past hurts as an opportunity for growth, instead of a piece of your identity which is destined to hold you back.
And perhaps that’s the real magic of Hallmark Christmas movies: that they’ve popularized a form of escapism entertainment that is truly relaxing and comforting, and at the same time reflective and motivating for our real lives, too.
Editors' Note: Verily exists to empower women to be more of who they are. Support this mission by joining us at Verily Yours (try it free for one month). Your membership gives you exclusive content (that is different than our website content) and supports our publication, including our efforts to develop a print magazine. Subscribe here to start your free trial month.