And God said, “Let there be snow.”


Every Christmas film is a crisis. Will she see him for who he is? Will he get back home? Will the present arrive in time? And, most of all, will belief in the magic of Christmas be maintained? Of course, plots change. This time it’s about an estranged father; next time it centres on two cat lovers. The goal, though, is the same. There is a Christmas wish that must be fulfilled—and nowhere is this more certain than in the Hallmark Christmas movie.

The Hallmark Christmas movie is an institution for viewers of satellite and streaming television channels. Each November it arrives complete with sugar-sweet characters, glittering settings and family-friendly plotlines, all tied up with a bow. At least that’s how it seems. What sits behind this televisual confectionery is an industry that has honed Christmas cheer to a razor’s edge.

It might surprise you to know that the Hallmark Channel produces not one but dozens of full-length holiday feature films each year. In 2018 alone, no less than 37 original Christmas movies rolled off its production line. Unsurprisingly, this cavalcade dominates Hallmark’s offerings from November to early January. Those movies lucky enough to receive the channel’s “Hallmark Hall of Fame” stamp of approval also make the rounds on other channels around the world, courtesy of big players like Amazon Prime and Foxtel. And viewers who dip into this nearly endless supply of Christmas cheer will not only find warm, fuzzy feelings but a structure that’s just as familiar.

The first rule for a Hallmark film is the title: Christmas hope with a touch of cheer. Top-raters like An Unexpected Christmas (2021), Let It Snow (2013) and Three Wise Men and a Baby (2022) make the point. The second commandment? Thou shalt not neglect the snow. Hallmark’s Christmas production schedule runs all year round, regardless of whether or not that scintillating white stuff is falling. A Hallmark scriptwriter interviewed by Entertainment Weekly affirmed that snow must be on the ground:

“We really wanted to do one where the basic conflict was a fear that there will not be snow on Christmas. We were told you cannot do that, there must be snow. They can’t be waiting for the snow, there has to be snow. You cannot threaten them with no snow.”


The white stuff
It’s not only the snow that’s white, either. As a rule, Hallmark’s casts are predominantly Caucasian. 2017 included three films where African-Americans featured prominently—Danny Glover held a key role in The Christmas Train (2017)—but these are almost always supporting roles. The average storyline is about a single white woman who finds love at Christmas, or a white family that reunites, or even a white working woman who gives up her career to spend more time with her white kids.

The third, and possibly most significant rule, is the sense of wellbeing a film must generate. Hallmark Christmas films don’t delve into dark family stories. Divorce is as far as it goes. The storylines must resolve in a way that’s comforting for the conservative viewer. Vox culture writer Emily St James notes that Hallmark Christmas movie aren’t religious by nature but their roots reflect what was originally a Christian television network. That, combined with its family-friendly outlook, produces a certain kind of longing:

“Hallmark Christmas movies feel nostalgic for something half understood, like those episodes of The Twilight Zone where somebody travels back to the 1890s or the 1910s in hopes of chasing some America that has been lost to the mists of time. Except, where The Twilight Zone traveller eventually realises the error of his or her ways, a Hallmark protagonist comes to love living in the bubble—or the snow globe, if you will.”

But Hallmark films are not the only Christmas productions that chase something that’s barely understood, yet persistently appealing. Each year sees a mainstream Christmas release that sells surprisingly well at the box office, despite our increasingly secular culture. Regardless of their North American feel, there are certain intangibles that still play well to Australian audiences. Consider if you will, the following.


Family bonds
Hallmark has made a trademark out of the reuniting of family members at Christmas. There are now no less than five sequels to its original Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas (2018)—just substitute “you”, “us”, “them” and “him” for “me” and you’ll know what to search up. There is an undeniable attraction to the idea that Christmas unites families with an unbreakable, unfrustratable bond. The Internet Movie Database lists no less than 14 movies and shorts that share the title I’ll be Home for Christmas.

A mirror to this longing for family is the desire for an end to isolation. Christmas comedy classic Home Alone (1990) features a boy forced to protect himself from burglars because his family has left for the holidays without him. Though he seems to be doing well, his ultimate happiness rests in their return. Even more obvious is the animated hit The Grinch (2018). Dr Seuss’s villain who stole Christmas does so because it reminds him of his own feelings of isolation each year. The audience warms up when the Grinch finally feels included.

An end to work
Arguably one of the most famous Christmas stories of all time, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, has been translated to the big screen in countless forms. At the heart of each telling, though, is a version of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who works so much that he has lost the joy of Christmas. The audience applauds internally when our protagonist finally leaves his counting house for the joy of Bob Cratchit’s home.

The perfect gift
So much Christmas entertainment centres around the giving and receiving of gifts—and not just any sign of grace but the one that suits the receiver best of all. Jingle All The Way (1996) stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as an absent father who seeks to mend his relationship with his son by giving him the toy he longs for most. Likewise, Arthur Christmas (2011) tells the story of a young Santa’s attempts to deliver a misplaced present. The arrival of this much-longed-for gift restores a young girl’s faith in its giver.


Christmas tales regularly focus on the cessation of hostilities. It might be the peace that descends on a household when a father and son finally connect, as in A Christmas Story (1983) or when nations set aside their enmities for a single night, as in Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Seeing Christmas as a time of peace can take the strangest forms—action classic Die Hard (1988) proves that not even terrorists can overcome a Christmas homecoming.

Three Christmas classics represent this best. In It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve learns that the life he has lived is full of more hope than he dreamed possible. In Miracle on 34th Street (1947), there’s still room for hope when a court rules and a little girl realises that Kris Kringle really is Santa Claus. And The Little Drummer Boy (1968) shows that there’s hope for the renewal of a boy’s heart, regardless of the pain he has suffered.

Considered individually, these themes just look like potential plot points for another Hallmark Christmas. But combined, we can begin to see where this seasonal longing comes from. The original Christmas offers humanity the opportunity to come home to the most important family of all. There, we find an end to all loneliness, as well as rest from our labours. Jesus’ manger contains the gift we not only desire, but sorely need. The Christ-child signals God’s offer of peace to all on whom His favour rests. And His coming signals persistent hope for a fallen world.

The first Christmas story is not another saccharine-sweet tale to be gobbled down during the festive season. It is the prototype from which all other Christmas stories take their lead. All of these themes have power over us at this time of year precisely because they reflect that original story. We fail to realise this because our world is increasingly attempting to separate the gift from its giver. But it does not make the offer of grace any less compelling because it is surrounded by so many counterfeits. Once it is understood and fully embraced, the true Christmas story offers a peace that surpasses any Hallmark dream.

Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney.

Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation.

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