It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas Movies
This week’s Editor’s Corner notes that part of the appeal of the cheesy holiday rom-com is that it sells us a completely idealized version of economics and small business ownership
Now that Thanksgiving is behind us—the turkey eaten, the Black Friday sales shopped, the political arguments still unresolved but at least tabled for now—it’s officially the holiday season. And for TV channels such as Hallmark and Lifetime, that means one thing and one thing only: ’Tis the season for holiday-themed romantic comedies. Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” promises new movies every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from now till December 25, and its website gives a synopsis and preview of 31 brand-new films that celebrate the holiday season. Meanwhile, Lifetime’s “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” movie schedule has already kicked off with its first new movie of the season: “Ladies of the ’80s: A Divas Christmas.”
Volumes have been written on the appeal of these movies, which are extremely popular despite formulaic plots, questionable acting, over-the-top sugary sweetness and what might charitably be called modest production values. The sillier aspects of the films have been ably satirized by SNL and many others. Yet fans of these movies—and I unapologetically count myself among them—keep watching because of the comforting predictability and escapism these films provide.
We know that the real holiday season doesn’t unfold the way it does in the movies, even when the acting and production values are better. Our families, even when generally functional and loving, don’t live in perfect harmony, and our homes aren’t lavishly decorated and unnaturally tidy. But these movies paint a picture that allows us to fantasize that we too can quit our unfulfilling jobs to follow our passions, reconcile with estranged family members, and fall in love with an attractive stranger, foreign royal or childhood sweetheart.
One specific type of escapism that more subtly pervades the cheesy holiday rom-com is the avoidance of harsh economic realities. These movies don’t just portray unrealistically rosy relationships and holiday harmony; they also depict an idealized economy in which American small towns and their quaint main streets are still thriving and the main character’s failing business can be saved with a little ingenuity and a dash of Christmas magic.
Take, for example, the 2018 Lifetime movie “Christmas Around the Corner,” which illustrates many of the economic-escapist tropes that frequently appear in these films. First there’s the heroine, Claire, who at the start of the movie is a venture capitalist living in New York. She will not still be a venture capitalist living in New York by the end of the movie; every protagonist who initially lives in the “big city” or has a corporate career (lawyer, investment banker, any type of executive) will ultimately change his or her ways. The obvious implication is that being career-driven or earning a large income is a moral shortcoming that must be overcome before the protagonist can tap into the true spirit of Christmas and find love and happiness.
Claire seriously botches a project at work, but instead of being fired or even chastised by her boss, she is able to take a monthlong (!) vacation to rest and recharge over the holidays. She decides to visit a small town in Vermont that was beloved by her now-deceased mother and ends up finding a room in an apartment above the town’s quaint little bookstore. The business is struggling, as is the entire town after a destructive flood that occurred earlier in the year. So the hard-charging Claire immediately takes the reins and implements several ideas to improve sales.
Enter Andrew, the store’s owner, who initially resists and criticizes all of Claire’s ideas. Obviously, this means they will fall in love. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Andrew is ambivalent about the store’s success, even when Claire’s tactics start to bring in more customers. In fact, he’s considering selling the place to a local businessman, who is of course the villain because, well, that’s what successful businessmen are. Despite Andrew’s plans to sell, the film portrays him sympathetically because he hopes to start another small business instead and become a full-time blacksmith (yes, this is his actual career plan). He also insists that the building remain a bookstore and that his family’s name remain attached to the business.
Claire then discovers the villainous businessman’s dastardly plot: He’s not going to continue running the quaint little bookstore after all, but rather plans to tear it down and build condos in its place! Of course, in the real world, more housing is generally a good thing because it makes homeownership more affordable, which benefits everyone, especially lower-income individuals. But in holiday rom-com world, “developers” are always bad guys, destroying mom-and-pop businesses and ruining the picturesqueness of idyllic small towns.
Why is this economic fantasy so persistent? I’d hazard a guess that there are two main factors at play. First is nostalgia, the remembrance of small-town life and a “simpler time” when you knew all your neighbors and your community would always be there to support you when times got tough. That life does sound appealing, especially compared with our increasingly alienated, “bowling alone” society.
Second, I think the fantasy is tied to a specific version of the American Dream in which you can rescue your dying small business with some hard work and a can-do attitude. Of course, the reality is mixed. While some small businesses owned by smart, hardworking people routinely fail, others are saved by owners who come up with new innovations that respond to (or create) market demand. But when a struggling business does right itself, it usually requires a lot more than sprucing up its storefront with some Christmas wreaths—which is often all it takes, according to these holiday movies.
At any rate, when Andrew learns of the condo-building plan and declares his intention to sell the bookstore anyway, it causes the late-movie conflict that almost divides our protagonists forever. In the end, though, all is resolved: Claire realizes she doesn’t want to be a venture capitalist living in New York anymore, and Andrew realizes he doesn’t want to sell the store after all.
Instead, Claire will run the bookstore full time, now that it’s apparently raking in dough thanks to her innovations—as is the entire town, due to her insistence on resurrecting a one-night Christmas festival from years past. Apparently a single night of holiday merriment that includes shopping at local businesses is enough to completely revitalize the town’s economy. Don’t think about it too hard—it’s the magic of Christmas!
In real life, love is wonderful, but it doesn’t solve all your problems. Christmas is wonderful too, but economic realities don’t go away just because the holidays arrive. Some movies manage to acknowledge those truths while still giving us a little romance and even a little magic. Consider “You’ve Got Mail,” a far superior holiday rom-com in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fall in love at Christmas, despite the fact that she owns a quirky small bookstore and he owns the big chain that ultimately forces her out of business. Hanks and Ryan find fulfillment and love in the end—but Ryan’s store still needs to close.
What I’m watching: Since I’ve spent so much time talking about cheesy holiday rom-coms, I wanted to recommend a couple of my favorite Christmas movies as well. Chief among them is the film that inspired “You’ve Got Mail,” Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 comedy “The Shop Around the Corner” (which obviously inspired the title of “Christmas Around the Corner” as well). James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play salesclerks in a Budapest shop who just can’t stand each other—except, of course, they’re secretly attracted to one another and are in fact falling in love via the anonymous letters they’ve coincidentally been writing to each other.
The fast-paced banter between the protagonists and the colorful supporting characters are what make this movie such a delight. Felix Bressart in particular shines as the luckless Pirovitch, who is constantly hiding from the bombastic shop owner, who asks his employees for their “honest opinions” of his misguided business ideas.
And for another classic Christmas film, this time with a side of romantic comedy, there’s George Seaton’s 1947 “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which Kris Kringle—the actual Santa Claus—visits New York in an attempt to combat commercialism and restore the true spirit of Christmas. Naturally, nobody believes his claim to be Santa, and the climax of the film involves a trial to determine whether Kris is insane and should be committed to a mental institution.
The courtroom scenes are absolutely the highlight of the movie. The district attorney argues that Kris Kringle (the wonderful Edmund Gwenn) can’t be Santa Claus because such a person doesn’t exist—only to be foiled by the testimony of his own young son, who’s been subpoenaed as a witness. The judge just wants to get rid of the case as soon as possible because, regardless of his own views on the matter, he knows he won’t be popular with voters if he has Santa committed to an asylum. The “evidence” that ultimately gets Kris off the hook is a sublime legal dodge that makes me laugh every time.
Ultimately, the genius of the movie is best expressed by sci-fi writer Connie Willis in the introduction to her collection of holiday stories, “A Lot Like Christmas” (also well worth reading, by the way):
Christmas is supposed to be based on selflessness and innocence, but until the very end of “Miracle on 34th Street,” virtually no one except Kris Kringle exhibits these qualities. Quite the opposite. Everyone, even the hero and heroine, acts from a cynical, very modern self-interest. … But in spite of this (actually, in a delicious irony, because of it) and with only very faint glimmerings of humanity from the principals, and in spite of how hopeless it all seems, the miracle of Christmas occurs, right on schedule. Just as it does every year.
As the frantic holiday season kicks into high gear, I hope you’ll all take some time to savor December’s pleasures. And if those pleasures include a Hallmark or Lifetime Christmas movie—or better yet, a holiday movie marathon—enjoy it without guilt.
New This Week
Axel Kaiser, “The Roar of the Argentinian Lion”
Seth Moskowitz, “Divisions Among Democrats Are Imperiling Their Chances in 2024”
David Masci, “There’s More to Gratitude Than Counting Your Blessings”
From the Archives
Alden Abbott, “Don’t Blame Big Oil Companies for High Gas Prices”
Daniel Kochis, “What Would a Meloni-Led Government Mean for Italy—and for the World?”
Ben Klutsey interviewing Samuel Goldman, “Myths of American Identity”