Christmas is a high stakes holiday.
Extensive, expensive and intensive, it’s sweet tonic to the spirit and a candy-coated Mount Crumpit we doom ourselves to climb every year, a wishful ideal awash in sticky sentimentality and unfunded mandates.
If the season of peace and joy can be rife with frustration and disappointment, it ‘s because we care so much. Every aspect of the holiday is dense with emotional significance, and failure can be crushing. Burn the roast beast in September and you eat burnt roast beast for supper. Scorch the asparagus on Christmas Eve and you’ve personally let down your nearest and dearest, Baby Jesus, Santa Claus, Good King Wenceslaus and every Who down in Whoville. The Christmas imperative is perfection, and that’s an unfillable order for we of weak and corruptible flesh. So when you find yourself standing in the kitchen at 2 am, grimly botching your third batch of reindeer shortbread cookies and want to know whom to blame, blame Hallmark.
Indeed, Currier & Ives have much to answer for, and certainly Andy Williams’ hands are not clean. But Hallmark is now without question the world’s most prolific purveyor of unachievable holiday example.
Hallmark Media made its first Christmas movie back in 1997, gradually ramping up its seasonal schedule to five Christmas titles in 2004, 13 in 2010 and 25 in 2016. Even as the rest of the movie business lay bedridden with COVID, Hallmark pranced merrily ahead, burning 39 full-length Christmas features in both 2019 and 2020, and 42 in 2021. And it’s got 42 more in store this year, a saccharin blizzard blowing without surcease from October 20 to year’s end, each one a cookie-cutter collage of chaste romance, town square tree-lightings, gingerbread house bake-offs, snowball fights, sleigh rides, hot peppermint cocoa, impeccably decorated homes, and earnest, well-behaved teens who almost never look at their smartphones and pay adoring attention to Grandma’s every sentimental utterance.
Like all Hallmark movies, its Christmas programming is aggressively family friendly, soothingly predictable, mild to the point of hypnotic. Problems are never desperate, personal conflicts are always congenial, and both are painlessly resolved. While some might find such fare a tad bland, they can’t fault Hallmark’s business model. Those astonishingly inoffensive Christmas movies only cost about $800,000 per unit to make, and they can go from casting to can in a mere three months. Add to that economy a loyal audience numbering in the millions and it becomes clear why Hallmark is the most successful network on America’s cable dial.
Still, Christmas in the Hallmark universe is largely fantasy. In this one, time is short, money is short, tempers are short, things go wrong. That’s not to say our shared Christmas experience isn’t divine. It’s just human.
A recent survey finds that almost half of Americans aren’t looking forward to the holidays, and money tops the list of reasons why not. It’s not that Hallmark scriptwriters don’t sometimes poor-mouth their characters, but lack of funds has no perceptible effect on their gracious lifestyles. Here on Earth, 48 percent are dreading the cost of Christmas, not surprising in view of the soaring price of… er… everything. And a lot of folks are experiencing giving fatigue. Many respondents, particularly those under 30, complain of increasing pressure to give better gifts, and to a widening circle of friends and acquaintances. The average consumer will spend $792 on presents this year, and parents with children under 18 will part with $1,105. Also, 13 percent say they’re still paying off last year’s holiday tab.
But if money troubles are eternal, so are domestic ones. The hallmark of Hallmark family gatherings is harmony. Elsewhere, while 95 percent believe it’s important to spend time with kin during the holidays, on average they lasted just three hours and 54 minutes before needing a break from all that togetherness. One quarter said they will ‘hide’ in a relative’s house to catch a quiet moment, and more than 30 percent said they’ll make an excuse to leave the house altogether.
Complaints about communal living include lack of privacy (22 percent), personality clashes (20 percent), family drama (20 percent), awkwardness about imposing (19 percent), and an aversion to noise and chaos (18 percent). Almost half said they stay with relatives because it’s cheaper, but more than a third of those said they’d have a better holiday if they got a hotel room instead. The average time Americans plan to spend under a relative’s roof this Christmas is three and a half days.
Whether you’re cooking for a few, or a few more, the Christmas kitchen can be a stressful place. In the Hallmark household, two people, relaxed and laughing and sipping wine from elegant crystalware, create a picture-perfect feast in half an hour without getting a single drop of gravy on their seasonally-themed aprons or leaving a tower of crusty pans in the sink. Survey data reveal that the average American has hosted six Christmas meals and experienced an average of two ‘disasters’ each time, with reported catastrophes ranging from over-browned rolls and cold yams to mass food poisoning. Two frequently cited pickles are trying to put several hot courses on the table at the same time, and getting blindsided by unannounced dietary restrictions. More than 20 percent said they do practice runs that turn out better than the main event 42 percent of the time.
Christmas is dangerous, too. Falls in shopping mall parking lots are common, as are cooking-related burns, electrical shocks, falls from ladders and mishaps with gifts. Nobody on Hallmark ever ended up in the emergency room because they tried to move the Christmas tree naked. Out here in America’s living room that’ll happen maybe a dozen times before New Year’s Eve.
And yet, for all that, this really is the most wonderful time of the year. If you do Christmas, it’s because you wouldn’t have it any other way. But, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it more if you dial back your expectations and simply surrender to the merry, messy madness and if Hallmark Media starts opening every Christmas movie with a warning: The following program is intended for entertainment purposes only. Do not try this at home.