There are many things that can help you get out of a funk.
Exercise. Eating well. Getting enough sleep.
Watching 42 cheesy holiday romance movies in a row.
OK, I’m exaggerating with that last one.
It’s more like 29 in a row.
All holiday romance movies have the same formula. You take one pretty, thin, usually white woman with perpetually wavy hair and ever-present makeup (even when she’s just gotten out of bed). Give her a Very Important and Real job in the big city — something like an architect or interior designer or personal shopper or generic executive. Add too many work hours and a boyfriend who won’t commit.
Now remove her from the big city and place her in the small town she grew up in but has been too afraid to go back to for emotional reasons — preferably related to the death of a parent, because at least one parent must always be dead.
And then here comes the crucial ingredient: one tall, handsome, rugged-but-not-too-rugged man, usually clad in flannel, and almost definitely also white. Give him a sad-but-not-too-sad backstory — again, dead parents are preferable — and perhaps he also lived in the big city once before as well, but he’s grown tired of it and now fully embraces the wholesome charms of a small town life.
Throw these two shiny, pretty people together in a meet-cute. Maybe they literally bump into each other or attempt to buy the same Christmas ornament or become competitors in a holiday baking competition. It’s crucial that they hate each other at first, but also that they secretly want to bone each other — or they would, if boning were allowed in the strictly PG-rated world of holiday romance.
Keep putting them in cute scenarios like tree-decorating, ice-skating, sleigh-riding, snowman-building, and most of all cookie-baking. The formula is pretty much done when they happen to find themselves underneath the mistletoe, and they kiss, and then there’s a misunderstanding, but it’s cleared up within 10 minutes and we get one more kiss before everyone lives happily ever after and, even more importantly, has a very merry Christmas.
It’s crucial that they hate each other at first, but also that they secretly want to bone each other — or they would, if boning were allowed in the strictly PG-rated world of holiday romance.
I’ve just described the exact plot of literally dozens of holiday romances. Hallmark, Lifetime, and now even Netflix churn them out every year in increasing volumes, always with the same basic plot and varying degrees of quality (by which I mean that there are occasional gems among a plethora of very, very bad movies).
Sometimes the formula changes slightly — maybe the pretty white woman has been overlooked for her dream job and the handsome white man helps her get there, or perhaps instead of being blonde, she’s brunette — but the core ingredients are always the same. Even the titles and posters are virtually interchangeable, as though the movies’ designers just spun a giant wheel and picked whatever they landed on.
To top it all off, the same pool of 12 stars is used for each movie. Lacey Chabert and Candace Cameron Bure are basically employed full-time by the holiday romance machine at this point.
In short, every holiday rom-com is essentially the same.
And that’s all part of the magic.
Contrary to what my current level of obsession with holiday romances might suggest, two years ago, I had never watched one.
Two years ago, I was also in the deepest depression I’d experienced in a long time.
It came on like a wave in mid-November. I had felt it creeping in bit by bit before that and had mostly been shoving it away to the back of my mind, pretending it wasn’t there and it wasn’t getting worse.
Some days, I couldn’t get up at all.
I couldn’t stop crying, except when I just didn’t have the energy to do so. I couldn’t sleep, except when I needed to be awake, and then it took everything I had to keep my eyes open.
I couldn’t feel joy. I felt as though I never would again.
I don’t remember exactly why or how or when it happened because, well, I was lost in a metaphorical mind fog, but somewhere in the midst of all this, I opened Netflix, which yelled at me the way it does, by blasting a trailer as soon as the app opens. “Watch A Christmas Prince!” it screamed. I guess, it’s not like anything matters, I thought.
I hit play, and the weirdest thing happened. The movie was terrible. But it was also wonderful.
Within a few minutes, I felt something bubbling in my chest. Something I hadn’t felt in weeks. A small spark of happiness. Soon it had grown enough that it actually burst from me in a smile, which became a laugh. I was actually laughing. Half an hour before that I’d been, to quote Anne Shirley (as I always try to do), in the depths of despair, and now I was laughing.
Something about that ridiculous, gloriously silly movie worked a little miracle on me. For 92 minutes, I was happy, or something like it. I momentarily forgot about my worries — that is, they’d dwindled back down to their usual undercurrent churn instead of the tsunami they’d recently become.
Naturally, I did the only thing any severely depressed person experiencing a brief reprieve would do. I rewatched A Christmas Prince.
And then I rewatched it again.
And then I discovered the big, wide, green-and-red-tinged world of holiday romances I’d been missing out on.
Christmas Inheritance. Switched for Christmas. The Spirit of Christmas. My Christmas Love. Snowed-Inn Christmas. Snow Bride. Merry Kissmas.
I slipped into the increasingly familiar world of each movie with eagerness and enthusiasm, feelings which were in themselves marvels.
It’s not like these holiday romances instantly cured my depression. But they did give me hope.
Spending that December watching one pair of pretty white people after another fall in love got me through to the new year. It gave me enough energy to begin the work it took to actually get better.
Here’s the thing about holiday romances: They are far (FAR) from perfect. They’re relentlessly corny, clichéd, and repetitive. They consistently reinforce outdated notions of what a woman can and should be, taking successful heroines who love their jobs and trapping them back in their hometowns, with Men Who Know Better. They’re aggressively heterosexual and blindingly white. There are exceptions to these problems, of course, but they’re too rare — especially when it comes to diversity.
And yet these holiday romances are more popular than ever. Hallmark and Lifetime, the stalwarts of the genre, each started their holiday lineups in October this year. Yes, there were Christmas movies out before Halloween had even happened. And audiences watched them.
Netflix, meanwhile — a newcomer in the genre, but one that has made an impact (hello, A Christmas Prince) — waited until Nov. 1 before it dropped its first holiday romance of the season.
And it’s not just that the season for holiday romance is becoming longer — there’s also more content. This year, Hallmark produced 20% more Christmas movies than it did in 2017, while Lifetime is putting out four times as many holiday movies this year compared to two years ago. Networks like OWN and Freeform are dipping into the genre and releasing holiday romances of their own. All together, there are nearly 100 (!!) new holiday romances coming out in 2019. This is on top of the hundreds-deep back catalogues that the likes of Hallmark and Lifetime replay relentlessly in between premieres.
The genre is a juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down. The ratings are there. People eat these movies up. Women eat these movies up.
All together, there are nearly 100 (!!) new holiday romances coming out in 2019.
Many of my friends are, if not quite as obsessed with these holiday romances as I am, at least a little bit addicted to them. Like me, they’re busy and career-minded. They’re smart and opinionated and proudly feminist. And they enjoy slipping into these time-warped rom-coms as much as I do.
The truth is a lot (but definitely not all) of the things that are “wrong” with holiday romances are actually part of the appeal. More diversity is vital, but the other problems — well, they’re actually the reason we turn to holiday romances.
Rather than seeing tired clichés, these movies instead hold the promise of tropes we love: the kinds of storytelling devices and visual cues and plot points we’re very familiar with — so familiar that they’re like slipping into a warm, comforting blanket. The specifics of what that blanket looks like depend on the person; I personally go positively wild for anything involving fake dating and moments when the main characters have to share a hotel room (and even better, a bed, though that’s a bit too risqué for many a Hallmark and Lifetime product). The point is, the repetition doesn’t put us off — it’s why we watch.
Of course the endings are predictable. That’s the best thing about the whole genre. Going into one of these movies, you know that within the next 90 minutes, two people are going to work through all their problems and fall in love and stay in love and everything will be OK in the end.
The world is chaotic and scarier than ever, the news is exhausting, and you can’t even check Twitter for silly memes without being reminded that everything is quite literally on fire. But in the land of holiday romance, the biggest problems our heroines face are whether the gingerbread recipe is going to turn out right (it will) or if she’ll ever find the antique tree topper her grandfather gave her grandmother when they got married (she will).
Even the regressiveness of some of the plotlines plays a part in their popularity. Millennial burnout is very real, and so it’s no surprise that the idea of escaping long work hours and hectic city life for less stress, more trees, and a bonus handsome guy or two is appealing. We might not actually want to live that life, but we enjoy indulging in the fantasy for a little while.
The holidays are hard. They’re even harder when you’re depressed or anxious or lonely. Holiday romances pick up this uncomfortable truth and flip it around: Characters who find the holidays rough rediscover their joy in them, everyone who is lonely finds a perfect someone to give them comfort and companionship, and negative feelings, when they exist, are soothed away with a cup of hot cocoa and a kiss.
The true magic of holiday romances is that they allow us to escape to a place that’s controlled and neat — the opposite of the real world.
Which is pretty much the best holiday gift you could ask for. ●