Every year during the holiday season, 33-year-old Christina Vineyard and her mom, Chris Caron, looked forward to their favorite tradition of watching Hallmark Christmas movies together. Vineyard, an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, started watching the popular made-for-TV films because her mom was obsessed with the picturesque, fictional small towns, the Christmas-themed storylines, and the predictable happily-ever-after endings.
This is Vineyard’s first Christmas without her mom — both of her parents died in the past year, her dad of a heart attack and her mom of breast cancer — and she hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch a Hallmark Christmas movie from start to finish yet.
“It’s just hard, I miss watching them with her,” Vineyard said. “It was just something that we could do together that we bonded over, we always connected over it.”
Vineyard and her mom recorded all the same movies on their DVRs, downloaded the Hallmark Movie Checklist app, and had even planned on attending the inaugural Christmas Con in New Jersey this December before they found out how sick Chris was. They loved watching the movies for the same reason millions of people tune in to the Hallmark Channel every holiday season: “It’s just something to watch that’s mindless and doesn’t stress you out.”
“It’s not political,” Vineyard added. “It’s something somebody can watch and just be happy about, something that can take your mind off the world for a little bit.”
Vineyard posted a version of her story in a private Facebook group called Hallmark Christmas Movies that her mom invited her to join before she died. After sharing with the group, which is more than 22,000 members strong, Vineyard received nearly 500 likes and almost 250 comments. Someone is even sending her a package of goodies they picked up at Christmas Con a couple weeks ago.
“At first I thought, Well, I’m kind of being silly posting in this group, but they didn’t make me feel silly. They make you feel like, ‘It’s okay, we’re here to cry with you.’”
This Facebook group isn’t just a safe space for dedicated Hallmark fans (also known as Hallmarkies) to post about their obsessions with holiday films. Vineyard’s story about her parents is one of many Hallmarkies have shared about how they lean on Hallmark Christmas movies to heal from surgeries, cope with grief, and feel a sliver of hope and joy in a world that can otherwise seem dark and disheartening.
“People need to feel good. They need to feel positive,” said Michelle Vicary, the executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel. “There’s so much good television that is dark, edgy, and fantastic. But in 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.’”
While the Facebook group is representative of a rabid fan base, its 22,000 members are only a tiny portion of the tens of millions of people who tune in to the Hallmark Channel during the holiday season. In 2019, the network has already hit record-breaking numbers since the annual Countdown to Christmas programming kicked off on Oct. 25, with 40 million unduplicated viewers having already watched holiday programming across all of Hallmark’s channels, including Hallmark Drama’s Home for the Holidays and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries’ Miracles of Christmas.
People also look to Lifetime’s annual slate of Christmas movies, and other networks, like Freeform and now even Netflix, come out with new holiday movies every year. But the ratings for Hallmark Christmas movies speak for themselves, showing how the channel has cornered the market on holiday romantic dramedies.
“We’ve had nearly 10 million people set reminders about upcoming movies on the checklist app, we’ve had 40 million people watch one of our services to date, and we still have so much to go before Christmas,” Vicary told BuzzFeed News. “We had 85 million people watch us last year and we’re already halfway to that before Thanksgiving. That is as mainstream as it gets.”
The Hallmark Christmas movie empire has a wide-ranging audience (with most of its viewers being women between the ages of 25 and 54), but when it comes to its onscreen representation, the vast majority of its films lack diversity in race, ethnicity, and sexual identities. The channel has been criticized for its all-straight and mostly white Christmas movie casts; with all of its increasing content over the years, there has never been an LGBTQ couple at the center of a Christmas movie, and non-white characters are few and far between.
“We are much like the rest of the industry. We are making strides to correct for that, and we have great movies this year that address diversity,” Vicary said, pointing to Patti LaBelle’s A Family Christmas Gift, A Christmas Miracle starring Tamera Mowry-Housley, and A Christmas Duet with Chaley Rose and Rome Flynn. “I think that there’s still a ways to go, so I would say to our critics, thank you for continuing to come with us on this journey as we correct for that as the industry has.”
Loyal viewers look forward to watching their favorite classics and excitedly anticipate new movies starring Hallmark’s “Christmas queens,” like Candace Cameron Bure, Autumn Reeser, and Lacey Chabert, who have built careers and personal brands around their involvement in the films. Hallmark’s Christmas movies have also cemented their place in popular culture with parody sketches on Saturday Night Live, mentions by late-night television hosts, and even a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Hallmark feeds this fandom with merchandise, its checklist app, and this year, an inaugural Christmas Con event in New Jersey. It even has its own publishing division.
But the movies didn’t become a cornerstone of the Hallmark brand overnight. The G-rated, holiday-themed romantic dramas have grown into a phenomenon because people want an escape from the less idealistic realities of their lives and the world around them, and because Hallmark saw the potential in early viewership numbers.
The Hallmark Channel originated in 2001 when it rebranded from the Odyssey Network, a cable channel that aired religious programming. In 2002, it aired its first-ever Christmas movie, Santa Jr. Original holiday movies continued to air through the years, but then the success of The Christmas Card in 2006 prompted the network to consider focusing on holiday programming. “Countdown to Christmas” was born a decade ago and features Christmas movies every weekend from the beginning of November — and now starting at the end of October — until the end of December.
The popularity of the films has skyrocketed over the last decade. In 2015, 62 million unduplicated viewers tuned in to Countdown to Christmas, growing to 70 million in 2016 and 72 million in 2017. The rise in viewership inspired an increase in original Christmas movies on the channel. In 2010, there was a jump to 12 original films, and then to 16 in 2015. The following year, Hallmark bumped that number up to 19. Cut to 2019, when the network will air 24 new holiday films.
“We can’t give people enough,” Vicary said. “I call it ‘the Hallmark effect’ that we’re having on people right now. When you come to us, you’re going to feel a little bit better about the world and about yourself not just from watching a show, but because of the entire brand experience.”
And those are just the numbers for original films. From right before Halloween until New Year’s Eve, the network will show a total of 40 Christmas movies, airing a combination of the 24 new films and fan favorites from past years. Meanwhile, Hallmark is already in production on its slate for 2020 and planning for 2021.
“We are Christmas all the time,” Vicary said.
While some of the made-for-television films have higher production values than others, they all have similar formats, and they always provide viewers with happy endings. Superfans are rarely surprised by the plots and can often guess what’s coming next for the characters onscreen. And yet, millions of people can’t get enough. These films provide a simple joy to people who want to tune out the rest of the world, especially during the holiday season.
Jennifer Johnson, a 42-year-old 911 operator from a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, has been a longtime Hallmarkie and uses the checklist app to keep track of her progress.
Johnson’s affinity for the movies even inspired her to compare her life to a Hallmark Christmas movie three years ago, when she took a part-time retail job during the holiday season. While working two jobs to make ends meet and pay off her bills, Johnson said she developed a crush on a coworker. The two ended up falling in love and dating for a couple of years before breaking up and staying friends. It wasn’t necessarily a happily ever after, but Johnson said her real life mirrored the things she loves about Hallmark’s Christmas movies: a bit of joy amid some darkness, all taking place during the Christmas season.
“Hallmark Christmas movies always have a strong female character who are never really looking for love, they always have other things going on, but they end up falling in love,” Johnson said. “And I felt like that was me. I felt like I was that strong female working to make ends meet … Hallmark Christmas movies to me are like the modern-day fairy tale.”
As a 911 operator, Johnson said her job is incredibly stressful, and at the end of a long day at work, the movies are “absolutely an escape.”
“The last thing I want to do is come home and watch a police drama or anything that remotely relates to reality because I get enough of that at work,” Johnson said. “I deal with enough of reality on a day-to-day basis.”