The Most Wonderful Time of The Year: The Brilliance of Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas

A defense of Hallmark Channel's televisual holiday comfort food—a one-stop shop for stories of redemption, familiarity and former stars

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Carin Baer/Crown Media Holdings, Inc./Hallmark Channel

A mysterious man with a resemblance to Santa (Donovan Scott, center) helps Melanie (Lacey Chabert, right) realizes that her boyfriend’s assistant, Dean (Adam Mayfield, left), just may be the true prince charming she’s been waiting for all along.

As everyone who has ever watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade knows, when Santa Claus makes his regular appearance tomorrow, it’s officially the start of the holiday season. For some of us, however, The Most Wonderful Time of The Year has already been underway for more than two weeks—with things only getting even more festive and filled with yuletide cheer between now and December 25th. I speak, of course, of those who have been tuning in to the Hallmark Channel and enjoying the cable network’s annual gift to the world: the misunderstood genius that is the Hallmark Holiday Movie.

Much to the dismay of those who are appalled by the appearance of Christmas ornaments in stores immediately after Halloween, the Hallmark Channel started its holiday programming early this year. The channel launched its Countdown to Christmas programming on Nov. 3, offering viewers at least one holiday-themed special or TV movie each day (as of today, it’ll be up to ten per day). As you might expect from the size and scale of the holiday schedule — which actually includes two smaller special scheduling events, “Snowvember” and “12 New Movies of Christmas” — this time of year is a big deal for Hallmark, which describes itself somewhat immodestly as the “industry’s undisputed leader in original movies and specials for holiday”.

But why should it be modest? No one else quite does holiday-themed programming like Hallmark; even other cable channels — I’m looking at you, ABC Family, with your “25 Days of Christmas” — rely on shows that have either been inspired by Hallmark’s efforts, been produced by Hallmark or, in some cases, originally appeared on Hallmark, to fill their special holiday schedules. In the decade since the channel first started producing Holiday movies (Its first, Santa, Jr., aired on December 6, 2002; somewhat surprisingly, it’s not getting a tenth-anniversary rerun this year, instead being replaced by Carrie Fisher and Queer Eye for The Straight Guy‘s Carlton Kressley in It’s Christmas, Carol!), Hallmark’s sweet — some might say saccharine — brand of televisual comfort food has come to fill the space in our hearts that used to be saturated by big-screen efforts like White Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut and Miracle on 34th Street.

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What makes Hallmark’s Holiday Movies so successful is their unwavering adherence to the seemingly magical formula: Give the Audience What It Wants. While there are those who complain about the recurrence of plot points or emotional turns in Hallmark’s seasonal fare, such complaints miss the point that repetition is entirely intentional on behalf of the people making the movies. Instead of approaching Hallmark’s various holiday-centric entertainments as individual, stand-alone stories — admittedly, that is the way that Hallmark itself promotes them — far more can be gleaned by taking the movies as a whole and recognizing the patterns therein. Think of them less as repetitive one-off narratives, and more as a series of meditations on the same theme, over and over again, heading towards some ideal of holiday entertainment in the same way that Aaron Sorkin refines and reuses his earlier material as he hones it towards perfect Sorkinity.

Yes, almost all of Hallmark’s Holiday Movies are telling the same basic story over and over again. There may, as many argue, only be seven basic plots in all of storytelling, but Hallmark only cares about one: Almost every Hallmark Holiday Movie, you see, can be traced back to Charles DickensA Christmas Carol. It’s not that each movie is a direct adaptation of the nearly 170 year old tale (no, they save that for A Carol Christmas and the aforementioned It’s Christmas, Carol!), but the basic character arc of a self-centered jerk who is forced to come to terms with his or her personal shortcomings and reaches Christmas Day a new person is the one at the core of a great number of Hallmark Holiday fare — and even those movies which vary from this as the core arc will find space for it with at least one of the background characters.

The story serves multiple purposes: It manages to make Christmas/the Holiday Season “special” in a spiritual sense without overemphasizing Christianity to the point of alienating other faiths (or lack thereof), it telegraphs for the audience whom to root for early on, and it shifts the dramatic tension from “Will this jerk see the error of his/her ways and turn out to be awesome in time for the big family get-together?” to “How will the jerk see the error of his/her ways?” (After all, there will never be an unhappy ending in a Hallmark Holiday Movie. It just doesn’t happen. Even if the movie begins with the characters in the most distraught of circumstances, by the time the movie is over, everyone will be in a far better place — 2007’s The Note, for example, begins with the discovery of a final letter written by someone who died in a plane crash, but that letter inspires and enriches the lives of everyone who reads it as if a gift from a higher power).

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Of course this approach is not specific to Hallmark. The first holiday special created specifically for U.S. television that wasn’t a direct adaptation of an existing story or a variety show was Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which NBC debuted in 1962. I think you can probably make an educated guess as to what it was about. Hallmark’s formula is really just carrying on a tradition that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year… Well, “carrying on” isn’t exactly the right way to put it, especially when you consider the way in which Hallmark has managed to refine the formula by actively pursuing B- and C-list actors to underscore that sense of audience familiarity.

If you thought that the casting of Carrie Fisher and Carlton Kressley in It’s Christmas, Carol! was some kind of one-off stunt, then you’ve clearly never seen a Hallmark Holiday Movie. One of the staples of the channel’s Holiday Movie output is its judicious use of actors who have clearly seen better days on the employment front: 2002’s Santa, Jr. set the trend immediately by pairing Lauren Holly and Judd Nelson, but other movies have featured such former celebrities as Tori Spelling, William Shatner, Steve Guttenberg, Jamie Farr, Henry Winkler and Billy Ray Cyrus, amongst many others. Their appearance serves a dual purpose: First, you’ll be more likely to tune in just to see how [Actor X] is doing these days, and secondly, the movie makers don’t have to work very hard to get you to feel something for their characters, because you’ll probably already empathize with them.

If all of this seems to suggest that the Hallmark Holiday Movies are some kind of plug-and-play, generic entertainment created as much to toy with the audience’s familiarity with — and nostalgia for — both the cast and the story being told, then good: That’s the point. Hallmark Holiday Movies are the ideal holiday entertainment in so many ways because they’re the television version of holiday pop songs. There’s a reason that people listen to Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You almost five decades after it was first issued, or long to hear Bing Crosby croon “White Christmas” more than 70 years after its public debut. At this time of year, more than any other, we look for comfort more than excitement, and nostalgia for familiar things more than novelty or newness. Hallmark’s genius — and its success — isn’t in making good movies, but all about the way in which the channel recognized that need for the televisual equivalent of that warm and fuzzy reassuring feeling you want the holiday season to provide, and worked so hard to create something that met the need so shamelessly and completely.

It’s a gift that keeps giving for both sides; with the Hallmark Channel’s seasonal programming already providing year-highs in terms of ratings — with double-digit percentage increases compared with the same period last year, no less — it’s obvious that the audience is entirely appreciative of Hallmark’s effort. While the Hallmark Channel may spend ten months of every year a somewhat ignored purveyor of middle-of-the-road fare, as soon as our thoughts turn to trees, tinsel and mistletoe, it becomes the one place on television that gives us what we want. Consider it a Christmas miracle of sorts.