For five years I have served as caregiver to my wife of 49 years, Karen Clark. She has had breast cancer and a recurrence, three surgeries followed by months of chemotherapy and radiation. Happy to report that things are looking up, but it has been a life-changing experience, as so many of you know.
In addition to medical science, prayer and comfort food, we found an elixir of peace and hope in Hallmark Christmas movies.
What do you do if you are a cancer patient, lying on a couch most of the day, feeling as if your body and spirit are disappearing? You watch Hallmark Christmas movies. They have become so popular that, according to the Washington Post, even former critics of their formulaic sentimentality have come around. Each movie is a happy pill for what’s ailing us in America, a sweet alternative now to everything that involves politics or pandemics.
If you have not seen one, I encourage you to do so. In the meantime, I will introduce you to the genre with an original movie treatment of sorts. Imagine, please, that I am pitching a movie to Hallmark.
Here we go:
A young woman, Marci McGregor, is headed home for Christmas. She is 31, single, but interested in a co-worker, a handsome but slightly overbearing real estate developer in Miami, where she now lives. His name is Neil.
Marci is successful in her work, pretty, but not beautiful. She is unhappy in her personal life, but doesn’t know that yet.
She decides to travel home for the Christmas holidays. She grew up in Snowbound, Ohio, a rural town of farms and small businesses. Her parents raised her in a picturesque farmhouse out in the woods, but not far from town. Her dad was a successful attorney, who passed away not long ago.
Marci’s mom, Peggy, runs a side business, always a big hit during the winter months, especially during the Christmas holidays.
People from all over the country travel to Snowbound to experience sleigh rides. Make that “one-horse-open-sleigh” rides. Since the death of her husband, Peggy is trying to keep up the family business, but is having a hard time. She secures the help of Uncle Nicky, but at the age of 80, with his white beard and flannel shirts, he looks like a Santa abandoned by his elves and reindeer. “I’m all tuckered out” is his favorite expression.
When Marci returns to Snowbound, she is reintroduced to the magic of her childhood. A snowstorm blows in, threatening to extend her stay. Marci realizes her mother is no longer capable of taking care of the farmhouse on her own and tries to persuade her to retire to Miami and move into a condo.
Enter a nice-looking — but not handsome — man named Mitchell Lawlor. Mitch is a neighbor of the McGregors. He is 39. He is the single dad of a cute — but not adorable — 8-year-old girl named Rosie. Mitch’s wife died three years ago — we never learn the cause — and he has tried his best to raise his daughter. Sometimes Peggy and Uncle Nicky help him out.
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Mitch is the editor of the Snowbound Sun, a weekly newspaper that serves the surrounding counties. He inherited the paper from his dad. His father always assumed Mitch would move away to find a better job in a bigger town, but Mitch came to understand, after the passing of his wife, what it meant to live in a tight-knit community.
There is another woman in town with designs on Mitch. Mona is quite beautiful and wealthy — and, unlike Marci, blond and divorced. She wants to purchase and knock down several of the older farmhouses, clear the land and sell it to an agricultural conglomerate that has its sights on all of Snowbound.
You can guess the rest:
• Marci reluctantly begins to fall for Mitch.
• Mona senses the competition and does whatever she can to sabotage Marci.
• Neil keeps calling from Miami, wondering when Marci will be coming back to Florida.
• Marci reconnects with her mom and other townspeople, suddenly reminded of the blessings of small-town America.
• Marci begins to bond with little Rosie. Mitch notices this and begins to change his mind that he would never marry again after the loss of his wife.
• Uncle Nicky, is turns out, is not just a codger. Full of folk wisdom, he offers Marci gentle advice that clears her vision. “The weather may be warm in Miami,” he tells her, “but our hearts are warm here in Snowbound.”
• On a perfect snowy evening, Uncle Nicky offers to take Marci, Rosie and Mitch on a horse-drawn sleigh ride. It is a transformative experience. When they get back to the farmhouse, Nicky takes Rosie into the farmhouse for some hot chocolate (extra marshmallows!). Marci and Mitch sit in the sleigh as the snow falls gently, each flake aglow. They kiss — but no tongue.
• Marci decides to move back home. She and Mitch will join forces, raise Rosie, fight off big agriculture and do their best to preserve the values that make Snowbound special.
When I am watching these movies, I do my best to give myself over to the narrative. That means an abandonment of irony and cynicism, a relaxing of my critical muscle. Then, in tranquility — maybe with a beer in one hand and a pen in the other — I can list the requirements of the genre.
The protagonist: Young, white, pretty but not beautiful, in her late 20s or early 30s. She is successful, an ambitious professional woman who has moved away from the small town she was raised in to make her way in the big city. Never married, she has had men in her life, but never the right one. She is often played by a familiar actress, someone you recognize from television work when she was younger, the kind of performer where you say, “Oh, I know her…[snapping of fingers]…she was in [such and such].” The main problem with our protagonist is that she is successful, but unhappy — and she doesn’t know it. She desperately needs a return to her roots.
We interrupt for a brief message: Hallmark, you are realizing that America is not as white as it used to be. We applaud your effort to introduce more significant characters of color in your plots. How about a movie with a mostly Black cast? But what a great surprise to see a new movie in which you featured two gay married men trying to adopt a child. Cheers!
The setting: The main character must find herself in small-town America, a place with a Northern climate and a good chance of snow. Think Idaho or Ohio. The snow is magical. No paralyzing blizzards. The snowflakes must be as big as cornflakes, big enough to cover the ground for sledding and to cover the landscape for beauty. This snow floats from sky to ground even when the sun is shining. Since this movie is set at Christmastime, the town must have an appropriate name: Evergreen, Holly Park, Pine Village, Snowbound.
Story pattern: A number of archetypes — bending toward stereotypes — are at work here. The first is the classic tension between big urban and small-town values. American literature plays out this tension in countless narratives. If you think the cultural tensions between city and country are just literary, consider for a moment the animosities revealed by recent presidential elections.
The traditional hostility to Hallmark movies comes from a long-standing skepticism expressed toward sentimentality as an aesthetic experience. The sentimental story, it has been said, is porn for women, meant to arouse the emotions and move women to tears. (For the record, I cry at Publix holiday commercials!)
In spite of this appreciation of the Hallmark movies, I must confess that I am reluctant to enjoy them too much. Even to honor them as a narrative form feels, well, unmanly. (I suspect there is a strong feminist critique nearby as well, skeptical of stories in which a woman, say, gives up a promising career for family life in a small town.)
Beyond unmanly, my appreciation feels uncritical. After all, it has taken me more than four decades to sharpen my skepticism, my ironic sensibility, my post-modern critique, my aggressive meta-cognition, my dark denial of truth-making. Excuse the jargon, friends, but an appreciation of Hallmark requires swimming against the tide of a half-century of literary and political criticism.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe too much skepticism, especially from brainiacs like me, can help create cynicism toward all American institutions that might be exploited by, say, a political candidate.
So join me, if you dare, in front of the television set for the next Hallmark Christmas movie. Oh, wait, I saw that one before. Oh, what the heck, I’ll watch it again. It’s the antidote — at least for the moment — to all that ails you. Are you a fan?