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Not being much of a TV watcher, last year I properly sat down and indulged in my very first Hallmark Christmas movie. Eggnog, gingersnap cookies, and Hallmark Christmas Bingo Card1 at the ready, I settled in and prepared to be sarcastic. Much to my astonishment, like the guilty compulsive silent search for just one more Jeanette Oke Christian romance novel from the church library, when the kiss was over and the credits scrolled, I barely hesitated before pushing play when another movie was suggested to me. And then just one more for good measure. I, non-television watching, Bible-reading Christian, in a single moment succumbed to the guilty charm of the Hallmark channel. Remembering my great fall from the heights of good taste, I wouldn’t have gone near them this year except that I had to do “research.”
I am not alone. The New York Times reports:
By the numbers, Hallmark is TV’s undisputed Christmas king. This year Countdown to Christmas, the brand’s 24/7 holiday programming block, celebrates its 10th anniversary. It officially began in late October and runs through New Year’s Day with 24 new titles on the Hallmark Channel (and 16 more on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries), but past holiday originals have been playing to stellar ratings on Friday nights throughout the year. In 2018, the Hallmark Channel was the most-watched cable network for the entire fourth quarter among the key demographics of women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, and outperformed broadcast networks on Saturday nights among all households during the Countdown to Christmas. “It’s almost our obligation to give people everything they want and need to celebrate this time of the year,” Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and publicity for the Hallmark networks, said.2
What is a Christian to make of this phenomenon? And, more pressingly, should Christians themselves indulge in the occasional Hallmark movie or even a Hallmark Christmas movie binge?
Loving a Little Bad Art Is Not a Sin. Despite what anyone might say, perfect taste in art and literature is not a requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. It is not a sin — and this is the operative word — occasionally to love what is easy. Most everyone has some quiet penchant for something trite and mediocre. My husband, for example, every year tries to buy, before I can stop him, another Thomas Kincaid Christmas village church that lights up when you flick the switch. And, in the spirit of confession, I can be found in the dead of night with my flashlight and a Grace Livingston Hill novel whenever I have a major morning deadline looming.
Christians are people too, which means that the Twenty-One Pilots3 sell a lot more albums than Beethoven, and the church organ gathers a thick coating of dust while the band leader tunes up his guitar. Jesus never said, blessed are those who read only good literature and the Bible, for they shall be better than everyone else. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”4 A poverty of spirit is the result of frailty and sin and often manifests itself in a love of the paltry, easy entertainments of this world. There’s no reason to sneer just because the plot is the same every time.
Which is the admitted appeal of the Hallmark movie. The same plot, the same kiss, the same fake snow falling gently onto the shiny hair of the protagonist, the same easy “trouble” resolved in less than one scene, the cookie baking that magically cleans itself up, the dead mother that the child remembers with fondness rather than gut-wrenching grief — all these comforting, predicable elements speak to the abyssal human need for joy, rest, and resolution. The predicament of the mortal soul is that, because of sin and death, there are no neat, tidy endings. We search for meaning in the complexity and chaos of life where sorrow and stress reign supreme. We search because it’s not there, and we know it should be.
The Eschaton Is All about Resolution. The acknowledgment of the profound human need for resolution is fundamentally Christian. The Bible itself shapes this reality. Adam and Eve once lived in unimaginable perfection and beauty. There were no white couches in houses full of bright, clean children in the garden of Eden, nor pristine snow that never turned black from so much urban exhaust. Certainly, there were no piles of Christmas cookies that everyone could eat without worrying about blood sugar and waistline. But there was rest and beauty, quiet and joy. God walked with Adam and Eve through a perfect landscape. Adam and Eve enjoyed useful, rewarding work. If Eve had had a house to clean, it would have stayed clean, except that it didn’t need cleaning, just like every Hallmark decorated living room, every cookie-laden Hallmark kitchen.
But Adam and Eve rejected God. The tumult and chaos that followed their choices mean that there are only ever devastatingly brief glimpses — tantalizingly rich tastes — of resolution to life’s unsolvable problems. The narrative of Scripture, in a tapestry of colors, both describes the human thirst for resolution — which is, at its root, about vindication and love — and makes certain promises about its cataclysmic denouement. The end will come. All the enemies of goodness and beauty will be vanquished. Christ, the bridegroom, will claim His bride, the Church. They will finally live together in golden, bright perfection. They will rest without the looming threat of trouble, sorrow, or poverty to confuse, alarm, or exhaust them.
Christians are not immune to seasonal grief and anxiety just because they believe in Jesus. On the contrary, Christians strain heartily toward a joyous reunion with Christ on the last day that rivals every perfectly choreographed kiss on ice-skates in perfect lighting surrounded by a loving family, each with perfect teeth and perfect hair. Christians wander through the Biblical story — or ought to — over and over again through the church year, in the course of their own private devotions, and in the midst of the public proclamation of Scripture.5 The need for comfort, order, familiarity, and beauty are essential human needs that have to be met one way or another. Settling in for an hour of easy watching during the busiest most stressful season of the year is not a sin.
Hallmark Movies Are Made to Be Addictive. On the other hand, there are some reasons to be cautious, especially about over-indulgence. In the first place, every Hallmark movie is an addictively obsequious nod to Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas Carol. Rediscover Christmas and become a good person and, more importantly, a happy person. This message is so ingrained in the collective cultural imagination that most Americans don’t even see it anymore. Elegant, city-dwelling, ambition-driven female forgets her small-town roots by working too hard. Illogically, she is stranded in a small, snow-gilded, though not economically struggling, town. There, during Christmas, she finds true love and true meaning. The movie abruptly ends before any of the consequences of her new life ruin everything. She moves from the darkness into the light. She leaves behind stress-encumbered wealth for a gorgeous, financially secure man who wondrously gives her the only thing she ever lacked — permission to be her true self. Everyone is beautiful and nobody is tired from having to vacuum up glitter gone awry. All of life’s anxieties are assuaged by learning to bake Christmas cookies.
Every Hallmark movie reflects the disordered view of Christmas that is the property of the American psyche, even for many Christians. Salvation, no matter how many times it is preached in any book, movie, or twitter thread, is not about keeping Christmas in your heart the whole year through. Celebrating Christmas whole-heartedly is not the path to righteousness. No one can be saved by the spirit of Christmas. Especially if the spirit of Christmas is finding an easy, conflict-free relationship with someone rich.
The spirit of Hallmark threatens the American soul the way drugs do — by offering a momentary, false, cheap happiness that takes away emotional and spiritual pain without ever going to their root causes. This is where all bad art fails, in passing over the darkness, the pain, the lack of true resolution. Nostalgia masquerades as truth. Sin is never acknowledged.
In some sense, the comforting glow of the Hallmark movie is the perfect counterfeit to the splendid effulgence of the gospel. The moment when the world is darkest, when humanity is facing the deep well of its own need and poverty, when insecurity rises in the breast of even the rich, settled, and powerful, that is the moment when Christians turn their faces once again to the story of God’s rich, perfect solution to human darkness. That Christ would come into our cheap, false light; would speak our language; would look into our confused eyes; would eat our too sweet cookies; would walk through our fake snow to find us, to rescue us, to reorient us to the only true source of happiness and joy — Himself — is the most beautiful and perfect story that can ever be told.
It is a story of mercy, of love, of beauty, and of rest. As I click play and administer another hit to my spiritual and emotional blood sugar, I’m going to offer myself and my holiday hopes to Jesus, the Savior of the World.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/preventingrace/).
- Hallmark Staff, “How to play Hallmark Channel Christmas movie bingo,” hallmark.com, https://ideas.hallmark.com/articles/christmas-ideas/cozy-up-for-hallmark-channel-christmas-movie-bingo/.
- Ashley Spencer, “How Many Christmas Movies Is Too Many Christmas Movies,” New York Times, October 30, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/movies/christmas-movies-television.html?searchResultPosition=1&fbclid=IwAR3NgshW6nvooMH6eWVGrnkQIz-rbhRllzZYb5c2sDJB5n5zcGtBpvPFs_w.
- Andy Greene, “Twenty One Pilots: Inside the Biggest New Band of the Past Year,” Rolling Stone, January 14, 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/twenty-one-pilots-inside-the-biggest-new-band-of-the-past-year-49706/.
- Matthew 5:3, ESV.
- Carl R. Trueman articulates this beautifully in his article, “Tragic Worship,” First Things, June 2013, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/06/tragic-worship.