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White! Christmas!

The Hallmark Channel’s 21-movie fusillade in the War on Christmas is a ratings sensation. I’m watching it all to find out why.

Hallmark holiday movies.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Hallmark.

At a rally in November 2015, Donald Trump heralded, “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, that I can tell you.” Of all his empty guarantees, the president has perhaps fulfilled none better than a counterstrike in the War on Christmas, and no battalion has fired more rooty-toot artillery for him than the Hallmark Channel. In 2017, the network is premiering 21 original Christmas movies (up from 20 last year)—42 hours of sugary, sexist, preposterously plotted, plot hole–festooned, belligerently traditional, ecstatically Caucasian cheer. To observe the first holiday season under the Trump administration, I’m bearing witness to them all.

Hallmark Channel, owned by the Kansas City, Missouri–based greeting-card giant, has boomed since Trump began campaigning. In 2016, Hallmark was the only top-15 entertainment channel with double-digit ratings growth, and viewership has jumped another 16 percent this year. Meanwhile, Hallmark’s Christmas programming, which this year began before Halloween, generates more than 30 percent of its annual ad revenue and has helped Hallmark become the season’s highest-rated cable network among women aged 25–54. More than 70 million Americans watched Hallmark Channel Christmas movies last year.
The network has already approached that number in 2017, with three weeks and five premieres remaining. And the network’s strongholds map to Trump’s Electoral College victories.

After watching a few of Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas films, the network’s burgeoning red-state appeal comes into focus. As much as these movies offer giddy, predictable escapes from Trumpian chaos, they all depict a fantasy world in which America has been Made Great Again. Real and fictional heartland small towns with names such as Evergreen and Cookie Jar are as thriving as their own small businesses, and even a high school art teacher (played by Trump supporter and the face of Hallmark, Candace Cameron Bure) can afford a lavishly renovated Colonial home. They brim with white heterosexuals who exclusively, emphatically, and endlessly bellow “Merry Christmas” to every lumberjack and labradoodle they pass. They’re centered on beauty-pageant heroines and strong-jawed heroes with white-nationalist haircuts. There are occasional sightings of Christmas sweater–wearing black people, but they exist only to cheer on the dreams of the white leads, and everyone on Trump’s naughty list—Muslims, gay people, feminists—has never crossed the snowcapped green-screen mountains to taint these quaint Christmas villages. “Santa Just Is White” seems to be etched into every Hallmark movie’s town seal.

And what some call sexism, Hallmarkland calls family values. CEO Bill Abbott has said that Hallmark Channel aims to build a “safe space” in a TV market that has gone “past the point of edgy.” “Safe” lines in this year’s premieres include:

Daughter: “You said you wanted [my sister and I] to spend more time together.”
Father: “I thought you’d go shopping or get your nails done.”
“I didn’t care about war reporting anymore. … I wanted a white picket fence and a husband.”
Wife: “I can sing, too.”
Husband: “But can you cook?”

None of these lines face retort. They are delivered earnestly and invariably received with a shimmering Hallmark smile.

Since launching in 2001, Hallmark Channel has remained the most unapologetically formulaic network on TV. Of 136 Christmas movies Crown Media (which operates Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries) has produced to date, nearly all feature white leads. Regarding diversity, their executive vice president of programming, Michelle Vicary, told Bloomberg Businessweek last year, “Um … we are taking a look at that.” Of this year’s 21 films, only Enchanted Christmas stars minority love interests, Latinos Alexa and Carlos PenaVega. (Even interethnicity relationships, it seems, are too taboo in 2017.) This winter, Holly Robinson Peete (from the original 21 Jump Street) will star in both The Midnight Show Murders (based on Al Roker’s novel) and a reality show alongside her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete. But Hallmark hasn’t announced any plans to diversify December next year.

The tropes, as mind-melting as they are mesmerizing, permeate casting, dialogue, pacing, set decoration, and mannerisms—as omnipresent as the fake snow that, upon closer inspection, appears to just be clumped-together fake cobwebs. Here’s a lethal drinking game: Take a shot of peppermint schnapps every time a female lead stumbles her speech or bumps into a nutcracker when she encounters the blandly handsome Old Navy mannequin of a male lead, as the besotted damsels do in Marry Me at Christmas, Miss Christmas, Switched for Christmas, Sharing Christmas, Christmas at the Holly Lodge, and The Mistletoe Inn. Swig some eggnog every time said male lead droolingly points to overhanging mistletoe, as happens this year (so far) in The Mistletoe Inn and as we’ve seen before in (to name a few) The Mistletoe Promise, Under the Mistletoe, Mistletoe Over Manhattan, Moonlight & Mistletoe, A Christmas Kiss, and A Christmas Kiss II. And pour a hot toddy down your pants every time a character urges the female lead to abandon her career in the Big Liberal City to restore traditions and family in her hometown, as women are directed to do this year alone in Enchanted Christmas, Switched for Christmas, and Christmas in Evergreen.

Then there are the more bizarre, and bizarrely common, character tropes:

• Beefy current boyfriends of the female leads who live in the Big Liberal City—most often high-powered co-workers but inattentive, obtuse partners—who make the outlandish gesture of buying a last-minute flight to see the female lead in her hometown (or, in the case of Christmas in Evergreen, flying a private helicopter 500 miles from D.C. to Vermont), only to show how inattentive and obtuse they are in person rather than over the phone. (This also happens in Enchanted Christmas and in 2016’s Christmas List.)

• A redheaded female friend (usually a barista or Christmas shop clerk) of the female lead who possesses the sole character trait that she’s maniacally invested in the heroine finding a husband. She spends all her breaks on the phone with the heroine and all her free time at the heroine’s parents’ house, a 40-year-old latchkey kid. We never see her house, because it is surely empty save a rotting 10-year-old Christmas tree adorned with stolen locks of her best friend’s hair. This archetype appears in Finding Santa, Miss Christmas, Switched for Christmas, The Sweetest Christmas (minor variation: redheaded sister), and A Gift to Remember (minor variation: strawberry blonde).

Also, in every Hallmark Christmas movie, the opioid epidemic has given way to Christmas Fever. This malady is unnamed and treated as joyful in Hallmarkland, but it culminates in a contagious psychosis in which everyone sees Christmas as the lifeblood of human existence. Symptoms include beliefs in:

• Christmas as vocation: In Christmas Festival of Ice, a minor spinoff of 2015’s Ice Sculpture Christmas, hotshot lawyer Emma (Taylor Cole) meets a 40-year-old, painstakingly swoop-haired, monosyllabic Christmas tree farmer (Damon Runyan). In less than a week, not only does he become her soul mate (sharing a few Yuletide platitudes over peppermint lattes will do that), he also convinces Emma to abandon the law and become a full-time ice sculptor. In Finding Santa (a spin on 2016’s Finding Father Christmas and the 2017 sequel Engaging Father Christmas), 40-year-old, painstakingly swoop-haired, monosyllabic zombie novelist/Uber driver Ben (Eric Winter) is estranged from his father solely because he refuses to inherit his father’s role as Santa in the annual Christmas parade. “I love you son, Santa or not,” his father eventually admits, sobbing and shaking. Soon after, Ben decides to quit both his jobs to prepare for that three-block sleigh ride year-round.

• Christmas as aphrodisiac: While G-rated, every Hallmark movie contains many shots that lovingly capture the burning eroticism the birth of our savior ignites—a tongue quivering for eggnog, lips biting at the sight of a man setting an angel atop the tree, orgasm at the assemblage of a train set. In Finding Santa, Ben looks overcome with lust as he watches Grace (Jodie Sweetin) decorate a sugar cookie with brown frosting. Soon after, as Ben reads “A Visit From St. Nicholas” to young children, Grace flashes him a coy smile and come-hither eyes.

But it’s the absurd plots, in which white woman must fall in love with white man and save Christmas, her career (often as a decorator, baker, or party planner), and her family within a week of meeting white man, that make Countdown to Christmas most charming and most problematic.

Take The Mistletoe Inn as a typical example. Kim (Alicia Witt), a 40-year-old car dealer, attends a Christmas-themed romance writer’s conference in Vermont, as you do when Garth (Casey Manderson), a pompous yet unpublished romance writer himself, dumps you by saying, “I just need to be with a serious writer right now.” An editor at the conference says Kim’s manuscript doesn’t capture her setting, New York City; turns out Kim’s never been. Not to worry: A scarf-wearing, exquisitely hair-gelled man she met 48 hours earlier, Zeke (David Alpay), buys the two of them last-minute plane tickets the next day. After one snowy night in a five-star hotel and Zeke’s four-second tour—“OK, this is Midtown. SoHo and Wall Street are that way”—Kim knows the textures of New York better than natives Wharton and Salinger. Seemingly within 12 hours, she rewrites the entire novel. A few days later—Christmas Day!—Zeke visits Kim at her father’s house. How’d he find the address? Doesn’t he have family to be with on Christmas Day? We’re missing the point. Zeke heard from a publisher (it seems Kim and her delicate lady brain couldn’t handle this news directly): On Christmas Eve, the editor had a chance to reread her novel and offered a book deal. Zeke and Kim kiss under the porch’s mistletoe as her dad grins dementedly from the window, holding a butcher knife and a 20-pound turkey that father and daughter alone were seemingly going to devour in one sitting. Fin!

The Christmas-down-your-throat bombast, holly-jolly sexism, the characters’ zaniness and unyielding impulsiveness—it’s all very Trumpian behavior. Hallmark Christmas movies channel and normalize a world in which the president can insult China, the press, Hillary Clinton, and the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and share anti-Muslim propaganda all in one day, and the very next proclaim to follow Jesus’ example of “respect for the sacred dignity of every person everywhere in the world,” as he did at the National Christmas Tree Lighting, which the Hallmark Channel broadcast exclusively.

In 2018, another year into the MAGA vortex, Crown Media will grow from 33 to 36 original Christmas movies. “The one thing we never hear from our viewers is that they have had enough!” Vicary noted. She added, with a familiar bravado, “Hallmark owns Christmas on TV.”

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