Holly, Jolly, Merry and Bright: The Joy in Watching Christmas TV Movies

christmas_tree_recyclingIt’s been a month since Christmas and a Facebook friend posted a status update with a photo of her tree, writing that she can’t bear to take it down yet. A neighbor also waited and put a tree out last week, despite the fact that there is no curbside pick-up of Christmas trees in our city—and so the tree is slowly drooping and fading in color, with a dusting of needles on the sidewalk. Our tree came down right after New Year’s Day, same as always.

I love Christmas. I believed in Santa Claus when I was a kid and I recall Christmas memories that I can genuinely describe as joyous. But I am nothing like those Christmas zealots out there. (You know the ones I’m talking about—the ones who wear Christmas sweaters without irony.) This recent holiday season, I baked the same holiday cookies, celebrated with the same loved ones, and cried at the same Christmas songs—“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” plus anything sung by Karen Carpenter.

With the holidays behind us, I don’t miss the tree. I miss the Christmas movies, and I’m not talking about the black-and-white classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or even more contemporary ones like Elf. I do catch those movies when they air on TV and I cry at the feel-good endings, but this year I found myself sucked into the made-for-TV Christmas movies you find on the Lifetime and Hallmark channels. I didn’t really pay much attention to these movies before, even when I worked at TV Guide and was assigned to write up the holiday viewing guide year after year with short descriptions of all the merry and bright shows, movies, and music specials. This year, I watched these movies daily, and sometimes two in a row on evenings and weekends.

I can’t tell you the name of one that stood apart from the others. One sorta blended in to the next. Most are predictable and formulaic, with thin plots, characters drawn in broad strokes, and snow that never looks real. There’s usually a love story. The couple bickers constantly, but the chemistry is undeniable. Or circumstances throw an unlikely pair together and they find they actually have a lot in common and share the same values. Maybe the timing doesn’t seem right (is it ever?). Or one of the characters is in a relationship with someone who’s just plain wrong but can’t see it. And you know the right person is in plain sight, standing on the sidelines in a ski sweater, ready and waiting to swoop in. Maybe the big-city protagonist is assigned to work in a small town or returns home after years away to fall in love with the boy or girl next door. He might be a lonely widower or she might be a career-driven divorcee. They might find themselves dancing and when the dip comes—wait for it, you know it’s going to come—they come this close to a kiss.

But it’s not all mistletoe mushiness. There is often a villainous cartoon-like character referred to as a “Grinch.” To counter the evil, there are good-to-the-core characters that might be even more unrealistic: the angel and Santa characters, the virtuous and merry meddlers and matchmakers. There are many epic business battles. A Donald (or Donna) Trump-type is going to tear down a beloved local business for something shinier and new. You hear talk of profits, projections, and the big picture. There’s no time for this Christmas nonsense—come on, let’s get back to work, “chop chop.” You just have to wait for the magic, for Santa, a heavenly spirit, or the quiet town hero to intervene. Before you know it, the community will rally to save the mom-and-pop candy shop, toy store, ski lodge, or Christmas tree lot, and the grinchy business mogul’s hard heart will soften in the end.

I might be a TV snob who’s still in Breaking Bad withdrawal and regularly turns on re-runs of Law and Order to unwind, but I loved every sappy minute of binge-watching these movies. My mother called one day in December and asked me if I’d watched anything good lately, after she raved about how much she’s loving the Sherlock Holmes series on PBS. When I was growing up, other families watched the Love Boat while we watched Brideshead Revisited and other Masterpiece Theater series. So when mom asked what I was watching, I hesitated before admitting to my newfound fondness for Christmas-themed TV movies. “They’re cheesy, but they make me feel good,” I said.

And that’s what it is: escapism. The holiday season can be a sad, lonely, and stressful time for so many. I know I am lucky and that my stresses are manageable and minor compared to what others face. But we could all use time-outs. It’s good to forget about the things that worry us and make our heads spin: being laid off from a job right before the holidays; wondering if a friend with cancer is going to respond to treatment; finding another grey hair and wondering about how time really does seem to accelerate as you get older—and how it is that it’s already a new year again?

Reading a great book or watching a great movie is never a bad idea, but sometimes lightweight entertainment feels, well, easier. I found comfort in those sappy stories on the screen across the living room, where everyone looks good in puffy jackets and the snow might look fake but it never gets gray and slushy. There is hope and happiness, love always finds a way, and the good guys (and girls) win. What seems complicated is easily figured out. And just look at how lovely that tree looks with the sparkling star on top and the smiling faces gathered around.

After our tree came down, regular TV programming resumed. On Blue Monday, I was genuinely a little blue. Ho ho hum. I find myself on my couch channel-flipping with the cat curled up at my feet and I miss those Christmas TV movies right now. Just about 300 days ’til they start airing again.

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