Romance, like any genre, is a many-splendored thing, and its riffs, subversions, and adherence to its own formulas, tropes, and cliches generate a unique and flavorful narrative. Genre fiction is famously flexible and broad, making even the lesser examples a tasty treat. I myself, as a fantasy freak par excellence, purchased Eragon on DVD recently because I am both 1,000 years old and a lover of terrible fantasy films.
But the made-for-TV holiday romance, as seen on Lifetime and Hallmark, is an incredibly specific formula within that genre. Among those fields of brown-haired men who may or may not be Santas (My Santa) or nutcrackers (A Nutty Christmas), a common story emerges. A woman from the city, likely employed in a fantasy of a job, is brought to a small town through misadventure. There, she discovers the true meaning of Christmas (and it is always Christmas), family, community, and love, all in one fell swoop, and forsakes her empty big city life for one (1) brown-haired man and the town as a whole. It is a very specific formula. One might even say… ritualistically specific?
And that leads us to the following conclusion: the constant production, distribution, and consumption of these films is part of a powerful and successful annual fertility ritual to ward off Krampus. Krampus here being a metaphor for every mammal’s greatest instinctual fear: to die alone in the woods on a cold, dark night.
And, of course, the Central European Christmas goat demon who would punish us gruesomely for our trespasses if he could only ford the river of made-for-TV holiday romances to get to us.
I first discovered the true meaning of made-for-TV holiday romance as a young woman. My comedy coven and I were ensconced in the bowels of a building built in the 1800s, watching the Lifetime holiday film Holiday in Handcuffs.
If you are not familiar with Holiday in Handcuffs (currently streaming on Hulu!), it is a film in which Melissa Joan Hart is so embarrassed that her man dumped her before a planned visit to her folks that she kidnaps Mario Lopez and holds him captive. Despite being in a situation that would garner universal sympathy, especially from one’s own family, this woman decides to, I will say this again, hold a Saved by the Bell alum against his will in her family’s home. And then they fall in love!
Heterosexual dating rituals baffle and confuse me, but even I could tell that this was beyond the pale. Something more was at stake here other than the need to reassure one’s sires that their bloodline will continue. I needed answers.
I then turned to my most trusted historical resource: Nic Cage. Ever since National Treasure, I have trusted his historical acumen. However, his holiday films—The Family Man, The Christmas Carol, Trapped in Paradise—yielded nothing. It was only when I went to warm my hands and heart with a screening of The Wicker Man that I realized I had been looking in the wrong direction. Much like the conflagration of the climax of the film, these movies are modern-day fertility rites.
All winter holidays are a protest against the dying of the light, from the religious (Hanukkah) to the spiritual (Solstice) to the actively self-destructive (Santacon). Fertility rites performed by humans since time immemorial aim to encourage the fertility of the natural world by inspiring it with people’s own fertile rites, if you know what I mean.
Looking at Holiday in Handcuffs, it becomes obvious: made-for-TV holiday romances are meant to encourage the return of the light by pantomiming fertility. But not just any fertility: a long-term relationship or marriage that enriches both participants and values nature and community. And failing to do so could result in the end of the world.
This explains why the mother in A Holiday Engagement (the much less kidnappy Hallmark Channel version of Holiday in Handcuffs) is so hellbent on seeing her daughters marry that one of her daughters would rather hire an actor to play her fiancee over Thanksgiving rather than deal with her wrath; it isn’t only her wrath she fears.
To successfully perform the ritual, our protagonist—often a woman from the big city with intangible skills, like “lawyering” or “a steady job in media-ing”—must divest herself from the idolatry and indolence of the city and learn how to live like common folk. A Christmas Inheritance’s Ellen Langford has no idea what a “hot water bottle” is, but by the end of the movie, she’s embraced the cozy Christmas obsession of Snow Falls and her one (1) brown-haired man. The mother/daughter duo of Rodeo & Juliet both find love with appropriately aged cowboys and find the beauty in nature, as represented by barrel riding horse Rodeo.
And I’d like to stress that the ritual itself is not sexist—we just live in a culture where women being, like, entire people is anxiety-inducing enough to generate enough narrative conflict to get these movies from minute one to minute 90, hence their dominance as the actor in these rituals. The issue is those who perform the ritual, not the ritual itself. For instance, Naughty and Nice’s city person is Pepper Sterling, an LA radio DJ. Once assigned as punishment to Idlewild, Colorado, he falls in love with his cohost and her small town values. Even Pepper, who looks so much like Dane Cook that I did a double-take and took a great deal of time to come around to (Haylie Duff’s ability to elevate all of her material definitely played a huge part in that), is able to contribute to the fight against Krampus.
At its best, we barely notice the ritual. A Christmas Calendar is delightfully camp and hits the beats without hitting the audience over the head. (Also: the love interest is an enthusiastic French Hufflepuff who can’t bring himself to pick a fight with Laura Bell Bundy even though she specifically wants one wow I feel alarmingly seen in this extremely heterosexual land.) At its worst, it’s the reason for these movies’ many missteps, ranging from women disregarding their own safety in the pursuit of a man for the holidays to aggressively shortened timelines (you’ve known this guy for weeks at best, why are you marrying him?!) But it all remains deeply enjoyable, which is good: these rituals must be witnessed in grant quantities to resist the dark power of the Krampus.
Do they work? Well, I’ll just say there hasn’t been a Krampus attack around here in years. This holiday season, allow yourself to enjoy and watch as many of these films guilt-free—your viewing might be the difference between a Krampus-free world and a Krampus-full one.