Why do we crave Hallmark holiday movies?

A former actress trying to break into directing tests her skills with a town’s annual Christmas Eve courtroom production in which the true authorship of the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nick” is debated. Photo: Zane Holtz, Torrey DeVitto Credit: ©2022 Hallmark Media/Photographer: Albert Camicioli

What’s green and red all over, sweeter than a candy cane and comes wrapped in a fairytale ending every single time? 

It’s a Hallmark holiday movie, of course, and no, you haven’t had enough even though the season kicked off two months ago (Oct. 21) with “Noel Next Door.”

Headshot of Kristen Lee
Northeastern teaching professor Kristen Lee poses for a portrait in ISEC. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Hallmark unveiled more than 20 new holiday movies this year, including “Hanukkah On Rye,” which aired Dec. 18. The company actually has a total of 40 new seasonal movies counting debuts on Hallmark’s “Movies and Mysteries” channel and is promising a holiday film marathon starting Saturday.

And it’s not just Hallmark—Lifetime and other channels, including HGTV and the Food Channel have whipped up their own cinematic confections for the holiday season.

News@Northeastern talked to a Northeastern psychology professor, three Northeastern graduates who are big fans—one even has a Hallmark-related blog—and a theater director to see just what it is about the movies that keep viewers returning for more.

There’s a Formula – And It Works

“The formula is very predictable,” says Peter Scarafile, a graduate of Northeastern’s School of Pharmacy who retired as head of pharmacy at Cape Cod Healthcare.

The movie’s protagonist is a young woman—less frequently, a young man–who returns to her hometown from the big city to help out her family or friends and finds true love in her small town.

The settings vary enough to keep the viewer interested, Scarafile says.

“One time it’s based in a bakery. One time it’s in a winery. One time it’s a florist shop.”

“It’s not suspenseful. You can switch to the ball game and turn it on later,” says Scarafile, who says he’s been watching Hallmark movies for about 10 years.

The beauty of the movies is the lack of controversy, he says.

In a world where political divisions are threatening the foundation of civil discourse, Hallmark characters are not prone to red-faced yelling or profanity.

“People are nice to each other, generally. And they work together to solve problems,” Scarafile says.

They are as relaxing as warm milk

Cynthia Petrie, a graduate of Northeastern’s School of Nursing, says she likes to time her Hallmark viewing to just before bedtime.

“I watch the news a lot and Hallmark a little,” she says. But “You’ll get a better night’s sleep than if you watch the news.”

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep over Ukraine. It’s nice to temporarily escape into a Hallmark movie. Hallmark reminds me the vast majority of people are kind and respectful of each other,” Petrie says.

“It’s a nice, safe, unrealistic escape.”

A Hallmark blogger makes it real

In 2019, a Northeastern business school graduate created a blog, Hallmark in Real Life, in which she tried out activities inspired by Hallmark movies, particularly holiday movies.

The blogger, known as Meg, visited a cat cafe, did yoga with cats and found a fire station with a cat mascot, all as part of a tribute to Hallmark’s “The Nine Cats of Christmas.”

Other Hallmark-inspired experiences included a hot chocolate crawl in Manhattan, taking a pumpkin pie making class and a wine tasting class, the latter of which coincided with Valentine’s Day.

“I showed up for the wine tasting class in the middle of everyone’s Valentine date,” she says. She made the best of it and became friends with three other women in the class who Meg says “adopted” her.

“It was a very fun project I started as a way to get into writing,” says Meg, who works full time in New York City while pursuing an MFA.

The COVID-19 pandemic as well has her busy life put the brakes on the blog, but Meg says she had a peak Hallmark experience recently, interviewing the costume designer for Hallmark’s “Holiday Spectacular” movie featuring the Radio City Rockettes.

“I’m one of many Hallmark blogs. I have my own twist on it,” she says.

From a small town she does not intend to return to any time soon, Meg says she appreciates how Hallmark movies highlight community and connectivity among people.

“You can be in a small town or big city and find really beautiful moments,” she says.

Be entertained, not envious

“Any time we can take a reprieve away from the realities of life, it can offer our brains respite and a needed pause from that which is difficult and erosive,” says Kristen Lee, a licensed clinical independent social worker and teaching professor at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies.

“For some, movies that depict a particularly sunny picture of life can evoke positive emotional states and be a great escape,” she says.

On the flip side, there is a danger that the sentimentality and nostalgia in Hallmark-type movies “can trigger yearning and grief”—and a feeling of life not measuring up, says Lee, author of “Worth the Risk.”

“It’s worth being cautious about any fictitious representation of life, whether Hallmark movies or what we see on our social media feeds.”

“They can create the illusion that life is glamorous and picture perfect, that it should be this way or that at one point life was significantly better, even though most seasons of life bring about simultaneous joy and despair,” Lee says.

Just be aware of whether the movies are making you feel better, or worse about a time of year that typically is filled with both fun and stress, she says.

“People do gravitate toward these stories,” Lee says. They offer the possibility that life can change over time, she says.

Good jobs for actors

Cape Cod theatrical director Nina Schuessler gets the appeal of Hallmark movies but loves them for another reason—the number of actors employed to make the films.

Acting is a tough career choice especially for young people looking to break in, she says. And Hallmark movies, many of which are filmed in British Columbia, “provide Canadian actors with a lot of work.”

Hallmark has many familiar faces, including Lacey Chabert who is widely popular for her humorous portrayals of a girl-next-door type of personality. 

But the movies increasingly aim for diversity, “which for mainstream television is sort of a nice thing to see,” says Schuessler, who for 25 years led the Cape Cod Theatre/Harwich Junior Theatre.

Criticized in the past for lacking diversity, Hallmark movies increasingly feature people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, and celebrate Hanukkah as well as Christmas. It featured its first gay leads with “The Holiday Sitter,” which aired Dec. 11.

Hallmark movies are also feasts for the eyes, with tons of holiday decorations, costume changes and props.

“The food always looks really good too,” Schuessler says.

“I know people make fun” of Hallmark-type holiday movies, she says.

But, Schuessler says, “There’s kindness in them. There’s compassion. There’s sweetness.”

People may call Hallmark movies schmaltzy, but Schuessler calls viewing them “a guilty pleasure.”

“They are certainly popular, so there you go.”

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