It's hard to imagine Christmas without Christmas movies, whether it's old favorites like It's a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas, edgier picks like Love Actually or Die Hard, or – especially – the types that play on loop during the movie on the Hallmark Channel Countdown to Christmas.
Only a Grinch couldn't fail to innocently enjoy Christmas movies. As a political scientist, however, it is my professional curse not to be able to enjoy anything without analyzing it to death. And Christmas movies have a strange habit of showing how Americans interact with the rest of the world.
For example, the world that Christmas films often showcase has little to do with the world that US politics actually produces – or even the dynamic, globalized sector that actually produces those films. They are products of a global cultural industry that reflect how at least some Americans – especially those with the greatest purchasing power – want the world to be. And the world that Americans imagine they want Christmas every year is one that keeps slipping away every year.
For millions of Americans, the phrase “Christmas movie” is increasingly referring not to beloved old classics, but rather to the emerging genre of seasonal movies being shown on Netflix, the Hallmark Channel and elsewhere. Sometimes they seem so interchangeable that you can swap out their titles (Dear Christmas, A Christmas Wish, A Christmas Crush) – and even plot descriptions – without confusing anyone. One movie is literally called A Cookie Cutter Christmas.
However, it is wrong to discard these films. Sure, they follow certain conventions, but so do Marvel blockbusters. And men have a nasty habit of denigrating everything women like – from romance novels to fashion to lifetime movies – as frills. Also, the audience for these films is much larger than expected. The Hallmark Channel, which went a long way towards defining the genre, ranks as one of the top rated entertainment cable channels (more viewers than the Food Network!) – and it's routinely one of the most popular cable networks among women in key demographics. Dozens of millions of viewers will see at least one of the station's Christmas films – and more for similar films on Netflix, Lifetime, and other platforms.
To win the holiday season, Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix and the rest must be producing Christmas movies at a breakneck pace. In the past few years, Lifetime has released more than 100 Christmas films, while Hallmark premiered 40 in 2020 alone. For comparison, Warner Bros. releases about 20 films in a year without a pandemic.
Sure, these films are much cheaper than large studio productions. The cost of a typical Christmas movie is estimated at around $ 2 million to $ 10 million. Even a single episode of The Crown or The Mandalorian can cost as much as several of these films. Netflix or Lifetime can commission dozens of Christmas movies for the same cost as a single mid-budget Hollywood release.
Keeping costs down is only half the battle, however. The other half make money.
Cable channels like Lifetime and Hallmark make most of their revenue from advertising. That means they need to be able to promise advertisers that they will reach audiences in a predictable demographic (e.g. women aged 25 to 54). A big programming event like wall-to-wall Christmas movies locks this audience down.
The studios where these films are shot, such as the Motion Picture Corporation of America or MarVista Entertainment, are relatively anonymous. You don't want to produce Oscar winners, you want to produce reliable content. This reliability must extend to the vision of the world presented. Real America is a politically polarized place and a country of diverse races. There are no party political divisions in Christmas America, and almost everyone is white. The big city attorney who finds love when she goes home on vacation never has a row over a woman's suffrage with her new small-town firefighter.
Even Operation Christmas Drop, in which an ambitious congressional officer sends her boss to inspect an air base in Guam to see if it can be closed, ends with the member of Congress deciding to save the base in Guam by opening one in her own district sacrifices. Before that happens, the reindeer fly over the Capitol's dome.
However, the military and the difficulties it imposes on families are recurring themes. If a parent is absent, there's a good chance we'll find out they've been put – but rarely there. In Christmas movies there is always a military, but never a war. Even in openly military-themed films like the USS Christmas, there is little evidence that the military should be used against opponents.
The ubiquity of the military and child glove treatment is the most realistic way that Christmas movies portray US politics. The military remains by far the most trusted institution in the United States – a rare point of bipartisan consensus. But partisanship shares the American view of whether countries like Russia are friends or foes. In Christmas movies like in real life, Americans only agree that they need a military, not why.
Even by realistic Christmas movie standards, the treatment of international relations in these films is fantastic. In a stock plot, an American meets in plain language and wins the European royal family. Netflix has made two successful series out of this basic plot: A Christmas Prince and The Princess Switch.
If a standard complaint about Americans' amazing ignorance of the world is that "Africa is not a country," the proliferation of princes suggests that Americans also need to be reminded that most European countries are republics. They are modern versions of the "ruritan romanticism", the daring novels of the 19th century, which are set in imaginary monarchies – but with less adventure and more garlands.
The standard assumption of Christmas movies is that the classless, democratic nature of Americans collides with the stuffy reserve of Europeans in the upper crust. The reality is different. Rankings like the Varieties of Democracy Index routinely show that the United States lags significantly behind other rich countries in the quality of their democracy. Americans trying to climb the ladder of the economic class face a steeper climb than Europeans.
The courageous American shows the reserved prince that he should take care of his people and that he almost always uses orphans as substitutes. How there are so many orphanages in wealthy principalities is never explained, but there is always another – "It's a world tour for orphans," exclaims one character in A Princess Switch: Switched Again. Of course, child poverty in the US is higher than in most European countries.
These “foreign” countries are never exactly foreign. Everyone speaks English, usually with an accent for the received pronunciation – handy for Monoglot Americans who don't even need to learn a new language to join the ruling family of a foreign country. The royal families of the Christmas movie don't just rule like British or Swedish monarchs – they really rule.
If the films accurately portray the place of the military in US society, they also suggest that for many Americans the world beyond US borders does not meaningfully exist. Sometimes this is literally true, like the geography of the Netflix Holiday Movie Universe. An infamous card in A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby shows the countries of Aldovia and Belgravia not as pseudo-Liechtenstein postage stamps, but as immeasurable areas spanning all of Eastern Europe, presumably the result of an alternate story in which Queen Victoria's grandchildren lived in It he managed to stay on the thrones of Eastern Europe and continue to speak English at home, as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia did with his wife.
With a few exceptions, the fact that such a prominent genre can only take in the rest of the world as fairy tales says something important about how Americans imagine the world to be. Blunt – they don't. When Americans want to relax and focus on what really matters, there is no place like home.
But there's another reason ruritan settings are so popular in Christmas movies. To make these films on a tight budget, you have to be willing to shoot them in the cheapest locations. It takes a globalized industry to make Americans feel at home this Christmas.
Many – possibly most – Christmas films are made outside of the United States. Most of these all-American fantasies are made in Canada. In July 2019 alone, five vacation films were shot in British Columbia. Not only does Canada offer landscapes and cities that can double for American regions, but it also offers generous tax incentives and cheap exchange rates.
Other countries have copied Canada. University of Arizona professor Chris Lukinbeal writes that Romania – the original Ruritania – caught Hollywood's attention after the film Cold Mountain, which was filmed there in the mid-2000s.
Back then, the biggest advantage Romania offered was the savings on “bottom line” costs such as extras and technicians, which made the location competitive even under Canadian tax incentives. An increasingly sophisticated film industry grew up to support international productions. Combined with a wide range of castles and palaces, it became a great place to shoot royal Christmas movies like the 2017 Netflix hit A Christmas Prince.
In 2018, the Romanian government created Europe's most generous film funding program, a fund that can cover up to 45 percent of eligible expenses up to a maximum of $ 15 million. Several Christmas films were made in Romania that same year, including a sequel to Christmas Prince, The Princess Switch, and Christmas at the Palace. According to reports from 2019, the Romanian Castel Film Studio applied for discounts on the production of A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby worth almost 900,000 euros under this program.
As in most globalized industries, tax incentives are attractive but cannot be sustained. By 2020, production of A Princess Switch: Switched Again had been relocated from Romania to Scotland. (The third entry in the series is also filmed in Scotland. Perhaps Netflix could honor the history of the real European principalities and global capital by naming A Princess Switch: Tax Haven.)
If the finale of every Christmas movie is about finding the real meaning of Christmas, then what is the real meaning of Christmas movies? Because of all these factors, these films tell us, but not all of that, about Americans and their place in the world.
Christmas movies show that the world Americans want to live in is not the world they created. Most Americans live in the suburbs, but vacation movies exist in a world of small towns and big cities that feel like small towns. Most Americans work in low-status service occupations, but vacation movies promise that getting the job done is just one real meaning of Christmas. Huge corporations, just sticking to profits, dominate the real economy, but the Christmas movie economies run on small businesses that are deeply embedded in their societies.
The genre also reflects a country that is less satisfied with the pressures of global leadership than the elite discourse suggests. Vacation films, in which families are shown how they adapt to the consequences of foreign wars, also indicate a desire to no longer bear these costs. Far from longing to lead the international community, most of the time for Christmas movies, audiences want to be happy at home while foreigners do whatever they do. If something too terrible happens, the military will always be there to protect us anyway.
Fortunately, it is a country that is open to some forms of inclusion. The pressure to increase representation in these films worked. Black, LGBT, and even non-Christian Americans have an increasing number of vacation films showing their stories, even if so far those stories have mostly just been different icing colors based on the same cookie recipe. The Christmas movie version of the American Dream can be expanded to suit everyone – in fiction.
The America that Americans – or at least a significant number of them – want is not a threat from civil war and global ambition. It's a cozy stocking-up fireplace where everyone obeys the rules of Christmas – even if the gifts were made overseas at a reasonable cost.