The commercialization of the commercialization of Christmas

Emily VanDerWerff/Vox

Thoughts on ChristmasCon, Hallmark, and the eternal war over Christmas past.

EDISON, New Jersey — It’s Christmas, and I’m in a warehouse.

That’s how it feels, at least, inside the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center, where I am attending the first ChristmasCon. The three-day event — held over a weekend in November — purports to celebrate the best of Christmas movies, bringing their stars and writers to the huge venue to sit on panels about their experiences.

Nearby, there’s a Christmas market, where vendors sell gifts and decorations. Just beyond the market is an enormous space where the stars of those aforementioned movies sign autographs. In a room off the main hall, Santa awaits anyone who might want to pose for a photo with him, for an additional fee.

The sight of it all is slightly surreal. For starters, ChristmasCon is taking place in a convention center that feels for all the world like one of those Works Progress Administration buildings built in the 1930s specifically to give unemployed Americans something to do. It’s a charmless, gray space with cement floors and metal roof — but for ChristmasCon, it’s been bedecked with as much Christmas charm as the organizers could muster. To say the two aesthetics clash would be a vast understatement.

But on both of the days I’m there, the place is packed. Just under 9,000 people attended ChristmasCon across its three days (paying $35 for one day and $75 for all three), according to the event’s organizers, and they’re dressed in festive Christmas sweaters and Christmas cosplay (yes, people dressed up as Christmas trees) and so, so many shirts that say, “This is my Hallmark Christmas movie-watching sweater.”

Because for as much as this is a “Christmas movie convention,” it feels a lot more like a Hallmark Christmas movie convention, despite the organizers’ admirable attempts to broaden beyond the channel whose immense November and December viewership propels it to the top of the Nielsen ratings for cable year after year after year. At ChristmasCon, Hallmark is Christmas, and Christmas is Hallmark. ChristmasCon doesn’t just celebrate the commercialization of Christmas. It celebrates the commercialization of the commercialization of Christmas.

The Hallmark Channel has become synonymous with Christmas movies

Christmas cosplay at ChristmasCon.Emily VanDerWerff/Vox
Yes, there was Christmas cosplay at ChristmasCon, including these outfits displayed by Katie Gillespie (left) and Nicole Fazzio.

At the center of the convention’s Christmas market, there’s a big Hallmark Channel installation, with multiple photo opportunities — in front of a fireplace, outside a snowy lodge, and so on — as well as free cider and Christmas cookies. The faux coziness of the space stands out even more against the boxy industrial feel of the convention center, but once I brave one of the endless lines to actually stand in said installation, it really does feel a little like visiting the house of a Christmas-crazed great aunt who spares no expense and gets all of her decorating ideas from Southern Living magazine.

Hallmark Channel (or, rather, its corporate parent Crown Media) is the sole sponsor of ChristmasCon, and many of the vendors here in the market have a mutually beneficial relationship with the channel.

I stop to talk to a few salespeople from Tule Publishing, whose Christmas-themed novels have occasionally been adapted by Hallmark to fill its ever-growing catalog of Christmas movies. Movie adaptations boost book sales, Denise Holcomb from Tule tells me, unless Hallmark changes the name of a movie to no longer match that of the book. To counteract such changes, the company emblazons copies of books like The Christmas Wish with their TV adaptation titles — in this case, Holiday Hearts — to inform curious shoppers that the story has been Hallmark sanctioned.

So it goes all around ChristmasCon. The convention isn’t a Hallmark convention — except it totally kind of is. The longest lines are for Hallmark stars like Lacey Chabert (who starred in her eighth Hallmark Christmas movie in 2019). The biggest crowds are for those stars, too.

“When I first started working for them, they were making many fewer movies. How well they’re doing now and the fanbase that has grown has been quite remarkable to see,” Chabert tells me during a brief gap between appearances at the convention. “The people behind the scenes at the network who make everything happen have become friends, and I really cherish our relationship.”

The sheer popularity of Hallmark’s stars at ChristmasCon was surprising even to people who closely follow the channel’s output.

“I never knew how popular Lacey Chabert was until, [on the first night of the event], they held the con open later because her autograph line was out the door,” says Christmas movie critic Kacey Bange, who was also covering the event. “More people are here for Hallmark than for other Christmas movies. The Melissa Joan Hart panel was very scarcely attended because she’s more Lifetime than Hallmark.”

Jonathan Bennett and Lacey Chabert, surrounded by fake snow.That’s4Entertainment
Jonathan Bennett and Lacey Chabert, stars of both Hallmark Channel movies and the film Mean Girls, pause for a moment in the fake snow.

This last bit surprises me, but it’s true. Plenty of ChristmasCon attendees are wearing sweatshirts alluding to non-Hallmark Christmas movies — an informal survey of their attire suggests Buddy from Elf and the Grinch in his many iterations are the most popular non-Hallmark characters — but Hallmark-themed fashions are the most prevalent by far. One woman has decked herself out as a Christmas tree covered in ornaments featuring images from her favorite Hallmark Christmas titles. Hart and Jackée Harry, who are here supporting Lifetime productions, seem almost like unknowns.

The dynamic at ChristmasCon is like any other you might see at this type of fan-centric event, but attendees are so devoted to Hallmark that the palpable fervor is perhaps most similar to the kind inspired by Marvel or DC Comics. The people here aren’t just fans of Christmas movies. They’re fans of Hallmark movies.

Walking around the convention center, I have the opportunity to buy everything from a Hallmark movie-themed board game (a partnership between Hallmark and a custom board game company called Bundle) to autographs and photos with Hallmark’s many Christmas movie stars (package deals with most of the big names in attendance cost between $60 and $80).

But the the crowd at ChristmasCon is comprised of the sorts of fans who don’t typically attend fan conventions. The result, as organizers explained to me shortly after the event, was that the first ChristmasCon was a bit of a learning curve.

“We wanted really to teach our attendees what a convention is because our demographic is so different from other conventions that they don’t know what to expect from a convention,” says Liliana Kligman, one of the four women behind That’s4Entertainment, which organized ChristmasCon. “Our celebrity guests, maybe two or three had ever done a convention. The rest, this was their first convention ever. So we had to explain to the agents what the process is of what is going to happen at this convention.”

That “we’re new to this convention thing” was most evident on Sunday morning at ChristmasCon, when the show floor was especially crowded. Many attendees actually left the event after realizing they weren’t going to have immediate access to [insert name of Hallmark celebrity here], then angrily expressed their displeasure on social media.

Hallmark has plenty of critics, too. A few of them are right there at ChristmasCon.

The three hosts of Deck the Hallmark.Deck the Hallmark
Daniel “Panda” Pandolph (left) likes Hallmark Christmas movies. Brandon Gray (center) loves them. Daniel Thompson (right) despises them. Naturally, they started a podcast. It’s called Deck the Hallmark.

Hallmark’s dominance means that the channel even now has active anti-fans — people who engage with its content mostly with the intent of poking holes in it. So it goes with the guys from Deck the Hallmark, an incredibly enjoyable podcast where three friends from South Carolina gather to joke around about Hallmark Christmas movies from different points-of-view. (Brandon Gray generally enjoys the movies. Daniel “Panda” Pandolph can take or leave them. Daniel Thompson generally dislikes them.) I notice more than a few people wearing Deck the Hallmark shirts around ChristmasCon, and many are emblazoned with Thompson’s “I despise Hallmark Christmas movies” tagline. There aren’t many grinches here, but there are some.

What I like about Deck the Hallmark is that it acknowledges the problems with Hallmark’s movies (more about those problems in a second) while also seeing their appeal, particularly to men, who can either watch the films ironically to dunk on them, or turn to them for comfort, like a warm bath after a long day at work. The movies continue to be most popular with women, but a growing audience of guys love both the movies and Deck the Hallmark.

“Comfort food really doesn’t have a gender. Comfort food really is whatever your comfort food is,” Gray tells me. “That guy who has to think all day and make decisions all day and he wants to melt into a couch and literally just be completely not cerebral for 84 minutes, there are worse options than Hallmark to do that.”

And yet, as Bange tells me, there’s a definite sense that Hallmark “just discovered black people last year.” The channel has trumpeted its attempts to push forward with diversity and gender stereotypes, but its efforts at casting more people of color still lag far behind the rest of the TV industry, and its LGBTQ characters are largely confined to subtext. It’s not unusual, for instance, for a film’s heroine to have a friend at work who is coded as a gay man without the film actually saying he is gay. Many of the films’ stories still see women giving up promising careers to move to small towns with the guys they’ve too often just met.

And that’s before you get to this year’s efforts to program the channel’s first Hanukkah movies, whose loglines were criticized by many for seeming to play into tropes that have long been used to prop up anti-Semitic stories about scheming Jewish people infiltrating Christian spaces. (I haven’t seen the movies yet, and I dearly hope they are more thoughtful than their loglines suggest.)

Hallmark’s popularity, the way it consistently becomes the biggest network in cable for the last three months of the year (and a good portion of January, too), has boxed it in, because its audience tends to contain a lot of people who are resistant to changes to the network’s formula, which too often means changes to the network’s blinding whiteness and straightness.

“I’m in an interracial marriage. The main couple [in a Hallmark movie] has never been an interracial couple. They’ve never had a movie including queer leads that are queer in the movie. Netflix will take that chance. Lifetime will take that chance. But last year [on Hallmark] was the first movie that had people of color leads. Last year!” Deck the Hallmark’s Thompson says.

“If you talk to the people at Hallmark, I think they really do want that inclusion. But they’ve got the second-highest-rated cable network. And people are going and watching other movies [on other networks], and going, ‘They’ve not figured out the formula that Hallmark’s figured out yet.’ And so Hallmark is in very much a one-step-forward, two-steps-back place.”

The same formula that allows people to love Hallmark Christmas movies is what seems to hold them back. But the formula also yields a curious response when I start asking Hallmark fans at ChristmasCon to name their favorite Hallmark movies: More often than not, they don’t know the titles. They just like Hallmark.

Christmas is almost never a holiday about the present. It’s a holiday about commercializing our nostalgia for the past.

Santa at ChristmasConEmily VanDerWerff/Vox
Santa awaits more fans at the end of a long day at ChristmasCon.

Joanna Wilson is probably the foremost Christmas TV expert in the world. Her essential encyclopedia, Tis the Season TV, is the foremost compendium of seasonal television entertainment; she may be the only person alive who’s seen some of the oddities she tracked down for the book. And she has a theory about how Hallmark has weaponized a particular trait of Christmas entertainment to spur its success.

“I hear people complain about the formula, and I’ve let them know, ‘You don’t get it.’ Hallmark knows that formula. They are doing that on purpose. That formula works. People want that formula,” Wilson says. “It’s connected to the Christmas experience and how we consume Christmas entertainment. We return to the same programs year after year, whether it’s Rudolph, whether it’s Charlie Brown Christmas, whether it’s the Grinch, whether it’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Hallmark movies, even if they’re new, they’re old. They’re the same. That’s the point.”

When I ask people what they like about Hallmark movies, it’s almost as if they’ve been handed talking points from the network itself. They make people “feel good.” They’re just “happy.” There’s “no conflict.” And, to be clear, I enjoy a Hallmark movie or seven. They’re good, clean fun. But “good, clean fun” is, in and of itself, a way to ignore some of the messy realities of the present. On the other hand, ignoring messy realities of the present is what Christmas is all about (Charlie Brown).

Christmas, says author Judith Flanders, whose essential new book Christmas: A Biography is a terrific read on the history of the holiday, has always been a secular holiday with a religious component tacked on to it to make it seem holier than it really is. Yes, the birth of Jesus is the impetus behind it, but humans have always celebrated the dead of winter with massive festivals featuring copious consumption.

And you know how it is with things that are massive — they’re always more massive when you’re a kid.

“A major component of Christmas is nostalgia. It’s not a byproduct. It’s part of Christmas. It is part of the holiday to believe that in the past it was better,” Flanders says. “Whichever way we look, whether we’re looking at Norman Rockwell pictures or whether we’re looking at Charles Dickens or whether we’re looking at medieval feasts, it is an essential core element of the holiday to believe it was better in the past. The earliest references I have found to Christmas being better in the past are from 1605.”

So for over 400 years, we’ve been thinking that there was some other, better Christmas we could return to — a Christmas when it was less about the presents and more about family, or Jesus’s birth, or goodwill toward men, or whatever. And to be clear, all of those elements are still present in Christmas, but so is consumption. Everything’s bound up together, which creates a paradoxical situation where Christmas is always chasing its own tail.

But we’ve recently entered a very unusual era for Christmas as a nostalgia-driven holiday, because the period so many adults, from baby boomers down to millennials, are nostalgic for was a period of overt, capitalist excess and mass-market Christmas entertainment. Christmas past is no longer a time before industrialism or a time before World War II.

It’s a time when everybody was watching the same thing on TV. So when Hallmark Christmas movies explicitly romanticize Christmas past, they’re romanticizing an era of popular entertainment that didn’t question for a second that the leads of a romantic comedy would be white, straight, and cis. They’re romanticizing an era when Charlie Brown was already complaining that Christmas had gotten too commercial.

And, again, nostalgia at Christmas is good. It’s good to remember your family coming together, or to fondly reminisce about how delicious Grandma’s stuffing was before she passed away. To be human is to know that the number of Christmases in your past grows ever larger and the number of Christmases in your future grows ever smaller. It is to know that the people you celebrate with at one Christmas might not be there at the next one.

Hallmark, then, isn’t selling a religious Christmas — its characters almost never mention Jesus or Christianity, outside of perhaps singing “Silent Night” or something — but it still kind of is, because it’s trying to codify the ritual. Really, all Christmas movies are.

Flanders brings up a study conducted in Muncie, Indiana, in the 1970s, which found that there are weird societal rules around Christmas, rules we don’t always understand but have internalized anyway. They’re built around who puts up trees (married couples with kids, almost always; single people, not nearly as often) and how we give gifts (if you make something yourself, you almost never wrap it) and any number of other traditions. These aren’t religious. But they’re rituals that reach back into our own pasts and extend beyond us to the people we might become.

“Nobody’s going to beat us up if we wrap the boysenberry jam [we made] and don’t wrap the Lego set [we bought], but we feel funny. It wouldn’t feel quite right,” Flanders says. “In effect — and I’m not wanting to be disrespectful — these are the religious observances. These are our secular, religious observances. And that’s what Hallmark is picking up.”

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