This Christmas season (known to Christians as Advent) has brought the most Christmas programming, in sheer numbers, that has ever appeared on television; although I have no hard numbers. it seems almost certainly unsurpassed. The Hallmark Channel has been the leader in this movement, with its Countdown to Christmas programming consisting of Christmas-themed movies nearly all day and all night every day since before Thanksgiving and lasting through New Year’s Day, including an astonishing twelve new, original, Christmas movies over that period of time.
Other channels, such as the Lifetime Network, UP, INSP, and even the Syfy Network, have run numerous Christmas movies this year, including original productions. All told, there have been literally hundreds of hours of modern Christmas movies on television during this Advent season.
Grinches will undoubtedly consider that to be far too much of Christmas, and those of discerning aesthetic tastes will note that the dramatic quality of these movies is typically not very high. But that, of course, is not what these films are meant to accomplish. Typically, they tell stories that convey an appreciation of peace on earth and good will to all, which is of course simply the secular side of the spirit of the Christmas season. As such, these films, for all their failure to reach aesthetic greatness, do have the capacity to inspire those who are open to their charms.
And charms they do indeed have. I’ve watched a couple of these films, and snippets of several others throughout the month, and the films tend to have certain things in common. As is to be expected, the usual trappings of contemporary American Christmas celebrations are foregrounded: Santa Claus, decorations, festive party-going, gift-giving, getting together with family, snow, reindeer, elves, and so on. Food and cooking are a continual presence.
In addition, the films on any particular channel reflect the overall image the channel tries to project and the audience segment it seeks.
The Lifetime movies, for example, tend to offer what are seen to be as female perspectives (per the network’s intended audience) and are light on religious significance.
Hallmark’s Christmas movies tend to have a romance at their center, with a second main storyline dealing with the central character trying to overcome a personal difficulty which typically requires them to perform some act of self-sacrifice and good character. The Hallmark films strongly convey the kind of benevolent spirit we associate with Christmas time, and they can often be rather moving. The films on Up and INSP follow this model as well, although the production quality is typically a bit lower than Hallmark’s.
The Syfy Network Christmas movies are all spectacular and appealingly silly, with invitingly zany titles such as Snowmageddon and Christmas Icetastrophe. In these films, of course, survival is the goal, and the problem to be overcome includes unnatural natural phenomena such as gigantic ice spikes that spring up from the ground and impale the unsuspecting. A reliable off-road vehicle is the best gift one could get in these films.
Then, of course, there are the Christmas episodes of current TV series. As to be expected, these typically follow the formulas of the individual series while bringing in Christmas trappings and, usually, some Christmas-related theme centering on forgiveness or helping one’s neighbors.
This year’s Christmas episode of NCIS, for example, centered on the relationship of one of the series regulars, Timothy McGee, and his father. McGee comes to appreciate how well his father raised him and how much he means to him. The theme of great love of a father for his children is implicitly (and pretty clearly) tied to the religious message of Christmas, that God the father so loved his children that he sent his son into the world to save them.
More secular but equally enjoyable is this year’s Major Crimes Christmas episode. A flash mob of dancing Santas provides a distraction to enable a bank robbery, and two Santas are shot to death. While the series’ protagonist, Captain Sharon Raydor (Mary McConnell), investigates the case, her children deal with a moral dilemma: whether to tell her about her ex-husband’s resumption of alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, the murder case ultimately (spoiler alert: skip to next paragraph now if you don’t want to know vital information) hinges on a mother’s love for her child and her claim that she her motive for the actions that led to the murders was to do something “good for the world.” Even here, then, religious themes associated with Christmas are discernible, as a character’s attempt to “play God” leads to disaster.
As can readily be seen from the descriptions above, Christmas is alive and well on U.S. television, and although the religious significance of the holiday is seldom in the foreground, the messages are commonly there to be found with a little inspection. Those who see today’s American culture as largely hostile to Christianity and its symbolic manifestations have much reason to be of good cheer this Christmas season.