Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Romantic comedies are popular, but Christmas romantic comedies are popular on a whole other level. It used to be that the Hallmark channel ruled the made-for-TV “cozy romance” of the Christmas season, and ruled it (by 2018) to the tune of over 37 original releases and 80 million viewers a year. But such lucrative viewing numbers did not go unnoticed by other networks, and in recent years, Netflix inched their way in. I didn’t pay much attention to such movies until Netflix released A Christmas Prince in 2017 and subsequently tweeted an ill-conceived joke poking fun at some of their viewers who had watched it every day for 18 days. That prompted me to both watch the film and write an introspective here at Christ and Pop Culture about it.
I don’t know if A Christmas Prince was Netflix’s first big leap into the Christmas rom-com pond, but I do remember that it was the first offering from the streaming giant that seemed to truly rival anything Hallmark was doing. I also remember being amazed that something so silly could enthrall so many people. But as I wrote in 2017 about A Christmas Prince, romantic comedies—and especially Christmas romantic comedies—are not about quality of storytelling; they are about fulfillment of longings. And that makes them, in many ways, the most appropriate sorts of stories to engage with during Christmastime, and during the season of Advent that leads up to it.
I will never be a natural fan of the Hallmark or Hallmark-esque Christmas rom-com, but every now and then I get an urge to watch something outside my interests. So I hunkered down this week to enjoy the film that’s getting all the Christmas buzz on Netflix this year: A Castle for Christmas.
Netflix’s choice cozy romance of the 2021 Christmas season actually has a few things to recommend it. It’s beautifully set in Scotland and better acted than these things usually are. It’s also refreshingly mature. Rather than a cast of young, generically soap-opera-beautiful actors, A Castle for Christmas features Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes, two beloved Hollywood icons who are beyond the prime of their youth. But A Castle for Christmas doesn’t make any apologies for the ages of its protagonists—there are no makeover scenes for Brooke Shields, no angst over sagging skin or less-than-perfect physiques. Not that either Shields or Elwes has anything to apologize for, but I’m so used to Hollywood coding romance stories about older people as needing to contain angst over signs of natural aging that the absence of such scenes in this film is noticeable. In other words, A Castle for Christmas is, in some surprising ways, a breath of fresh air to the well worn, well trod, genre of romantic comedies—Christmas or otherwise.
On the other hand, A Castle for Christmas does not stray far from all the things that make it exactly what it is, and this is very important. Although a Netflix film, it hits all the Hallmark Channel romantic comedy beats. A career woman from the big city goes to the country to find herself and does, but also finds a rugged man of the country. They fall magically in love, and after a falling out, they have a happily ever after—the end. And all of this is, as it must be, infused with Christmas.
In the case of A Castle for Christmas, here’s how the story works out: New York-based bestselling author Sophie Brown (Shields), suffering a career setback, travels to Scotland to find the castle at which her father lived and worked when he was a wee lad (sorry). She arrives to mistake the castle lord (Elwes) as the lowly groundskeeper and hijinks ensue, many of which include his surprisingly prescient dog who repeatedly plays matchmaker (dogs really are amazing, aren’t they?). It turns out Myles Dunbar, the lord, is in money trouble and has to sell the castle, so Sophie swoops in to buy it (everyone knows authors are rich enough to buy castles!). But Myles doesn’t really want to sell, so he tries to drive Sophie off by making life at the castle miserable for her. Predictably, Myles and Sophie fall in love and everything resolves at a very fancy Christmas Eve ball. Sophie pays off all the mortgages of everyone in the village (we really need to talk about how much money authors make…)—Christmas miracles all around!
There’s absolutely everything lovers of Christmas romantic comedies could possibly want in A Castle for Christmas: Indulgent scenes of Scotland in wintertime, a beautiful female protagonist who heals a whole village through the power of Christmas, a brooding male protagonist who actually has a heart of gold, enemies to lovers trope, spontaneous singing in pubs, horseback riding in the snow, ballroom dancing, and (of course) castles.
But it’s okay—it’s good, actually, for this movie and every movie just like it (really, just like it) to hit these story beats. There are rhythms to storytelling; there are rhythms to all sorts of storytelling, from high art to low art. The formula of the romantic comedy, and the added infusion of Christmas motifs and themes, offers hope to people seeking a particular type of emotional fulfillment, especially at a particular time of the year.
There is a reason Hallmark, and now Netflix, releases these types of cozy, formulaic romances just before Christmas. The capitalistic reason is because this is the time of the year when there is the highest demand for them. The weeks leading up to Christmas are some of the loneliest weeks of the year; what we tend to think of as the season of “Merry and Bright” is also a season of dark despair for a lot of people. It’s the hardest time of the year to be alone—to be reminded of losses, of wishes and dreams unfulfilled. The days are growing darker and shorter and colder. If your life is not where you want it to be, it can be hard to watch people celebrate.
I think that while some people watch rom-com Christmas movies out of idle curiosity, the real popularity of the films stems from the darkness of the season. These stories tap into something deeper—some felt spiritual needs people have during Advent to know that everything is going to be alright, that the darkness is not going to last. Am I about to over-spiritualize cozy Christmas romance films? Yes—maybe a little. Bear with me.
The thing about the romance genre is that it is imminently predictable. More than any other genre, romance has established rules, and romantic comedies narrow those rules even more. There must be a meet-cute, the conflict of the story must rise and fall on misunderstandings between the two central protagonists, they must have a falling out just after the point when they have declared feelings for each other and it seems like everything will be okay (the false resolution). But most important of all the elements of the story is this: the love interests must resolve this final conflict at the end with a declaration of love and possibly a marriage or proposal. Why are all these elements important? These stories ensure that there are no unmet expectations, no shattered hope, no disappointed feelings.
When you couple such stories with the season of Advent, themes like “no shattered hope” and the need for a happy ending just make sense. Advent is a season of light in the darkness. A season of promise. A time to look forward and backward to the hope that came and the hope that is coming, to huddle around candles and rebuke the darkness and brokenness of the world with hope, peace, love, and joy. Advent is of course about Jesus while Christmas rom-coms are decidedly not that, but they do fit thematically into the idea that hope beats back the darkness.
These films aren’t supposed to be great art; they are supposed to be therapeutic. They are cozy as a candle in a dark room is cozy. They are feel-good and hopeful because when you sit down to watch them, you know exactly what is going to happen even if you’ve never seen this particular one before. Their hopefulness is in the best sense of the word—in the sense that you can have complete faith in the outcome of the story. They are hopeful in the same way that Advent is a season of hope—we know the beginning and we know the end, and the rhythms of the season are reminders of that hope.