Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
The equation is pretty simple: Take one overworked, underappreciated woman who seems to have it all. Give her a straight-laced, stern, workaholic boyfriend/fiancé and an emergency that requires her to spend the holidays in a place that feels far beneath her, preferably a childhood home she left behind or a backwoods town whose only mechanic is in a coma. Throw in a handsome, flannel-shirt-wearing handy-man sort of guy and, voila, watch the sparks fly! Love is in the air, with a hefty dose of change-of-heart as the big-city heroine realizes that the things she thought were important can never compare to the joy of family, community, and love. It’s a holiday Romantic Comedy and with a storyline like that, it’s sure to be an instant made-for-TV classic.
They may not be literary classics or tackling the harsh realities of the world, but they are telling stories and offering rest.
It’s no surprise that Christmas RomComs are rising in popularity; they line our Netflix feeds, saturate our cable network programming, and we’re just going to see more of them as we get closer to Christmas. Whether you love them, hate them, or just plain don’t get them, the fact of the matter is holiday romantic comedies are skyrocketing in popularity. They are quickly becoming a holiday tradition in many homes across the country and as more and more people watch them, more and more of them are being made. Hallmark, who remains the leader in producing these Christmas movies, is releasing 24 new titles this year alone. Amazon, Netflix, Lifetime, Disney+, and other smaller networks are all joining in the fun with ever-increasing production numbers and no sign of slowing down. And the reality is, there’s no need to slow down when the movies they are making are being gobbled up quicker than the Thanksgiving turkey. In 2018, Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas programming schedule out-performed broadcast networks for Saturday night viewership in all households and was the most-watched cable network for the demographics of women 18-54. It’s a rising trend and whenever that starts to happen it makes me wonder why. What is it about these fluffy, feel-good films that are drawing people in?
To be clear, I love these Christmas movies. They’ll never replace The Muppet Christmas Carol as my favorite holiday film, and Die Hard will always hold the second spot on my list, but for a weeknight curled up on the couch, I’ll take a cheesy Christmas love story any day. So the question for me is not if I like them or why I like them, it’s a question of why so many others do too. What makes them so appealing to so many people, and what does that tell us about the culture we live in?
For some, the answer to why people like holiday RomComs is found in the formula illustrated above. There is a safety and ease in knowing that the couple will always end up together, love will prevail, Christmas will win, and the town will be saved. The fact that there are a million movies to choose from keeps things fresh and interesting without sacrificing the familiarity of the plot. In a world that seems increasingly out of control, people like sitting down to watch something that is pretty much guaranteed to bring a smile to their face, even if it’s a smile brought on by mediocre acting, towns with far too many twinkle lights, and overly predictable plots. It’s comforting, relaxing, and quite honestly, it’s a needed escape. We don’t mind that the plot is recycled over and over again; in fact, that’s one of the things we like the most. As viewers, we’ll turn a blind eye to production inconsistencies if it means we get the light-hearted love story that we know so well.
So while it’s true that these Christmas romances are formulaic, it’s also true that it’s the formula that’s drawing many viewers in. Like the hero’s quest arc, it presents familiar characters in a predictable storyline but that’s ok because it’s a story arc that works. In fact, in a very real way, these movies follow a simplified hero’s quest of their own. It’s a formula and a pattern that is effective, efficient, and appealing. Which means the formula works not just because it’s effective, but because it’s familiar. At Christmas time, especially, people seem drawn to the familiar, the heartwarming, and the nostalgic and the formulaic Hallmark-style movies cash in on all of that.
But it’s more than just the formula that is responsible for the rise in Christmas RomComs. In a recent New York Times article, Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, was quoted saying, ““No matter what the state of the economy, no matter what the state of chaos or stability, there is an extraordinary appetite for simple, cheesy, unsophisticated, easy-to-watch programming… And all the better if it’s wrapped up in the bunting and ribbons of Christmas.” And he’s right.
While considered unsophisticated by many, looked down upon or even mocked, the fact of the matter is many people are drawn to stories that are simple and, quite honestly, easy. There is an appeal to spending an hour and a half not needing to overthink or over-analyze. There’s a draw to these stories who greatest conflict is the big chain store closing the beloved coffee shop or the main character choosing between the emotionally-unavailable-but-rich boyfriend or the kind, compassionate, loving family-man new guy (the obviously superior choice). These are not earth shattering stories and that, for many people, is the point.
The fact that these RomComs crop up at Christmas is part of the appeal as well. In other words, people are drawn to easy viewing at Christmas time because it’s Christmas time. Maybe it’s the stress of holiday shopping, cooking, family events, and holiday schedules that pushes people away from the harsher realities of life and into the candy cane and coco world of these holiday stories. Maybe it’s the fact that the New Year is quickly approaching and with it the demands of resolutions and a fresh calendar which is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Or maybe it’s just that the last few years have seen a massive uptick in political and global unrest. Whatever it is, it does seem like the fluffy, easiness of the stories presented to us in the Holiday RomComs is one of the things that draw many in.
These very aspects that draw viewers in, however, are also the same reasons many turn away. Christmas RomComs are definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and some might baulk at the idea of “mindless”, fluffy, feel-good stories. But the truth is there is nothing wrong with that type of entertainment. They may not be literary classics or tackling the harsh realities of the world, but they are telling stories and offering rest, and both of those are important. It’s ok for people to be drawn to easy Christmas movies, good even. There is a place and a need, for easy stories like this. We don’t have to all like the same things, and what brings one person an enjoyable few hours may not do the same for another. And again, that’s ok. The fact of the matter is that people, many, many people are drawn to these movies due largely to their ease and predictability. The question then really isn’t why one person’s choice of entertainment is better than another; the question is what does this say about the world we live in?
We live with longing hovering just beyond our vision or resting on our shoulders and wrapping itself around us like a cloak.
On the surface it’d be easy to answer this question with a discussion about the unrest in our world. The rise in these feel-good films says a lot about the need for rest and joy and all-around pleasant escapes. We could talk about the political climate or the international state of affairs and our need for stories that have resolutions and happy endings. We could even look at the effect of consumerism or the harsh realities of living in a social media saturated culture and what that says about the need for community and the connection presented in these movies. But if I’m honest, while I’m sure all of those play a role somehow, I think there is something deeper and far more inherent to our humanity at play, something that runs through all of those other things but exists separately from them as well. I think it’s all about longing.
Longing is intrinsic to who we are as humans. We experience it differently to varying degrees and in varying ways, but we all experience it. We live with longing hovering just beyond our vision or resting on our shoulders and wrapping itself around us like a cloak. It’s the hope for more, the slight unrest that says this can’t be it, the desire, the wish. It’s, as C. S. Lewis wrote about in The Weight of Glory, the deep desire for our own far off country. So while it’s true that the massive rise in RomCom popularity can be tied to the need for escape, consumerism, unrest, and real-life struggles, it’s longing that runs beneath each of those and binds them together.
We long for more; more hope, more peace, more love. And the beautiful thing about the season of Advent is that we have a time in the Christian calendar all about patience in our longing. It’s no surprise to me that the world, even those who have never read the Christmas story in Luke or attended a candle-light Christmas Eve service, feel the sense of longing that accompanies this time of year. Advent is a time for longing; it’s about waiting in expectation for our God to move, to come down to us when we cannot possible go towards him. We long for his promise to be fulfilled, for him to “remember his mercy,” as Mary says so beautifully in song in Luke 1:54-55. It’s about waiting in silent expectation for him to uphold his covenant, a covenant we couldn’t possibly keep but that he has promised to keep in our place.
The longing we feel all year long seems magnified at Christmas because it’s supposed to. We’re supposed to feel the deep yearning, the silence between Malachi and Matthew. While it’s easy to try to assuage that with gifts and parties and too-much food, the reality is that that longing is not a bad thing–it points us to deeper realities and pushes us to seek out truth.
Despite their festive exterior, Holiday RomComs are rooted in and stir up this deep longing. The longing for family, for love, for acceptance, for peace, for a quiet life, for meaning–all of these things saturate what would otherwise be considered a fluffy story. These formulaic, easy stories are, in reality, not all that easy after all. They force their viewers to question their own stories, to look at their own lives in relation to the happy endings they’ve presented. What have you sacrificed for security? Are you satisfied with your relationships? Are you seen? Are you loved? And while they wrap those questions up in big shiny red bows, they are still deep, unsettling questions that only increase the sense of longing already present in Advent.
The danger, then, is that we try to push away the longing or satisfy it with other things. Or as Lewis pointed out, we can let these stories become the object of our longing instead. We watch one more movie and buy one more gift and hope it helps us feel better. We escape into another story and don’t face the questions they present about our own. It’s the danger of all entertainment, to be honest. We can let the stories we consume dull the ache, or we can use them as an impetus for action. We can let them numb the longing or let them point us to truth. But the longing itself, and even the fluff it’s wrapped in, is not a bad thing.
I love holiday RomComs. I love the formula. I love the happy endings and the copious amounts of cheer. And I love the longing they stir deep within. More and more of these movies are being produced and they will surely dominate the ratings this month; and that’s ok. They may be easy, and on the surface they may be nothing but feel-good distractions, but underneath they point to deeper realities and important truths. We are designed for connection. We are created for love. And Advent gives us a way to practice and express our longing.
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