Why You Love Hallmark Christmas Movies
It’s neuroscience, Greek philosophy and human evolution.
By Shilo Urban
Illustrations by Amber Bailey
Hallmark Christmas movies are cheesy, unrealistic and predictable — and incredibly popular. Like Santa, they arrive each season with a sleigh full of holiday spirit and sugar-dusted delight. Night after night, millions of women cozy up with a cup of hot cocoa and escape to a wintery wonderland with magic in the air and true love under the tree. Low production values and inane titles make holiday rom-coms easy to mock. But underneath those perfectly frosted sugar cookies, you’ll discover secrets of neuroscience, Greek philosophy and human evolution.
You know the story: A busy career woman from the big city finds herself in a charming small town for the holidays. Before you can say jingle bells, she falls in love with the man of her dreams (who has a very good chance of being a secret prince). After a big misunderstanding between them that’s quickly sorted out, our heroine somehow winds up saving Christmas — all while discovering the true meaning of the season. Flawlessly coiffed townspeople gather to celebrate amid over-the-top festoonery, red and green everything and more twinkling lights than stars in the sky. Somewhere, someone is baking gingerbread cookies in a ruffled apron, and it always — always — snows on Christmas.
Wait … was this the plotline of “A Royal Christmas” or “Christmas Under Wraps”? “The Christmas Cottage” or “Crown for Christmas”? Does it even matter? No, it doesn’t, because they all look and feel the same. Formulaic storylines are a hallmark of Hallmark Christmas movies, but they’re not a flaw — they’re a feature. We don’t love these films despite their predictability, but because of it. Their stereotypical characters, obvious plots and inevitable happy endings provide the certainty and simplicity we crave, especially during the holidays. Add in a beautiful fairy-tale setting, and you have the definition of a feel-good movie, according to a recent study by the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.
Watching Christmas movies triggers your brain to release dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Unlike scary movies, which spike your dopamine level and give you a thrill, steady-paced Hallmark movies create a continuous flow of warm, fuzzy feelings. As any neuroscientist will tell you, this dopamine release can be quite addictive, which is why you find yourself watching them again and again.
You’re not alone: More than 80 million viewers tuned into a Hallmark Christmas movie in 2021. The network has pumped out 300 holiday flicks since 2009, with 40 in the last year alone. And that’s not even counting the Hallmark-inspired Christmas movies on Netflix and Hulu, which target a younger, more diverse audience. But they all follow the same winning recipe that Hallmark pioneered: hopeful, simplistic and unrealistic.
This obtuse lack of realism matters not to the viewers because of the power of suspended belief. Coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, “suspension of belief” refers to the intentional avoidance of critical thinking about a fictional story in order to simply enjoy it. Yes, it would be impossible to pack four winter coats in one tiny carry-on bag. But with suspended belief, we can set logic aside and enjoy the show — well, most of us can. We all know the hater that loves to mock anything that falls short of total realism — that’s so fake! — and poke holes in plotlines to prove his superior intellect.
Said hater must not have read his Aristotle, because it was the venerable Greek philosopher who first explored the concept of suspended belief in his theory of catharsis. Catharsis refers to the flushing fear, sadness and other difficult emotions from our system through drama — like Hallmark Christmas movies. The ancient Greeks believed in the healing power of the dramatic arts so much they built theaters in their hospitals. Laughing at comedy, crying over tragedy and swooning at secret princes provide an emotional release that can deliver restoration and renewal.
For Aristotle, however, catharsis is but a steppingstone to the ultimate aim of art: wonder (rhaumaston in Greek). If catharsis is the hot water, rhaumaston is the delicious post-bath sensation of having been washed. You’ve cleaned away the crusty accretions of adulthood that have dimmed your hope and joy — and now you feel a bit of the wonder that you did as a child. The plots of these movies may not be real, but the emotions sure are.
And those emotions go way, way back — to the dawn of human existence. Our Hallmark heroine usually embarks on a journey of self-discovery, traveling from isolation and “otherness” to connection with a group. Singletons find love, families reunite, and whole towns come together for a shared purpose. For early humans, isolation from the group would have been tantamount to a death sentence. Stories that tap into this ancient need to belong still affect us deeply today. We are more isolated than ever, and our world can be incredibly uncertain, immoral, chaotic and even downright ugly — everything that a Hallmark movie is not. The stories offer simplistic solutions to complex issues like romantic relationships, finances and family (which all find new intensity during the holidays).
“With mediocre acting and inane titles, Hallmark Christmas movies are easy to mock. But underneath those perfectly frosted sugar cookies lie secrets of neuroscience, Greek philosophy and human evolution.”
As children, our fairy tales taught us life lessons, but we need something very different from them as adults. We’re no longer scared of the unknown monsters in the forest — we’ve met them. They’ve traumatized us, cheated on us and left us to pick up the breadcrumbs of our lives. We need fairy tales that remind us of the hope we had as children, which is much easier to accomplish during the holidays. The baby in the manger brought new hope for the world, and Christmas can birth new hope for us, too.
Haters gonna hate — but Hallmark Christmas movies deliver a dose of hope and wonder that rest on science and history. So let yourself laugh, cry and be healed by the holiday magic of the happy ending.
“Hope is a waking dream.” ~ Aristotle
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