2015: Christmas Is A Flat Circle My Holiday With Hallmark

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Outside it’s snowing heavily, the garden has been transformed into a collection of coarse contours of what was, and everything is sparkling white, like a light that will never go out, a sky that will never darken, a day that will never end.”
–Stig Sæterbakken, Through the Night

Unlike my colleagues, I have no theory of 2015 — at least insofar as it relates to this. The year has disappeared, and with it a month-long series of made-for-TV Hallmark Christmas movies (#CountdownToChristmas). No theoretical gesture will make the memory of that time manifest; no retroactive hypothesizing gives that time spent, on the couch or in bed, staring at a screen with my wife, any inherent meaning or purpose whatsoever. We live in absent time, and every great theoretician of memory (from Plato to Proust) knows it. Heidegger called it ekstatic, that anxious center held between past and future, always rooted in impossible memory of one’s unwanted beginning. Or Freud (yes, Freud) who warned us that everything we do, we do as if guided by a phantom of our unknown and likely never-to-be-known selves.

That’s theorizing, of course. But in 2016, on a rainy January day (in a month, theorized by pseudoscientists, that contains our most “depressing day”), I’m trying to summon my own recent ghost of Christmas past and remember: What did I watch, and what was my motivation? What did I really see? Can I ever really know? It doesn’t make any sense to me, but here I am: remembering.

You see, if there is one thing you learn by watching the Hallmark Channel during the Christmas season, it’s that the memory of the season is to be sought out — through one’s self, one’s relationships, and one’s community — perpetually: against pain, against loss, against, against, against — until the end, at which you live happily ever after. And as though perpetually printed on vellum, the happiness falls on top of itself, again and again, until something like the formless void returns. You stare into darkness, unable to call forth your creation. It’s around you, now, never ending. Then, and only then, you know you’ve counted down to Christmas and that it’s here to stay.


‘Tis the Season for Love

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Beth Baker, an aspiring but down-on-her-luck actress, is gifted a plane ticket to return home for Christmas. After being turned down for a Mamet play, Beth decides to fly home. Imagine what you would do if you, like Beth, had freshly felt the sting of failure, and a friend, like hers, provided you an easy way out. I can’t say that I blame her, although in retrospect the flight was shortsighted. In several day’s time, Beth would eventually be offered the position of an understudy, and she, to the chagrin of her new boyfriend (the local bachelor), would briefly return to New York to pursue the opportunity. However, unable to withstand the predictable insecurities of working in the theater, Beth decides ultimately to return to home to her man, her mother, and her — surprise — new role as a part-time elementary school theater instructor. Beth, then, takes on, without anxiety and in the Christmas spirit, the role of her life, cultivating a love in others for a life she couldn’t withstand. There is poor Beth Baker, in love, but dreamless.

Ice Sculpture Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Callie Shaw, a scrappy ice sculptress and aspiring cook, is given a job as a dishwasher at one of Washington’s premiere country clubs. Callie Shaw, whose mother died while she was a teenager. Callie Shaw, who lives in the wanting, aimless pull of a boy she met when she was a child and hasn’t seen since. This Callie, like many graduates from culinary school, still lives with her dad. She dreams of becoming a chef and, one day, after noticing a missing worker, steps in and becomes a prep. She’s admired by most, including the head chef, and hated by one. And yet. From across the room (figuratively), Callie notices him — or he, her. Recognition is mysterious, no doubt. Nonetheless, they both remember — in part, at least. He’s a member. Since certain class anxieties are unavoidable, Callie was able to prove her superiority as an artisan ice sculptress (she opted only for hand tools). Since certain gendered anxieties are unavoidable, the boy (now a man) was able to prove his superiority by mastering her skill in a couple of days. Against the backdrop of an ice sculpture competition, which the country club is hosting, they cultivate a bond, form a partnership, and compete against the head chef, among others. As the competition comes to a close, they leave the room before a winner is announced. There, with her boy, is Callie, in love, but misinformed: the competition is only just beginning.

Charming Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Meredith Rossman, heiress of Rossman’s department store, has fallen in love with business at the expense of colleagues, romantic interests, and Christmas alike. The job is filled with the predictable petty drama of low-wage earners. The store, however, is housed with memories. Bachelard wrote the book, literally. One day, Nick comes to town. Nick has a certain mystique, a presence. He is, unquestionably, Santa Claus. But who would believe him? So he playacts. Meredith doesn’t understand Nick, and how could she? Christmas at heart is a matter of faith. So Meredith discovers a coat in a backroom of the department store. When she puts on the coat, she becomes Mrs. Claus. A genealogy of the Clauses would turn up nothing: Santa’s wife has been nameless since the beginning: a “wife,” and no more. To become a wife, historically, has meant to lose your name. And names, Meredith will find out as the film progresses, are foundational. Her family’s store, the namesake, is threatened by Meredith’s business ambitions to sell. Her ambitions, however, become shrouded in one garment. The coat transforms her into Santa’s object. The store lives on in name alone, while Meredith, in love, becomes a mystery to herself, her old identity a matter of faith.

I’m Not Ready for Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Holly Nolan, a liar and workaholic, disappoints her niece, Anna, one too many times. One night, after Holly misses another recital, Anna meets Santa in a parking lot outside of school, and makes a wish that will, one would hope, change Holly’s relationship with colleagues, romantic interests, and Christmas alike. Anna wishes that Holly could no longer lie. Unfortunately, perhaps the greatest strength that women possess in Hallmark Christmas films is deception: sometimes, yes, it’s the power to deceive another (albeit in fairly innocuous ways), but more often than not, it’s the power to deceive oneself. Moreover, lying in this instance is treated purely as a relationship between thought and speech. For example, although Holly finds herself embarrassed by the uncontrollably “true” things she says to co-workers, she finds no such embarrassment in ways in which the symbols and objects that dominate her life as an executive come to represent who she is in actuality. The truth may be that her co-worker is obnoxious, but that doesn’t compare to the deeper truth that she believes, for example, she is more real with makeup on than off. Holly’s truth is her appearance. Holly’s truth is a mirror. For Holly, truth remains superficial — that is, simply a matter of etiquette — rather than revelatory. By the end of the film, Holly realizes that, like any good businesswoman, she should honor the social bonds of the aunt/niece contract. Holly even falls improbably in love throughout the process. But Holly, in love, lives with a dishonesty so fundamental that she actually believes she’s told the truth, that even the miraculous powers of Santa cannot penetrate it.

Christmas Incorporated

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Riley Vance, an aspiring Administrative Assistant, has a resume mix-up that will change the lives not only of the inhabitants of a small, Vermont hamlet, but also of William Young, a young heir to his father’s toy manufacturing company. Riley, an improbable victim of circumstance. A child of moderate privilege. She knows what she needs to know, but lacks the proper connections to get her where she needs — she believes — to be. So she applies, and applies. She’s turned down again and again, until one day someone mistakes her for another. By virtue of “her” resume, she gets the position. She’s ready to go to work. The hamlet in Vermont is struggling, and William happens to maintain control over the outcome: at the center of the struggle is a toy manufacturer in need of one good idea. William wants to let the market decide, whereas Riley wants William to intervene. It’s no surprise, then, that Riley was unfit for business. So she improvises. At the heart of the film lies a singular message: Christmas must be incorporated, otherwise it will not be. Therefore, Riley’s plan is repackaging the manufacturer’s shitty toys in Christmas-themed boxes. One might perceive this film, above all, as a meta-statement about Hallmark’s overall intent. But go a little deeper, and you’ll find Riley, alone, at the bottom. Even as Riley falls for William, and he for her, it’s all about the bottom line: Riley, sitting next to William, riding through the hamlet on a carriage, a savior, knows, in her heart, that all she did was alter the design. So Riley, in love, must live with the fact that William recognizes his disposable assets long before she will, and that Christmas kitsch is often thrown away the day after, or the day after that.

Northpole: Open for Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Mackenize Warren, a successful businesswoman who inherited a quaint, Vermont inn, gets more than she bargained for when she returns to assess the value of her new property. In the North Pole, Santa tells a story about the inn: it possesses an orb, and this orb (provided there exists an abundance of localized Christmas spirit) will power his sleigh. It is imperative, Santa states, that this inn be saved. Therefore, Mackenzie is thrust into a situation already outside of her control. Although situationally improbable, that is (generally) not an uncommon occurrence. Nonetheless, Mackenzie is both savvy and kindhearted: a curious mix. And once upon a time, she arrives at her inn. I remember, when I was a child, waking up on Christmas morning and walking to the stairwell. I looked down into the living room, and felt a pain in my abdomen. For months, my parents laughed it off, attributed it to nerves, over-excitement. But I ended up having a parasite. Bad meat. Christmas is funny like that. Mackenzie walked through the rooms of the inn and remembered what it was. The past opened onto the excitement of childhood. But excitement can be confusing when it’s being orchestrated from elsewhere. For me, a parasite. For her, Santa. The symptom is the same. And then Ian the contractor, poor Ian: an afterthought, a widower with a daughter. And the daughter: a repetition of the same. Into the inn they go, bound by their Christmas spirit or its lack. They fall in love, pretending they had a choice. So Mackenzie, in love, must forever hold in tandem her desire and her status: as hostage to foreign parasites, dictating the degree of excitement lest it all vanish and the orb burn out. The daughter, all the while, squealing.

Merry Matrimony

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Brie Traverston, an ad executive for a fashion magazine, is given the opportunity of a lifetime to curate a Christmas wedding for the upcoming seasonal issue. However, the photographer she has been paired with, the world-renowned Eddie Chapman, brings up feelings of love lost. Brie, of course, is an expert in fabrication. Eddie as well. Both live in front of screens, frames, curated gestures. Both have assistants doing their bidding. Both are prominent image makers. In truth, neither one knows what reality looks like, how it appears. They remember how they thought they felt years ago, when they first met and almost wed. They remember when they were young and willing. Now, however, they are older and still single. Desperately years away. They wonder, together: what does a wedding look like? Even as they make one up, together, they no longer know. But they’re there, together, so they settle. They act out their wedding on set, and it is everything they designed it to seem. But weddings, like Christmas, are liturgical. They are not merely speech acts, but consecrations. They bestow impossible meaning on the ordinary. That is, they stand in as a possibility of a reciprocated appearance, something — frankly — beyond set design. But there Brie stands, in love, performing for Eddie, and Eddie for Brie, and image surrounds image, and they smile for the camera, waiting.

Once Upon a Holiday

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Katie Hollingston, the revered princess of Montsaurai, is visiting New York City with her bodyguards to attend to her annual Christmas gala. Feeling both the pressure to conform to her royal duties and the unfreedom of being protected, Katie flees into the city, only to meet Jack, a contractor with a close affiliation to a local network of Santas and magicians. For Katie, this is a story of willing debasement, what overly-theoretical Marxists might call “false consciousness” in reverse. Katie lies to Jack, calling herself “Katie Holiday” and, after being mugged on the street, takes his money, his shelter, and his gifts. She isn’t a contemptuous character, but she is a tourist in his class. She condescends with poise. She is polite, politic. At heart, she wants to be a nobody, but her lineage and tastes will forever dictate otherwise. She is nonetheless embraced by Jack, his family, and his friends. When the truth is strangely uncovered, they pity her. They neither ask for recompense nor sell her out to the press. It is, strangely, a meeting of common humanity, in what might be one of the most poorly acted Hallmark films of the season. But in this world, there are neither “good” nor “bad” actors. A princess can be pitiable, and a contractor can become a prince. Roles are remarkably, and graciously, fluid. But when Katie, in love, meets Jack, in the center square of Montsaurai, a non-existent country, one can’t help but wonder when the embrace will end, when the kiss will, for her, become pitiable, and Jack will wander the palace wondering if there’s a toilet left to plunge.

A Christmas Detour

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Paige Summerland, a bridal columnist and bride-to-be, is distraught when her plane — bound toward her fiancé in New York City — is grounded in Buffalo, NY due to a winter storm. She ungraciously accepts a ride from Dylan and long-married couple Frank and Maxine to brave the road and make it home in time for Christmas. Paige is a writer and, like any writer, believes she’s an authority on her subject matter. Nonetheless, as a bridal columnist, she is both unmarried and in a loveless relationship. That is the setup, anyway. Truly, Paige understands how words deceive, that is, how words stand in for (something like) reality. A “bride” is not a bride, but the aspiration. A “man” is not a man, but a series of qualities. This is why Paige keeps a notebook outlining the characteristics of a perfect man, but cannot maintain a meaningful relationship. Later, during the trip, when Dylan pulls the notebook out and notices that her current partner is missing a quality, he brings it up. “You want a man with a sense of humor, but he doesn’t have one.” Paige responds to Dylan not as one who has “invaded her privacy,” but as one who knows a more foundational secret. The couple, however, is tragicomic relief: they neither know what they want nor that they want each other, but that they’re together. Like some Lynchian gesture, they’re the phantasm in the backseat — the unconscious dread of Christmas futures — in a word, beyond the scope of mere writing. Dylan, however, begs to be written. “I have a sense of humor.” Check the box, Paige. This is why she loves him, and Paige, in love, is left with a reprieve from the clownish nonsense that is true love, from the weirdness that is married life, from the wordless excess of morning breath and forever.

The 12 Gifts of Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Anna Parisi, a struggling artist with a gorgeous basement apartment, seeks to find an alternate source of income after another gallery rejection. Realizing her excellent buying skills, Anna decides to become a professional shopper, finding an unlikely customer in a wealthy executive, Marc Rehnquist. Let it be said, outright, that 10 of the 12 gifts purchased in this film are purchased during a short montage. The film is not about buying in and of itself, but identity. Anna’s identity is as a painter, and in rejection she becomes a caricature. Unfortunately, it’s as a caricature that Anna thrives. Her family and friends find her to be revitalized, and Marc, the executive, finds her worth pursuing. It’s not until Marc visits Anna’s apartment, which coincidentally is after a well-established relationship has formed, that he discovers she’s a painter and that painting is her passion. Marc views Anna’s paintings: varieties of mediocre Christmas-themed portraiture and landscapes, for the most part. (Realist, generally speaking.) And it’s only away from Anna that Marc begins to secretly strategize. Marc contacts Anna’s sister, who steals one of Anna’s paintings. Marc, then, sells the image to a company. Anna treats Marc’s gesture as a betrayal, but of what? Marc was no more an intermediary than an gallery would’ve been. Marc was giving her work an exposure that it didn’t deserve. He made her reputable in a market in which she was completely disposable. Marc acted as a point of access for Anna, and, for her, this was intolerable. But why? I suspect Anna knew her worth — not as a human (which is not quantifiable, by any means), but as an artist. She knew, and she loved him for his nearsightedness. Love blinds, and Anna, in love, knew she had blinded Marc (particularly as Marc’s status of “spender” was being reinforced); but she also knew, unfortunately, that she earned her gallery rejections, that she was a mediocrity, and that she wasn’t getting any better. Christmas would be over soon and eventually Marc would see.

Crown for Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Allie Evans holds herself with grace when she is fired as a hotel maid on the spot. Her positive attitude is noticed and appreciated by a patron, Fergus, a kindly assistant to King Maximillian. Fergus hires Allie on as the governess for the young princess, the daughter of Maximillian. Allie was a daughter once. Her parents died when she was young and soon thereafter became a mother to her siblings. She raised them well, it seems. As a governess, she supervised the King’s daughter; the King, a widower himself, although loving, had long been absent from his daughter’s life as a matter of protocol. Propriety dictates distance, and parental distance, albeit of a different sort, was Allie’s specialty. As if looking into a mirror, Allie loved the princess. It’s called “countertransference,” if you really want to know. Later, we can ask sincerely, did Allie love the King? The King grew to love Allie, no doubt, and their partnership “made sense” at the end of the film. But the relationship that is cultivated, throughout the film, is between Allie and the princess: governess to sister, and sister to mother. Allie was doing for the princess what she had already done for her siblings. Whereas the King simply fits within a proposition: if Allie loves my daughter, and my daughter loves Allie, then… what? (I supposed a King’s proposition must be seductive enough to withstand logical fallacies, however.) In looking in the mirror, Allie, in love, must be left wondering if she’s loving or simply wanting (if, in the end, she is creating surrogate children in the void). But the mirror is in motion. It’s running. She chases her little reflection around the estate, all the while brushing thoughtlessly past the King.

Angel of Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Susan Nicholas, a newspaper columnist, is given the opportunity to write a front-page, human interest story about her family’s heirloom: a rather large, hand-carved angel ornament. The angel is said to have “magic powers,” that it can unite those who are meant to be. Suffice to say, Susan is united with her love, an abstract painter. In what is otherwise a convoluted story that is nearly impossible to summarize, it is difficult to derive meaning from the plot. It is difficult to find avenues through which to pursue alternate meanings. It is difficult to read between the lines. It is difficult to understand motivations. God, it’s difficult finding words to waste on this garbage. For the sake of continuity: Susan, in love (in the end, for now) improbably moves forward in life with a terrible story to tell, which she will no doubt tell anyone who can listen. (In a benevolent world, the paper itself will be relegated to microfiche, collecting dust in a library.) The angel, however, lives on, and we can only hope that one day the abstract painter will, like Klee, paint it, and that the painting will be subjected to Benjaminian analyses, and that we will, in Christmases yet to come, read about it looking back upon the damage that has been wrought in its name. It will keep moving, keep moving, ceaselessly into the future.

Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Just in Time for Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Lindsay Rogers, a Washington-based psychology professor and girlfriend of local barista Jason Stewart, is given two non-conflicting opportunities of a lifetime. Nonetheless, Lindsay believes she must choose between a tenure-track position at Yale and a Christmas proposal — for marriage. Lindsay flees the proposal, having learned only moments before that she was being offered the academic position, and goes to a local park to contemplate her choices. A bearded man (played by William Shatner) on a coach invites her along for a carriage ride in the dark. She accepts. During the carriage ride, Lindsay looks up to see (what appear to be) the Northern Lights. When she looks down, she’s been transported three years into the future. She is a success, but Jason is gone. (Of course, I wonder what could’ve been.) As someone who has worked for years in psych and is writing most of this essay under the influence, I’m unsurprised by Lindsay’s inability, on the one hand, to handle stressful decisions, and her ability, on the other, to know better. It should go without saying that, as her future is revealed to her, she’s made aware of paths not taken, paths best avoided, and love lost and, perhaps, regained. Lindsay is made uncomfortably and sadly aware of the possibility of possibility, as Kierkegaard would put it. Perceived contradictions are reconciled, and all is known. But she should’ve known, in a better way, beforehand. In the future, she saw (only) the woman she was always meant to be. But the revelation preceded the magic: that is, that Jason was willing to put faith in an uncertain future, whereas Lindsay was not. What Lindsay demanded was security, but love — to say nothing of life — offers little of it. And when Lindsay returns to the past, she must admit that she knows too much and bear the responsibility of it. What, for Jason, has an aura of unpredictability, becomes the commonplace forever for Lindsay. Lindsay, in love, has sabotaged her love by demanding too much knowledge, living either with the impossible pull of the known future or the unpredictability of the next carriage ride. It’s easy to believe, knowing the profession as I do, that she’ll get on.

Karen Kingsbury’s The Bridge

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

[To be continued in 2016]

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Maggie Chalke, a newspaper columnist, is excited to learn that Mitch O’Grady, a local radio talk-show host, has returned to town. Maggie remembered fondly the first and last Christmas they spent together, and is dismayed to hear that Mitch has lost his Christmas spirit. Maggie has an idea of how to give it back to him, but it’s going to take 12 gifts. She begins sending anonymous gifts addressed to him to the radio station; he opens the first gift on the air and quickly dismisses it. Each subsequent gift is a simple reminder of the “meaning of Christmas”: to self, family, and community. In a strange and moderately unethical turn of events, Maggie is asked by her editor to write about Mitch and the gifts he’s been receiving. She obliges. What, of who, becomes the story? For Maggie, meaning becomes tenuous. It becomes a malleable thing. With it, she believes she can shape the trajectory of Mitch’s own emotional response, therefore reinforcing her own understanding of what Christmas ought to mean to him. It’s highly manipulative, especially when you take into account the underlying cause of Mitch’s aversion: that is, the death of his mother on Christmas. His mother’s backstory is brief and simply mentions her love of the holiday, as well as her collection of star ornaments. Nonetheless, Maggie knows. Maggie continues to send Mitch gifts and continues to cover the story. Women throughout the small town claim to be the anonymous sender, but Mitch sees through them. In the end, Maggie admits what she’s done, and Mitch is furious. Mitch is confused. Does this prevent them from falling in love? Of course not. They’re intertwined. Therefore, the final gifts are highly symbolic: Maggie gives Mitch a final, complex gift — a bike he wanted since childhood that his mother was unable to give him — Mitch, on the other hand, gives Maggie a star. One of her stars. Maggie, in love, is reinstated in her primitive role, one that she has been fated to inhabit from the moment she sought to take the place, one that, if she has eyes to see, she’s just starting to realize; and Mitch stands before the chorus, when the time is right, ready to plead his case.

A Christmas Melody

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

In Mariah Carey’s directorial debut, Kristin Parson, a struggling Los Angeles fashion designer and single mother, must move back to her comparatively affordable home, in her quaint hometown. As Kristin settles back into small-town life, with all its simple quirks, she is reunited with Danny: both a former classmate and her daughter’s music teacher, who just so happens to be curating the school’s Christmas recital. Kristin remembers Danny like an afterthought but finds his position advantageous for her daughter’s advancement. She requests a special favor (that he allow her to audition a day late), and he grants it. Nothing is insinuated. Unsurprisingly, Kristin’s daughter is granted a role — a solo, no less — and Kristin herself is commissioned to make the costumes for the play. Kristin makes costumes. Kristin’s daughter sings (a song written by Mariah for the film). Nothing else happens; therefore, Kristin and Danny fall in love. I suppose somewhere lurks a grand theory of “convenience,” but it is often just the sad reality of moving back, settling. Kristin, in love, will likely cheat on Danny in a year’s time. Christmas will end, and Danny will stay.

Christmas Land

A woman finds love at Christmastime. (Image courtesy of Hallmark)

Jules, a New York ad executive, inherits her grandmother’s Christmas tree farm and village, Christmas Land. When Jules visits Christmas Land, she begins to see more value in community than property. That is, although the locals treat her terribly, they’re willing to let her accommodate their needs. That is, she waits. That is, she begins to see less value in her New York apartment than in her Christmas Land Victorian. That is, she begins to remember her grandmother. That is, she remembers that when her grandmother died, she was in Poland for undisclosed reasons. That is, she remembers that everything has a price. Nonetheless, she sells Christmas Land, only to realize shortly thereafter that she didn’t intend to sell Christmas Land — not in that way. Preston, a local lawyer, helps her (excessively). Preston takes time off to walk with her. Preston negs her. Jules remembers how to fix a carriage. Jules remembers how to ride a horse. Jules remembers how to decorate a cookie, an ornament, a dress. Jules, in a late-night deal with a developer, gets Christmas Land back, at a price, indebted. Jules, Jules, Jules: she transforms into light for all the townspeople. We watch her ascend, like an angel, to the top of the tree. She glows brightly, ecstatically bound, sacrificial. Jules, everyone was so mean to you. Jules, in love, at last with a place, with a people, with a man who hates you. Christmas Land was best left in the past. You should’ve stayed home, but now what?

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films and TV shows that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


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