EDISON, New Jersey — It’s Christmas, and I’m in a warehouse.
That’s the way it feels, at the very least, contained in the New Jersey Conference and Exposition Middle, the place I’m attending the primary ChristmasCon. The three-day occasion — held over a weekend in November — purports to have fun one of the best of Christmas films, bringing their stars and writers to the massive venue to take a seat on panels about their experiences.
Close by, there’s a Christmas market, the place distributors promote items and decorations. Simply past the market is a gigantic house the place the celebs of these aforementioned films signal autographs. In a room off the primary corridor, Santa awaits anybody who may wish to pose for a photograph with him, for an extra payment.
The sight of all of it is barely surreal. For starters, ChristmasCon is going down in a conference middle that feels for all of the world like a kind of Works Progress Administration buildings constructed within the 1930s particularly to present unemployed Individuals one thing to do. It’s a charmless, grey house with cement flooring and steel roof — however for ChristmasCon, it’s been bedecked with as a lot Christmas attraction because the organizers may muster. To say the 2 aesthetics conflict can be an enormous understatement.
However on each of the times I’m there, the place is packed. Slightly below 9,000 individuals attended ChristmasCon throughout its three days (paying $35 for at some point and $75 for all three), based on the occasion’s organizers, they usually’re wearing festive Christmas sweaters and Christmas cosplay (sure, individuals dressed up as Christmas bushes) and so, so many shirts that say, “That is my Hallmark Christmas movie-watching sweater.”
As a result of for as a lot as this can be a “Christmas film conference,” it feels much more like a Hallmark Christmas film conference, regardless of the organizers’ admirable makes an attempt to broaden past the channel whose immense November and December viewership propels it to the highest of the Nielsen rankings for cable 12 months after 12 months after 12 months. At ChristmasCon, Hallmark is Christmas, and Christmas is Hallmark. ChristmasCon doesn’t simply have fun the commercialization of Christmas. It celebrates the commercialization of the commercialization of Christmas.
The Hallmark Channel has turn into synonymous with Christmas films
On the middle of the conference’s Christmas market, there’s an enormous Hallmark Channel set up, with a number of picture alternatives — in entrance of a hearth, exterior a snowy lodge, and so forth — in addition to free cider and Christmas cookies. The fake coziness of the house stands out much more in opposition to the boxy industrial really feel of the conference middle, however as soon as I courageous one of many infinite strains to truly stand in mentioned set up, it actually does really feel a little bit like visiting the home of a Christmas-crazed nice aunt who spares no expense and will get all of her adorning concepts from Southern Dwelling journal.
Hallmark Channel (or, moderately, its company guardian Crown Media) is the only real sponsor of ChristmasCon, and lots of the distributors right here available in the market have a mutually helpful relationship with the channel.
I cease to speak to a couple salespeople from Tule Publishing, whose Christmas-themed novels have often been tailored by Hallmark to fill its ever-growing catalog of Christmas films. Film diversifications increase ebook gross sales, Denise Holcomb from Tule tells me, except Hallmark modifications the title of a film to not match that of the ebook. To counteract such modifications, the corporate emblazons copies of books like The Christmas Want with their TV adaptation titles — on this case, Vacation Hearts — to tell curious customers that the story has been Hallmark sanctioned.
So it goes throughout ChristmasCon. The conference isn’t a Hallmark conference — besides it completely type of is. The longest strains are for Hallmark stars like Lacey Chabert (who starred in her eighth Hallmark Christmas film in 2019). The largest crowds are for these stars, too.
“After I first began working for them, they had been making many fewer films. How effectively they’re doing now and the fanbase that has grown has been fairly exceptional to see,” Chabert tells me throughout a quick hole between appearances on the conference. “The individuals behind the scenes on the community who make the whole lot occur have turn into associates, and I actually cherish our relationship.”
The sheer recognition of Hallmark’s stars at ChristmasCon was shocking even to individuals who intently observe the channel’s output.
“I by no means knew how widespread Lacey Chabert was till, [on the first night of the event], they held the con open later as a result of her autograph line was out the door,” says Christmas film critic Kacey Bange, who was additionally masking the occasion. “Extra persons are right here for Hallmark than for different Christmas films. The Melissa Joan Hart panel was very scarcely attended as a result of she’s extra Lifetime than Hallmark.”
This final bit surprises me, nevertheless it’s true. Loads of ChristmasCon attendees are sporting sweatshirts alluding to non-Hallmark Christmas films — an off-the-cuff survey of their apparel suggests Buddy from Elf and the Grinch in his many iterations are the most well-liked non-Hallmark characters — however Hallmark-themed fashions are essentially the most prevalent by far. One girl has decked herself out as a Christmas tree lined in ornaments that includes photographs from her favourite Hallmark Christmas titles. Hart and Jackée Harry, who’re right here supporting Lifetime productions, appear nearly like unknowns.
The dynamic at ChristmasCon is like some other you may see at any such fan-centric occasion, however attendees are so dedicated to Hallmark that the palpable fervor is maybe most just like the sort impressed by Marvel or DC Comics. The individuals right here aren’t simply followers of Christmas films. They’re followers of Hallmark films.
Strolling across the conference middle, I’ve the chance to purchase the whole lot from a Hallmark movie-themed board sport (a partnership between Hallmark and a customized board sport firm referred to as Bundle) to autographs and images with Hallmark’s many Christmas film stars (bundle offers with many of the massive names in attendance price between $60 and $80).
However the the gang at ChristmasCon is comprised of the types of followers who don’t sometimes attend fan conventions. The consequence, as organizers defined to me shortly after the occasion, was that the primary ChristmasCon was a little bit of a studying curve.
“We wished actually to show our attendees what a conference is as a result of our demographic is so totally different from different conventions that they don’t know what to anticipate from a conference,” says Liliana Kligman, one of many 4 girls behind That’s4Entertainment, which organized ChristmasCon. “Our movie star company, possibly two or three had ever finished a conference. The remainder, this was their first conference ever. So we needed to clarify to the brokers what the method is of what will occur at this conference.”
That “we’re new to this conference factor” was most evident on Sunday morning at ChristmasCon, when the present flooring was particularly crowded. Many attendees really left the occasion after realizing they weren’t going to have speedy entry to [insert name of Hallmark celebrity here], then angrily expressed their displeasure on social media.
Hallmark has loads of critics, too. A couple of of them are proper there at ChristmasCon.
Hallmark’s dominance signifies that the channel even now has lively anti-fans — individuals who interact with its content material largely with the intent of poking holes in it. So it goes with the blokes from Deck the Hallmark, an extremely pleasing podcast the place three associates from South Carolina collect to joke round about Hallmark Christmas films from totally different points-of-view. (Brandon Grey typically enjoys the films. Daniel “Panda” Pandolph can take or go away them. Daniel Thompson typically dislikes them.) I discover various individuals sporting Deck the Hallmark shirts round ChristmasCon, and plenty of are emblazoned with Thompson’s “I despise Hallmark Christmas films” tagline. There aren’t many grinches right here, however there are some.
What I like about Deck the Hallmark is that it acknowledges the issues with Hallmark’s films (extra about these issues in a second) whereas additionally seeing their attraction, significantly to males, who can both watch the movies satirically to dunk on them, or flip to them for consolation, like a heat tub after a protracted day at work. The flicks proceed to be hottest with girls, however a rising viewers of men love each the films and Deck the Hallmark.
“Consolation meals actually doesn’t have a gender. Consolation meals actually is no matter your consolation meals is,” Grey tells me. “That man who has to suppose all day and make choices all day and he desires to soften right into a sofa and actually simply be fully not cerebral for 84 minutes, there are worse choices than Hallmark to try this.”
And but, as Bange tells me, there’s a particular sense that Hallmark “simply found black individuals final 12 months.” The channel has trumpeted its makes an attempt to push ahead with range and gender stereotypes, however its efforts at casting extra individuals of colour nonetheless lag far behind the remainder of the TV business, and its LGBTQ characters are largely confined to subtext. It’s common, as an example, for a movie’s heroine to have a good friend at work who’s coded as a homosexual man with out the movie really saying he’s homosexual. Lots of the movies’ tales nonetheless see girls giving up promising careers to maneuver to small cities with the blokes they’ve too typically simply met.
And that’s earlier than you get to this 12 months’s efforts to program the channel’s first Hanukkah films, whose loglines had been criticized by many for seeming to play into tropes which have lengthy been used to prop up anti-Semitic tales about scheming Jewish individuals infiltrating Christian areas. (I haven’t seen the films but, and I dearly hope they’re extra considerate than their loglines recommend.)
Hallmark’s recognition, the way in which it constantly turns into the most important community in cable for the final three months of the 12 months (and a great portion of January, too), has boxed it in, as a result of its viewers tends to include lots of people who’re immune to modifications to the community’s system, which too typically means modifications to the community’s blinding whiteness and straightness.
“I’m in an interracial marriage. The principle couple [in a Hallmark movie] has by no means been an interracial couple. They’ve by no means had a film together with queer leads which might be queer within the film. Netflix will take that likelihood. Lifetime will take that likelihood. However final 12 months [on Hallmark] was the primary film that had individuals of colour leads. Final 12 months!” Deck the Hallmark’s Thompson says.
“In the event you discuss to the individuals at Hallmark, I believe they actually do need that inclusion. However they’ve bought the second-highest-rated cable community. And persons are going and watching different films [on other networks], and going, ‘They’ve not found out the system that Hallmark’s found out but.’ And so Hallmark is in very a lot a one-step-forward, two-steps-back place.”
The identical system that permits individuals to like Hallmark Christmas films is what appears to carry them again. However the system additionally yields a curious response once I begin asking Hallmark followers at ChristmasCon to call their favourite Hallmark films: As a rule, they don’t know the titles. They identical to Hallmark.
Christmas is nearly by no means a vacation in regards to the current. It’s a vacation about commercializing our nostalgia for the previous.
Joanna Wilson might be the foremost Christmas TV professional on this planet. Her important encyclopedia, Tis the Season TV, is the foremost compendium of seasonal tv leisure; she will be the solely individual alive who’s seen among the oddities she tracked down for the ebook. And she or he has a principle about how Hallmark has weaponized a specific trait of Christmas leisure to spur its success.
“I hear individuals complain in regards to the system, and I’ve allow them to know, ‘You don’t get it.’ Hallmark is aware of that system. They’re doing that on goal. That system works. Individuals need that system,” Wilson says. “It’s linked to the Christmas expertise and the way we devour Christmas leisure. We return to the identical packages 12 months after 12 months, whether or not it’s Rudolph, whether or not it’s Charlie Brown Christmas, whether or not it’s the Grinch, whether or not it’s It’s a Fantastic Life. Hallmark films, even when they’re new, they’re previous. They’re the identical. That’s the purpose.”
After I ask individuals what they like about Hallmark films, it’s nearly as in the event that they’ve been handed speaking factors from the community itself. They make individuals “really feel good.” They’re simply “comfortable.” There’s “no battle.” And, to be clear, I take pleasure in a Hallmark film or seven. They’re good, clear enjoyable. However “good, clear enjoyable” is, in and of itself, a approach to ignore among the messy realities of the current. Then again, ignoring messy realities of the current is what Christmas is all about (Charlie Brown).
Christmas, says writer Judith Flanders, whose important new ebook Christmas: A Biography is a terrific learn on the historical past of the vacation, has all the time been a secular vacation with a non secular element tacked on to it to make it appear holier than it truly is. Sure, the beginning of Jesus is the impetus behind it, however people have all the time celebrated the lifeless of winter with huge festivals that includes copious consumption.
And you know the way it’s with issues which might be huge — they’re all the time extra huge while you’re a child.
“A serious element of Christmas is nostalgia. It’s not a byproduct. It’s a part of Christmas. It’s a part of the vacation to imagine that previously it was higher,” Flanders says. “Whichever method we glance, whether or not we’re taking a look at Norman Rockwell footage or whether or not we’re taking a look at Charles Dickens or whether or not we’re taking a look at medieval feasts, it’s a necessary core component of the vacation to imagine it was higher up to now. The earliest references I’ve discovered to Christmas being higher up to now are from 1605.”
So for over 400 years, we’ve been pondering that there was another, higher Christmas we may return to — a Christmas when it was much less in regards to the presents and extra about household, or Jesus’s beginning, or goodwill towards males, or no matter. And to be clear, all of these components are nonetheless current in Christmas, however so is consumption. All the things’s certain up collectively, which creates a paradoxical scenario the place Christmas is all the time chasing its personal tail.
However we’ve not too long ago entered a really uncommon period for Christmas as a nostalgia-driven vacation, as a result of the interval so many adults, from child boomers all the way down to millennials, are nostalgic for was a interval of overt, capitalist extra and mass-market Christmas leisure. Christmas previous is not a time earlier than industrialism or a time earlier than World Battle II.
It’s a time when everyone was watching the identical factor on TV. So when Hallmark Christmas films explicitly romanticize Christmas previous, they’re romanticizing an period of widespread leisure that didn’t query for a second that the leads of a romantic comedy can be white, straight, and cis. They’re romanticizing an period when Charlie Brown was already complaining that Christmas had gotten too business.
And, once more, nostalgia at Christmas is nice. It’s good to recollect your loved ones coming collectively, or to fondly reminisce about how scrumptious Grandma’s stuffing was earlier than she handed away. To be human is to know that the variety of Christmases in your previous grows ever bigger and the variety of Christmases in your future grows ever smaller. It’s to know that the individuals you have fun with at one Christmas won’t be there on the subsequent one.
Hallmark, then, isn’t promoting a non secular Christmas — its characters nearly by no means point out Jesus or Christianity, exterior of maybe singing “Silent Night time” or one thing — nevertheless it nonetheless type of is, as a result of it’s making an attempt to codify the ritual. Actually, all Christmas films are.
Flanders brings up a examine performed in Muncie, Indiana, within the 1970s, which discovered that there are bizarre societal guidelines round Christmas, guidelines we don’t all the time perceive however have internalized anyway. They’re constructed round who places up bushes (married with youngsters, nearly all the time; single individuals, not almost as typically) and the way we give items (when you make one thing your self, you nearly by no means wrap it) and any variety of different traditions. These aren’t spiritual. However they’re rituals that attain again into our personal pasts and lengthen past us to the individuals we’d turn into.
“No one’s going to beat us up if we wrap the boysenberry jam [we made] and don’t wrap the Lego set [we bought], however we really feel humorous. It wouldn’t really feel fairly proper,” Flanders says. “In impact — and I’m not desirous to be disrespectful — these are the spiritual observances. These are our secular, spiritual observances. And that’s what Hallmark is choosing up.”