‘Twas shortly before Christmas, around twelve months ago, that Netflix found itself in a spot of hot water over a trolling tweet aimed at viewers of A Christmas Prince. The recently released festive romance had become so instantly beloved among certain audience members that 53 people had, according to Netflix, watched it every day for 18 days in a row. There followed much wringing of hands and pearls over whether this tweet was a harmless and light-hearted dragging of the besotted masses or an intrusively sinister sign of how closely we’re being watched online. Amid all this, a more salient point emerged. Why did a not inconsiderable number of people feel so entranced by A Christmas Prince that they felt compelled to watch it daily for two and a half weeks? Perhaps ‘not inconsiderable’ is the wrong term – 53 users among an estimated 137 million Netflix subscribers aren’t actually all that many – but something about the numbers nevertheless compelled the streaming platform to point it out. (Yes, I’m aware the obvious answer to this is ‘marketing,’, but please lay all Scrooge-like insistence on having the final say to one side for the season that’s in it. Attaboy.)
A Christmas Prince forms part of a distinctive, established sub-genre of films not just on Netflix but among the wider canon – the festive-themed, Hallmark-style, often made-for-TV romantic drama or comedy. Easily recognisable by their small-town settings and abundance of artificial snow, these films tend to invade both our televisions and our streaming devices with reliable fervour around this time of year. They often feature female protagonists, sentimental character arcs, a thoroughly vanilla love interest and a loosely ordered supporting cast of quaint friends and family. While such films are never going to be celebrated in the same way as, say, established seasonal classics like Die Hard or The Muppet Christmas Carol, they are as much a part of the festive cinematic tradition as the well-trodden plot beats to which they adhere. Warm, sugar-dusted, and buttery, these are cut from the same identikit moulds as the cookies scoffed by their protagonists. So what is it about them that seems so appealing at this time of year?
It is a point universally acknowledged that we cannot currently discuss any film, new or old, without reference to the Trumpian times in which we live. At risk of stating the obvious, the Christmas romance does come imbued with an element of escapist appeal. This is a season of goodwill and giving; one that, for many of us, is indelibly associated with family, food, and presents. These films tap into an earnest, wholesome quality that befits such festive feelings. They offer rosy images of thriving neighbourly communities, sincere and kind faces, and spaces of welcoming and warmth even in the biggest and most faceless of cities. While many remain strikingly white and heteronormative in casting and plot, there is evidence of more diverse perspectives in recent offerings – see, for instance, Netflix’s recent The Holiday Calendar. Christmas is a time for reflection and remembrance and the focus on personal growth and underlying themes of selflessness are soothing as we aspire to a year of new beginnings. It may be tempting to write off such narrative touches as overly predictable or familiar, but predictability has a natural place in a season filled with age-old traditions. Further, in a time as cynical and wearied as ours, the simplicity and idealism of these storylines is comforting. It contends that no gesture or interaction is ever without meaning, and this is an encouraging thought for a hopeful time of year.
Perusing the current slew of offerings on Netflix, there is evidence of some subversive trends. Even amid this well-trodden snowy expanse, some of these festive flicks manage to cut a subversive path of their own. The Holiday Calendar, recently released on Netflix, is a fine example. Its protagonist is an ambitious young woman from an explicitly mixed-race background whose professional aspirations remain the clear focal point throughout. Abby (a charismatic Kat Graham) is a twentysomething photographer who’s become just a little too comfortable in her scenic hometown to make a bid for her dreams. As December rolls around, her grandfather gifts her an antique advent calendar that daily dispenses a quaint little wooden figure, each of which seems to hold some magical relevance to her life or ambitions. Romantic entanglements soon emerge, as they are wont to do in these films, but The Holiday Calendar takes a refreshingly knowing stance on the narrative tropes of its canon. It hints at magical meddling while arguing for meaningful personal action. It calls out hollow-hearted and superficial gestures – particularly those of the white, privileged male love interest. Most notably however, it depicts a bustling and thoroughly multicultural small town in which characters of multiple diverse backgrounds are active, respected figures within their community. This gently inclusive take on Christmas is both stirring and modern, acknowledging a changing relationship with tradition.
The much-vaunted A Christmas Prince also deserves recognition in this regard. (Beware, spoilers will follow.) It falls into a distinct and storied subgenre of Christmas films in which royalty plays a key role. The royals depicted are almost universally British, no matter how fictitious their vaguely Germanic country, and in the case of A Christmas Prince this may have contributed to its infamous appeal. It sees a young American woman swept up in a whirlwind romance with a dashing European prince. Accordingly, its being released around the same time as Prince Harry announced his engagement to Meghan Markle turned out to be somewhat fortuitous. That said, there is a thoughtful undertone to this film that belies its slushy marketing. The big twist of the film is that the titular prince, Richard (Ben Lamb), is adopted. The revelation causes consternation among the wider public as the law demands a male heir of royal blood must inherit the Aldovian throne. For the royal family however, it becomes a catalyst to mend broken family ties, with Richard’s mother and younger sister quickly and earnestly assuring him of his place within the family regardless of the succession.
Sympathy for this plight may vary depending on one’s perspective on the institution of royalty – indeed, the conservativeness of royal succession laws seems somewhat at odds with the inclusive depiction of family. However, it soon transpires that Richard can indeed inherit the throne, as his father secretly changed the law not long before he died. Buried amidst an otherwise simple fairytale story, this frank acknowledgement of diverse familial backgrounds is a poignant one for a season intrinsically associated with loved ones. Whether they be found or inherited, the one defining feature of a family unit is a sense of love and belonging and it is this gentle message that A Christmas Prince ultimately celebrates.
Familial ties (and royalty) also play an important role in Once Upon A Holiday, a Hallmark romance also available on Netflix. In this, Princess Katie of Montsaurai (Briana Evigan) longs to escape her rigidly ordered schedule of duties during an official visit to New York City. Having previously visited as a child with her late mother, Katie wants to take a day to herself to remember her mother and return to some of the places they saw together. She gives her handlers the slip, only to be mugged and end up wandering the streets incognito. A local carpenter called Jack comes to her aid and, unaware of her true identity, invites her to spend a couple of hours with his family and friends. There is a dash of Roman Holiday to this slight but immensely endearing latter-day fairytale. While Katie may not be an especially compelling character, her desire to reflect on her loss is a recognisable aspect of Christmas for a great many people. The festive season is as much a time of remembrance for those no longer with us as it is for rejoicing with those around us, and Katie’s meeting with Jack allows her to experience New York in a similar sense to how would have experienced it with her mother. It transforms from a cold, unfeeling city in which she is alone and vulnerable into a homely place, filled with recognisable faces and places, and a sense of warmth and togetherness that is notably absent from her formal duties. Even the obligatory romance that develops between Katie and Jack finds its place in the season. Katie discovers new intimacies through her dwelling on times past, reflecting a transitional month in which we reflect on the previous year while anticipating those to come.
These films might represent the best of the current bunch, but there are plenty of sparkling snowy gems elsewhere on Netflix (and, for the old-fashioned among us, on your Christmas movie channels). A Wish for Christmas sees a meek employee find her voice after Santa grants her one wish for 48 hours. She uses it to stand up to bullies, assert her creativity, and earn the professional recognition she is owed. She also uses it to mend her boss’ ties with his estranged family, but her boss has an entire office of people working on Christmas Day so it is arguable that he didn’t deserve to be helped at all. Christmas Inheritance sees an heiress sent to the small New England town of – yes! – Snow Falls to deliver a symbolic set of letters to her father’s business partner. She must go incognito and survive on only $100 as this is all her father and his partner had when they started the business. This isn’t quite the capitalistic meritocratic nightmare it might sound. Rather, it makes a surprisingly fervent pitch for the importance of generosity, charity, and humbleness, at all times but particularly Christmas. Christmas Wedding Planner is essentially a high-concept episode of Desperate Housewives (wedding planner teams up with private eye to rumble a client’s fiancé) and bears scant relevance to the time of year. Yet, it exudes a certain quirky playfulness that somehow seems right at home in the wider canon. That, and the male lead’s surname is McClane. You see where it’s coming from.
The blunt messaging of the Christmas-themed film canon might be a little on the nose for some tastes, but this is arguably what makes the genre so endearing. It deals in absolutes and single dimensions but does it with such wide-eyed conviction that it’s difficult to dismiss. Most of us remember the innocence of the season and the unquestioning faith in the wonder and magic of Santa. These films transplant that childlike belief in goodness and hope to romance, communities, and family dynamics and their wholesomeness can be surprisingly energising. The complete absence of cynicism is a welcome cinematic quality, not just in our current era of darkness and discourse but in a wider cultural context. Make a wish this Christmas and bring your big dreams and eager eyes to a small snowy town near you.