‘Tis the season for mushy Christmas movies. To some, they’re heartwarming tales of Christmas spirit, but to others, they’re TV’s version of Harlequin novels; cheap, cheesy, and full of romance. There are a few rare gems, but they all seem to follow a similar pattern, like cookies made from the same batch, just decorated a little differently.
Is this a bad thing? Not to most. Just like there’s always a new story about a girl and her horse, there will always be Christmas stories following the same format in the holiday season. Is it so wrong to want something better?
If we take a more in-depth look at the recipe for these movies, we can start to figure out where we can change things up to get more out of the characters, plot, and give the audience something to carry with them after the film is over.
Caution: May Contain Spoilers
1. 2 Cups – Romance
One thing that has always frustrated me about the traditional Christmas movie is that they almost all need to have romance. Never once have I seen a Hallmark Christmas movie where I believed the two main characters were just going to be best friends. I’ve rooted for it, but there’s always a kiss under the mistletoe at the end. Even when the marriage status of one is never really explained (we’re looking at you, It’s Christmas, Eve).
Why all the romance? Because romance works. That’s why it’s the first ingredient. Since “engagement season” happens from late November to February, it’s no wonder that those in marketing know that romance sells during the holiday season. What should be considered, if originality is your goal, is not using romance to push your plot. It’s all too common to have two people meet and suddenly there’s chemistry. However, the challenges that move the characters forward are the roadblocks that stand between them. For It’s Christmas, Eve, it was the school’s budget.
Haven’t some popular films happened during Christmas without a romance? These usually controversial films are rejected from the genre “Christmas movie” because they don’t have an overpowering sub-plot of romantic intrigue. Why else is Die Hard, with all it’s Christmas jokes forever in a tug-of-war between is and isn’t? It’s not just romance that usually weighs in on the Christmas movie classification.
2. 1 ½ Cups – Giving
When you think of Christmas, you think of snow and hot chocolate and presents. This is the season of giving. Classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and famous Dickens story, A Christmas Carol both center around the spirit of giving that is inspired by Christmas. Most films will have some sort of cause or fundraiser. The success of these Christmas classics makes it seem like having some sort of giving premise or plot at the center of your story would make it an instant hit. Not always.
For example, it’s basically the entire plot of Christmas Inheritance. However, it begins with her being scolded for embarrassing herself while raising money for charity. She unfairly becomes branded as a family embarrassment and is punished for this behavior. The entire movie is her trying to prove herself against this injustice as if what she did was wrong. It’s definitely not the best movie to watch if you nitpick the plot like I do (or think snow isn’t supposed to look like shaving cream). Especially when the romance sub-plot kicks in and the main characters both confess affection while leaving her fiance out of the loop. People do stupid things, but that’s kinda low for a feel-good movie.
Giving can come in all shapes and sizes. From a friend doing a favor despite their fears to an all-out fundraiser. Never underestimate the power that the spirit of giving can give your Christmas story.
3. ¾ Cups – Family
The third most popular theme for Christmas films is the age-old call of family. Whether in the form of revisiting nostalgia or repairing bonds, family is at the center of most Christmas movies. After all, this is a time for families to travel to be together and gather around a TV to avoid conversation and fighting. Films like Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas look at a Christmas film that centers around relationships other than romantic. Even Home Alone mends the bonds between Kevin and his family with some Christmas atmosphere.
This can be a tricky premise to use in any film. It can be seen as a trap, especially when it looks like the family gives them a choice: us or your job. The phrase “blood is thicker than water” actually comes from the phrase “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. If you’re going to have a character that calls back to their roots with the intention of them reforming bonds and staying with their family, make sure it’s clear in their character development that this is something they want and are not being forced into.
As noted above, there are stronger bonds among friends than among family sometimes. If you wish to take your Christmas movie down the path less taken, try for a bond of friends. A friend long-gone returns to their childhood home for Christmas and to rekindle the mayhem of their youth. There are many variations to try, but you don’t need romance to keep the audience interested or the characters interacting. Try it.
4. 1 Tbsp – Low-Risk Conflict
When you sit back to watch whatever Christmas movie is making its rounds on TV, you’ll notice that it’s devoid of that edge-of-the-seat or nail-biting conflict. In A Christmas Prince, you never really fear for Amber’s safety despite the fact that she sneaks into a castle, lies her way into the Prince’s life, and then proceeds to get lost in a wolf-infested wood a la Beauty and the Beast. Christmas movies make sure that any risks that move the conflict forward are cushioned. From The Princess Switch to Trading Christmas, the conflicts are kept low which gives it the feel-good warmth that people seek out when they want to escape the conflict of real life.
Not everything is always eggnog and gingerbread cookies, but adding some actual consequences to character’s actions could give these movies the substance they need. If main characters can lie and be forgiven in the next beat or tiptoe through conflict with easy solutions, the movie will push audiences away. They won’t be worried for the characters because they won’t believe them.
5. A Dash of Magic
Christmas is seen as a magical time. If a jolly old man can fly around the world in a sleigh drawn by reindeer and fit through chimneys to deliver presents, there has to be some sort of magic involved. There are some movies like Rise of the Guardians that completely embrace the magic and lore of the holiday seasons. It’s a Wonderful Life uses angels who can show alternative scenarios of your life as a lesson. There’s even a hint of Christmas magic in the stranger who is seen giving kind advice to the characters in The Princess Switch.
Magic is great when used properly. In the Polar Express, it shapes the entire story about belief with the magic bell. It’s good to err on the side of caution that a little goes a long way. The magical realism in The Santa Clause was a bit strange, it worked for that film. It’s always good to find that balance with how much you can use.
One film that is my favorite Christmas movie, doesn’t even have Christmas in it. Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather trades Christmas with Hogswatch, a strangely savage version of Christmas. It’s full of wizards, pork pies, and magical mayhem. While this is an overload of magic, it goes to show that there is no limit to the magic one can use in a Christmas movie.
Despite their imperfection, I love watching Christmas movies with my family and I encourage you to as well. Perhaps you can use them as exercises. Try to write alternative endings or change a few choices and see where the plot goes. You don’t have to try to fix it, you could make it sillier or less believable if you want! Just have fun! That’s what the holiday season is all about!
Have a great holiday and happy writing!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.