The holiday season is preceded by Christmas decorations going up in craft stores by October, eggnog cartons lining the grocery shelves in November, and the promise of all new Hallmark Christmas movies to binge on TV come December. Over the decades that Hallmark has been in the business of professional merry-making, they’ve generated dozens (if not hundreds) of films focused on the meaning of Christmas. These films are full of beautiful looking people, festive looking set pieces, and the same tried-and-true tropes year after year.
Some of the tropes are successful because they’re relatable; everyone likes seeing corporate greed demolished by the moxie of a small town known for its Christmas cookie-cutter factory. Some of the tropes are played out because they’re boring; no one wants to see one more movie about opposites attracting under the mistletoe. Here are the 5 best and worst tropes (we can’t believe they reuse).
10 BEST: LEARNING THE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
One of the most common tropes in all Hallmark Christmas movies is also their main message; learning the meaning of Christmas. This happens in a variety of ways, from entitled heiresses suddenly learning that material gifts aren’t what’s important about the season, to high powered CEOs realizing that it’s their employees, not their profits, that make the season bountiful.
The films work as vehicles for the main protagonist to “come around” to what the season is all about, in a way that fits the particular narrative of the plot. The plots may vary, but the message remains the same, which is what makes them the perfect films to get you in the spirit.
9 WORST: CORPORATE SHILL TOO BUSY FOR CHRISTMAS
Whether it’s an operations manager at an ice-skating rink, the lead window display designer at a department store, or an advertising executive at a marketing firm,there’s always some corporate-minded shill too busy for Christmas in a Hallmark movie.
They’ll start off over-worked, overly-ambitious, and completely consumed by their job to the point of eschewing all participation in the Christmas spirit. That is, until they meet someone (usually their love interest) that reminds them what the holidays are all about. By the end of the film, they’re a true believer, and we’ve just wasted more time on an over-used plot device.
8 BEST: REGULAR PERSON HOOKS UP WITH A ROYAL
One of the most fun tropes that Hallmark plays around with is the idea of a regular person having a run-in with a royal that leads to romance. The royal is usually from a very small Eastern European country that no one’s heard of, and usually puts the needs of their country before their own Christmas cheer.
The regular person will then have the enviable task of making this royal see reason, by going on a variety of fun Christmas outings involving craft fairs, ice-skating, tree-trimming, and the like. The royal is always drop-dead gorgeous, and admires the regular person’s “authentic attitude”.Would this happen in real life? Probably not, but by the end of the film the regular person gets a huge palace and the best Christmas ever.
7 WORST: HUGE PAGEANT/PROJECT/OPENING MAKES OR BREAKS CHRISTMAS
The Christmas pageant has no money. The rescue shelter is about to close. The opening of the mom and pop Christmas cookie shop is going to bankrupt the business. The trope of the huge pageant/project/opening deciding the fate of the holiday is the “untangling Christmas tree lights” of Hallmark tropes.
These plots are always stressful, and they feature characters that don’t slow down until the film is almost over. Where some see a delightful dash towards a festive finish line, others are exhausted just trying to keep pace with these Type-A personalities. We KNOW they’re going to succeed in the end, so it takes all the suspense out of it.
6 BEST: SMALL TOWN RALLIES AGAINST BIG CORPORATE GREED
We’ve all seen the blurb on the screen of our favorite streaming service; “small town, once renowned for (insert Christmas craft here) has to find a way to save Christmas before its taken over by a big corporate company moving in”, or "small town ski-lodge about to be bought by corporate shill looking to profit off its charm must be saved by Christmas loving locals".
Whether the town was famous for Christmas decorations, had a popular candy factor, or once was home to the biggest ski resort in the state, it needs the community to pull together in the face of mindless consumerism. It might seem played out but it’s fun to stick it to The Man at Christmas.
5 WORST: TWO UNLIKELY PEOPLE SUDDENLY ATTRACTED TO ONE ANOTHER
Possibly the most played out trope in all of Hallmark Christmas movies, two unlikely people becoming inexplicably attracted to one another dominates holiday films every year for no good reason. It's how you get plots like a free-spirited interior decorator being hired by a no-nonsense businessman, impressing his new boss with a holiday-ready house that somehow means the two polar opposites fall in love by Christmas.
Perhaps it warms viewers’ hearts to see a ball-busting city slicker fall for an easy-going country bumpkin, but the films always end before they find out whether or not the relationship was a success. More often than not, they’re broken up or divorced by the following Christmas.
4 BEST: IDYLLIC LITTLE CHRISTMAS TOWNS
There’s something magical about the little communities that make up Smalltown, USA, especially at Christmas. Hallmark Christmas movies pretty much consistently push the idea that small towns do Christmas the best, and it’s hard to argue when they feature in holiday films looking like little gingerbread villages.
“The city” is often represented as a busy, aggressive place where its inhabitants have lost the spirit of Christmas. No one helps their neighbor, no one is kind to strangers, and so a small town, with its close-knit townsfolk always willing to lend a helping hand, represents the best of human kindness. At least small towns decorated for Christmas make for beautiful scenery even if the acting is horrible.
3 WORST: KID JUST WANTS A NEW MOMMY/DADDY FOR CHRISTMAS
Kids are often thrown into Hallmark films to add childlike innocence and a certain “cute factor”, as well as comic relief when the plot gets a little too depressing for a family-friendly film. They’re also the focal point, such as in the trope of one of them wanting a mommy or daddy for Christmas in lieu of the latest cool toy.
These tropes all but ensure the film is going to be a real tear-jerker, borrowing a page from Lifetime’s movie of the week and filling the plot with orphans, abandonment issues, and other sad situations before you get to the fun stuff. Don’t watch them unless all you want is a lifetime supply of Kleenex for Christmas.
2 BEST: MISTAKEN IDENTITIES
Whether it involves two twins swapping lifestyles to spend a day in the life of their sibling, or one character being mistaken for another in a hilarious romantic mix-up, mistaken identity tropes are a fun way to make ordinarily predictable Hallmark Christmas movies slightly less so. The viewer is the one holding all the cards when it comes to knowing who’s who.
The mistaken identity trope ensures that the movie will be satirical and funny, with characters making complete fools of themselves. This is generally favorable considering most Hallmark Christmas films have a tendency to take themselves way too seriously. Who do they think they are, Lifetime?
1 WORST: PERSON RETURNS TO HOMETOWN THEY USED TO HATE
Most people leave the small town they grew up for a variety of reasons. Often they want to get away from everyone they know keeping tabs on their business, or pursue greater opportunities in a bigger metropolitan environment. But then Christmas has other plans, and invariably pulls them back to their hometown.
Whether they get divorced, lose their job, or just need a break from their fast-paced lifestyle, they end up back at home, forced to appreciate everything they left behind because Christmas said so. Not only is this rarely the case in real life, but also almost no one’s home town looks like a small town from a Hallmark Christmas movie.