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Why are Christmas movies all about kissing? A theory.

It’s the most ... romantic time of the year?

A man kneels to help two seated women put on ice skates in a winter setting.
Hallmark’s Never Been Chris’d features a home-for-the-holidays love triangle.
Hallmark
Meredith Haggerty is the senior editor for the Culture section at Vox. Before coming to Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked.

This year alone, 116 new holiday movies were released to TV and streaming. Conservatively, I’m going to estimate that 115 of them were romantic comedies. Starting with Destined 2: Christmas Once More, which premiered on Great American Family back in October, the season saw cinematic offerings with titles like How to Fall in Love by the Holidays and Christmas Holidate (not to be confused with Netflix’s 2020 film Holidate) and the impeccably named Never Been Chris’d. It’s time to stop and ask: When exactly did we decide that Christmas was the most romantic time of the year? And more importantly, why?

As a woman who lives in a big city, comes from a small town, and whose name could reasonably be shortened to “Merry,” Hallmark virtually promises that I should be meeting cute throughout the month of December. In reality, there’s arguably no less sexy time of year. I don’t know how you celebrate the holidays (or don’t), but my main event is a week of shopping for things no one needs, eating enormous quantities of everything, and sitting around the house with my parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. I see an exhausting number of people, but I am related to nearly all of them. Still, the prevailing genre of holiday film isn’t “family,” it’s resolutely “kissing.” What’s going on?

I have a theory.

Romantic Christmas isn’t a new idea, but Hallmark took it to a culturally dominant level

The very first Christmas movie wasn’t a rom-com; it was 1898’s Santa Claus, a silent British short that shows St. Nick coming down the chimney in the house of two Victorian children. But by the time the movies were talking, more Christmas films started to trickle out, and a good chunk were explicitly romantic: 1939’s Bachelor Mother sees Ginger Rogers as a temporary holiday shopgirl who picks up an orphaned baby, a permanent job, and eventually her playboy boss; at The Shop Around The Corner (1940) the staff is battling both the Christmas rush and each other in a classic enemies-to-lovers plot; in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, four performers break up, make up, and eventually sing “White Christmas.”

In the 1990s through the 2010s, Christmas and true love were proud and frequent co-stars: Love Actually, The Holiday, The Family Stone, The Best Man Holiday, Four Christmases, While You Were Sleeping. (Christmas also cameos throughout the god-tier Nora Ephron x Meg Ryan canon: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and The Shop Around the Corner remake You’ve Got Mail.)

A woman, man, and two little girls in a holiday setting. One of the girls takes the woman’s bag.
Cameron Diaz, right, is frankly not ready to be a stepmother to the adorable daughters of Jude Law in The Holiday.
Sony Pictures

Once you start to look for it, there’s plenty of romance even in classic holiday films that don’t make it the main thrust of the plot. Is there anything swoonier than George Bailey telling Mary he’ll lasso the moon for her in It’s a Wonderful Life? In both versions of Miracle on 34th Street, Santa’s lawyer marries his employer, to the delight of a formerly skeptical child. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation ends with an affirming marital kiss. The Santa Clause might be loveless, but he gets a girlfriend in the sequel. It’s even true of the expanded canon of reclaimed “Christmas” movies. Batman and Catwoman make eyes at each other all through Batman Returns. John McClane and his ex-wife Holly Gennaro reunite after the events of Die Hard. At the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman ... stay married.

All these big-screen hits are child’s play, though, compared to the pure, uncut romantic action offered by the modern made-for-TV Christmas rom-com. As Emily St. James explained for Vox, Hallmark first understood they were onto something here with 2006’s The Christmas Card, and since then they have released more and more entries to the canon every year: three in 2009, 12 by 2014, 26 in 2016, 37 in 2018, 42 in 2023 (it dipped to 21 in 2017, but to be fair we were all pretty tired that year). The creation and memeification of these movies have practically changed the meaning of Christmas, specifically to “that time of year when career women meet single dad lumberjacks and move to the woods forever.”

With the rise of Hallmark, other networks and streamers followed suit and, for the most part, the formula: Lifetime, BET, UPTV, Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, Freevee, Fox Nation, OWN, ALLBLK, and the Roku Channel all had Christmas originals in 2023, according to Entertainment Weekly’s master list. This year, QVC’s streaming platform QVC+ has an original holiday movie; it’s called The Recipe Files and co-stars Ashlee Simpson. The entire Great American Family network was effectively founded as a response to Hallmark because Hallmark’s offerings weren’t Christian enough for Candace Cameron Bure.

The glut has made an indelible mark on the American cultural perception of the holiday. This year, the New Jersey Expo Center again held ChristmasCon, giving exclusive photos of its many stars to People Magazine. (You can read about the 2019 con, which I also attended, here.) On any self-identifying Grinch’s list of reasons to hate the holiday, “romantic movie season for morons” now has to come somewhere below “nakedly and deliriously consumerist” and “garish and overly sentimental.”

A staggering number of these movies are romantic comedies, and they tend to follow a handful of narratives. There’s the oft-discussed “businesswoman goes country,” but sometimes businesswoman goes artsy, or bake-y, or just soft. Sometimes it’s the man who does business! One dedicated subgenre features royals; another time travel; another doppelgangers. Sometimes, two people have to pretend to date each other, or two people have to work together to save something humble, or two people don’t like each other but they’re both attractive. These days, the two people can be of the same sex, but only in ways that look like being of the opposite sex (call it “heteronormativity for the holidays”). Most of these films star white people with whiter teeth. There are dozens of variations.

What’s not up for tweaking is that it’s December, decorations for trees and homes require a small army of set dressers, and at the very end, two hots are madly in love and looking like it’s for the long haul.

Love at the holidays means the beginning of something

There are a lot of reasons Christmas is plausibly a romantic time: twinkly lights, warm vibes, mistletoe, the dangling possibility of receiving extremely expensive gifts. So the simple explanation for why romantic love beats out familial love on the Christmas movie scoreboard might well be “because it’s sexier.”

That’s categorically true, but I’d argue it’s also because in Christmas movies, they’re the same thing. Romantic Christmas love is — I’m so sorry — the sexiest phase of family.

I don’t want to get too technical here, but when two people really love each other (especially two heterosexual blondes who’ve just learned that Santa’s real), they might have some kids. In this way, holiday love stories are the origin story for a family, their Batman Begins.

There’s a deeper recurring theme to these films, beyond just smooching: the reification of the American family unit. No wonder Candace Cameron Bure guards the idea so jealously! Often these relationships don’t only come with a potential future spouse but a whole future clan (i.e. the preponderance of widowed dads as romantic leads, which extends to the relatively higher-brow flicks).

Starting way back with Bachelor Mother, which is literally about a found family, we see time and again that Christmas means making someone be related to you who previously wasn’t. Full sets — by way of chosen children, surrogate parents, wacky adopted uncles, and others outside the nuclear family — are created in everything from Miracle on 34th Street to While You Were Sleeping. In The Family Stone, sisters Sarah Jessica Parker and Claire Danes become sisters-in-law by marrying brothers. Romantic love in this genre is decidedly long-term minded: Four Christmases ends with a baby, The Santa Clause 2 with a wedding. In Die Hard, Holly Gennaro reclaims her ex-husband’s last name.

Through Hallmark and their ilk’s misty lens, markers of stability and “forever love” are turned up to 11. The number of titles that includewedding” (or “married”) nearly rivals those with the C-word in them. Even in direct-to-TV pap about the most innocent, early days, first-kiss-in-the-last-frame relationships, the act of falling in love is a teaser trailer for the couple’s eventual kids. You know there’s more to the story and, sight unseen, exactly what it is.

A black and white still of a couple dancing enthusiastically at a 1920s-era party.
George (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) forever.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The most cynical and formulaic of holiday movies are all signifiers and no substance, and consuming them mindlessly, like a plate of overly processed store-bought Santa cookies, will probably make you feel a little queasy. If the best big-screen pictures are, say, genuinely talented mommy bloggers, then the worst of the small screen are, aesthetically and spiritually, the tradwives of the rom-com influencer sphere. There’s something indoctrinating, and therefore terrifying, about that. It’s the “Great” “American” in Great American Family; often, there’s more than just the cozy household being glorified.

At Christmas love stories’ most insidious, they might convince you that the signifiers are the substance. Even at their most innocuous, they’re still a decades-long, not-so-covert, sex-sells marketing campaign for Big Family.

But just because it’s Christmas, and at Christmas you tell the truth (even if no one does or believes this): I get it with that last bit, at least as an audience member. I can’t deny the appeal of the thing at the heart of the matter, the warmth and vitality that makes us want to connect, to care for people, to continue the species. The best movies, from It’s a Wonderful Life to — fight me — While You Were Sleeping, make you feel it. It’s difficult to capture that kind of hope, not only on film but lately in our day-to-day discourse. It’s not that hard to understand what’s good about love, though, the rare times when you get to look right at it. I am glad we don’t give up looking.

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