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Why are Christmas movie “miracles” never miracles at all?

Candace Cameron Bure wants to put the Christ back into Christmas movies, but she’s not really following through.

The stars of Great American Christmas’s “A Christmas...Present” strike a pose in front of a Christmas tree.
Christmas movies are full of miracles and togetherness. Or are they?
Courtesy of Great American Media
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Last month, I started mainlining made-for-TV Christmas movies — Hallmark movies and their otherly-channeled clones — to research an entirely different article, not the one you’re reading right now. (Maybe next year.) What arrested my attention instead was a common claim in every single one of the movies, one so insistently made that I started to feel a tad skeptical. It’s summed up best, perhaps, in a line from the Lindsay Lohan Netflix vehicle Falling for Christmas: “Christmas,” a grandmother insists, “is a time for miracles.”

Miracles, and also magic; the terms are interchangeable, and also made more specific. “Holiday” magic. “Christmas” miracles. Hot single business women find hot single dads to date. Small businesses on the verge of bankruptcy are saved at the eleventh hour. Children wish for family togetherness, and the wish is granted.

These are wonderful things, but not actually miracles, or not in the sense of the actual meaning of the word. A miracle is definitionally an unexplained occurrence that people believe is the work of some divine entity. It’s more often used as a metaphor these days — I bet you’ve uttered the phrase “it’s a Christmas miracle!” ironically a time or two yourself. But in the gentle made-for-TV Christmas movie, they refer to ordinary events that many people experience in their lives — securing a home, finding love, discovering a profitable and sustainable business model — now made sparkly and near-supernatural simply because they occur in the midst of snow and holly. These not-quite-miracles live a double life of divinity and inevitability, because they’re also an expectation. If something is going wrong, it’s okay — once Christmas rolls around, it will be fixed.

A very Christmasy scene, in which a man and a woman and a child talk to a person who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus in a place full of Christmas decorations.
The Lindsay Lohan vehicle Falling for Christmas was one of the season’s goofier offerings.
Courtesy of Netflix

I saw the miracle idea in movies from the Hallmark Channel, which was created when parent company Crown Media took over the formerly Christian channel Odyssey in 2001. I saw the miracle mantra in Christmas movies on Lifetime, which offers similar fare to Hallmark but exactly two notches sexier, and on Netflix, which delightfully has instituted the practice of having characters in its Christmas movies stumble across other Netflix Christmas movies in their own world. (Lindsay Lohan, playing the Falling for Christmas heroine, an heiress who experiences amnesia and wakes up in an unfamiliar setting, flicks on the TV in the morning, triggering the Netflix “tudum” sound and the landing page for 2021’s A Castle for Christmas.)

And I saw them in the movies of the new “Great American Family” channel, which made news when its star and a channel executive, Candace Cameron Bure, told the Wall Street Journal that the channel would keep “traditional marriage at the core.” (A tiny number of Hallmark movies feature same-sex couples.) Bure, the former Full House star sometimes dubbed the “Queen of Christmas,” starred in the 2014 film Christmas Under Wraps, which more or less kicked off the genre. For many viewers, she comes with built-in cred.

The fledgling channel’s official moniker for its Christmas programming, “Great American Christmas,” left me sort of in awe. What an artless marketing strategy to name your network and its associated properties — like production company Great American Media — by employing a rather obvious Trump campaign slogan echo. It was blatant and cynical and brilliant, all at once. I had to see what they were actually doing.

It turns out that “Great American Christmas” programming is pretty similar to that of Hallmark or any other channel, but seemingly a lot whiter (and I don’t mean the snow) and, yes, no gay couples. In the grand tradition of Hallmark, the Great American Christmas movies remain studiously “apolitical” (in the sense that politics aren’t referred to directly); perhaps the only textual trope that seemed to smack directly of the grander MAGA belief system is a number of very pointed “Merry Christmas” salutations and no “Happy Holidays.” Otherwise, it’s mostly the familiar greatest hits. The only red hats are on Santa.

In the film Destined at Christmas, for instance — kind of a Serendipity knock-off — a hot single dad (Casey Elliott) and a single, career-focused woman (Shae Robins) meet in a pre-dawn Black Friday shopping line, where he’s finding gifts for his daughter and she for her niece. They wind up spending the morning together chatting and shopping and sipping hot cocoa, then lose one another when the electricity goes out in a store, and they spend the rest of the movie trying to locate one another. They finally do — at the town’s “Christmas village” (a common trope of the genre) and the Christmas Eve “Santa send-off.” The film ends a year later, when they are still together, exchanging gifts and talking about the miracle of love.

There are many ways to criticize these movies, and many have done it. The genre can be toxically nostalgic and regressive; they’re usually the opposite of inclusive; the illusion of apoliticality is, itself, political. They’re technically billed as “originals,” but they’re the antithesis of original (though I started to admire the endless variations on the theme that writers seem to invent — Hallmark released 40 Christmas originals this year, while the still-new Great American Family released 18 originals.)

But whatever my feelings as a critic about this material (in part, that they’re so sincere that taking them down feels exhausting and silly and mean, like picking on your grandma), I continually found myself fixating on the “magical miracle” thing.

I was raised in an environment that took the idea of Christmas as a religious holiday very seriously. I wasn’t allowed to believe in Santa as a kid. At church, we often spoke about the “reason for the season” (Jesus) and about the dangers of letting the secular commercialization of Christmas overtake its true meaning. That true meaning was, in fact, framed as a miracle: God became a baby born in a barn to a virgin, angels appeared to shepherds to announce it all, and for Christians, history pivoted on its axis around that event.

It was not really a sweet story, though, at least not as we learned it. Christmas also included tyranny and forced occupation, the terror of babies being murdered by a desperate king, and a small family fleeing for their lives to Egypt. Even Santa was less a jolly grandpa in the sky and more a warrior; we learned he was based on St. Nicholas of Myra, who stood for justice and, reportedly, rescued girls from forced prostitution by dropping gold down their chimney (you see the connection).

That sort of miracle — the one where your dad can pay his debts and doesn’t have to sell you into enslavement — is not quite the same as saving your new boyfriend’s small ski chalet or finding your true love after some mildly pleasant hijinks. Instead, this is the softer miracle of Santa, American-style: he winks or touches his nose and your wish lands on the tree, or there’s some extra light in the sky, or you suddenly realize the guy you’ve been playfully fight-flirting with is actually your soulmate.

These are really lovely things, but they lack the wonder of a real miracle and — perhaps more fascinating — they lack a divine entity making them happen. It seems sometimes like “Christmas” itself is the god of the machinery, the being to be worshiped and celebrated and prayed to. Or it’s Santa, who pops up throughout these movies often as a kindly stranger in the town square selling snow globes or ornaments and listening to our characters’ wishes and woes.

I’m far from wishing God would pop up in American Christmas movies — the holiday is long past being observed in more than a cursory religious way for most who celebrate it, and that’s fine. You don’t have to be a practicing Christian to celebrate Christmas. You don’t have to believe in anything at all. What was curious to me was the near-total absence of even those cursory religious practices; rather than go to church on Christmas Eve, the characters go to the Santa send-off. In a genre so enamored with “miracles,” so rooted in Christianity, it seemed odd to never hear about, for instance, the birth of Jesus.

A family at church, decorated for Christmas.
In A Christmas...Present, the family actually goes to church!
Great American Media

Until I watched the new original movie that Bure starred in for the Great American Christmas, entitled A Christmas...Present. She plays Maggie, a busy Type A mom with a family of two teens and her lawyer husband, from whom she’s been feeling a bit distant. On a whim, she decides the family actually needs to go to Ohio for Christmas — starting tomorrow, 10 days before the actual holiday — to spend time with her recently widowed brother Paul (Paul Fitzgerald) and his tween daughter. And she has many activities planned.

A Christmas...Present hits most of the genre’s greatest hits: busy career woman returns home and rediscovers herself; lots of talk about family togetherness; plenteous Christmas decorating and cookies and all the trappings. What set this one apart (aside from the fact that the reconnecting couple is already married) was that it actually was religious. Paul quotes the Bible to Maggie a lot — chapter and verse. They talk about belief together. The family goes to church. The word “Jesus” is uttered. In essence, it’s a Christian movie that is set at Christmas, and that’s a rare thing for the made-for-TV Christmas movie, even (as far as I could tell) on the Great American Family channel.

This isn’t a movie where the whole Christmas story gets told, though, or even read aloud as a family. (They do sing specifically Christian carols.) Nobody has an altar call at church. Santa is a real figure in the world, and the Christmas magical miracle is still what everyone’s after — in this case, the miracle of reconnecting with your family.

It felt in keeping with recent research that shows that labels like “evangelical” (the largest Christian group in America) are increasingly associated with culture over religious belief. The miracles served up by the original Christmas story are messy and scary and threatening to the Hallmark ideals of comfort and safety and not rocking the boat. They might threaten the wealthy, spendy Christmas showcased in the genre, even when the movie is set in what’s meant to be a small town. Actual Christmas miracles, if you take the religious origins of the story to be true, are uncomfortable and frightening and weird. They’re the exact opposite of a Christmas movie.

In the end, that’s the unsettling part of watching all of these movies: that the thing they prize most is a feeling of happiness and peace and expectation, all things we wish for at Christmas. But the thing they promise is that this will happen; it’s the foregone conclusion in a cheaply made, churned-out production, not an actual miracle at all. And if you don’t experience those wonderful but quotidian Christmas feelings, you’re a spoilsport with no faith. If you’re feeling downtrodden on the holiday, or if you don’t feel like singing that carol or decorating that cookie, the problem would have to be with you. In the movies’ world, not getting in the Christmas spirit is not just unforgivable — it’s unthinkable. A religion that understands the inherently disturbing nature of the holiday could be helpful in moments like these, but it’s been squeezed out of Christmas entirely.

It’s true that, at the end of the day, A Christmas...Present aims to remind people that God is a big part of Christmas — something you’d think might be a bigger part of the genre. But even by the end of that film, God is, in essence, Santa: a benevolent presence who brings what you want. At the end of the film, embracing her husband and promising to be more intentional about their relationship when they return home, snowflakes begin to land on their coats. It’s a Christmas miracle. Maggie turns her face up toward the falling snow. “Thank you, God,” she says.

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