My mother adheres to a strict Hallmark movie ritual every December. Five minutes into “The Christmas Club” or “The Christmas Cottage” or “The Christmas Cure” — all very real Hallmark Channel titles — she snatches the remote and hits pause.
Then she turns to me, triumphant, and proceeds to predict the entire plot of the next 80-odd minutes. She’s never wrong.
Five minutes is all it takes for her to plug Olivia or Lacey or Vanessa and their holiday hunk du jour into the infallible Hallmark Christmas romance formula. Five minutes. Sometimes less. (I’ve gotten pretty good at it myself. The apple and the tree and the daughter who gleefully watches too many Christmas movies, or something like that.)
I would never imply my mother is anything short of brilliant, but predicting who falls for who and which antics will ensue before the big kiss under the mistletoe? It isn’t exactly hard to crack. The Cheesy Made-for-TV Christmas Movie, a genre in itself, always follows a certain formula.
Maybe that’s why any diversion from the usual — say, sprinkling some Hanukkah into the mix — seems to bring such disastrous results.
Hallmark, under increased scrutiny for its noticeable lack of diverse stars, is somewhat widening its offerings this season beyond all-Christmas, all-the-time: “Holiday Date” (premiering Saturday) and “Double Holiday” (due Dec. 21) each have their very own Nice Jewish Lead for the Not Jewish Other Lead to fall in love with. Lifetime, too, joined in this month with “Mistletoe & Menorahs.”
But these aren’t exactly Hanukkah movies — not entirely, anyway. In the Hallmark-Lifetime Cinematic Universe, Hanukkah and the characters who celebrate it exist only in relation to Christmas. The Jewish holiday serves as more of a plot point than a charming, wintry aesthetic.
Take Christy, the shiksa protagonist of “Mistletoe & Menorahs,” who in eight days — naturally — must become a Hanukkah expert to impress a Jewish prospective client and land an account. (That’s part of the formula, too: There’s usually some sort of account that needs landing.) Learning new traditions from her very cute, very Jewish counterpart is just another box to check so Christy can reach her goals and find love.
Even Cute Jewish Guy can’t enjoy his holiday in peace like every other rom-com boy next door — not with that squeaky rendition of “I Have A Little Dreidel” blaring from his pocket when his phone rings. (We got the message the first time we heard he was Jewish, but thanks for the reminder.)
Or take the small-town family in “Holiday Date,” who learn the man their daughter brought home is Jewish and — after an incredibly awkward silence and a “Holy Hanukkah” — immediately turn the film into a cross-cultural infomercial. We get mechanical, textbook definitions of menorahs and sufganiyot and dreidels. The Christmas-celebrating mom suddenly appears in an “Oy Vey” apron with a platter of homemade latkes. A small child smiles and declares, “I think Hanukkah rocks.” It would take remarkably little editing to turn the whole thing into a Jewish “Get Out.”
There’s one glaring inaccuracy that these two films share: Most Jews do, in fact, know a decent bit about Christmas. Celebrating Hanukkah does not make us immune to absorbing the basic Christmas traditions — or lyrics to the basic Christmas songs — that surround us every year. Nor does our Christmaslessness strip away common sense (please don’t shout “Mazel tov!” at a small Christian child, Joel from “Holiday Date”) or spatial judgment (really, Joel, it’s not that hard to assemble a structurally sound gingerbread house).
Lighting a menorah also does not render us unable to put up holiday lights (yep, still talking about Joel here). Hanukkah is literally the Festival of Lights. We know a bit about the subject.
A necessary disclaimer: These films can’t be critiqued as high art. There’s a reason they have a devoted following, after all: They’re delightfully predictable, easily digestible. You know there’ll be a happy ending, usually after a snowball fight where the characters fall on top of each other and their faces end up this close.
But I’m not looking to break the formula. I’m not even looking for much representation on the Hanukkah front; Christmas movies are the holiday films I’ve grown up with.
My bar for a good holiday film is low: I want to see some snow, I want to see some people fall in love in said snow, and I don’t want to feel like my holiday is being Christmasplained. It’s a giant neon sign to those who celebrate: This Film Isn’t For You. It’s for these other folks, the folks we make movies for all the time, who clearly don’t know what’s up with this stuff.
That’s why “Double Holiday,” about two office rivals planning a holiday party, is easily the most tolerable of the three. For one, the love interest doesn’t seem utterly perplexed by Judaism: Instead of the Jewish character being the odd one out — no, really; the “Holiday Date” dad calls Joel an “odd duck” — we get a whole Jewish family. This time, it’s the non-Jew who has to adapt, and he does so with a refreshing dose of normalcy.
Not once through Rebecca’s party planning, or her efforts to juggle work with her family’s Hanukkah celebrations, is her competence ever called into question. Who knew you could be Jewish and toss up some tinsel at the same time? A true Hanukkah miracle.
And when that office rival (read: love interest) jumps in to save Rebecca’s latkes from burning, he doesn’t act like it’s some giant leap for Christian mankind. (They’re just fried potatoes, folks.) A “Mistletoe & Menorahs” character, on the other hand, remarks that latke “doesn’t even sound like a real word.” Bless his heart.
Hallmark and Lifetime don’t need to reinvent the candy cane here. When you think about it, Christmas isn’t really at the heart of these Christmas movies at all. There are trees and stockings and true love and all that, sure. But Christmas movies aren’t religious. They’re not even all that spiritual — they’re just spirited. There’s no reason the films that throw some Hanukkah in should be any different.
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