The True Meaning of Christmas Movies Is a Cozy American Worldview
In the Christmas movie universe, Europeans are royals, the military is a burden, and home is where the heart is.
It’s hard to imagine Christmas without Christmas movies, whether they’re old favorites like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas, edgier picks like Love Actually or Die Hard, or—especially—the kinds playing on loop on the Hallmark Channel during its Countdown to Christmas.
Only a Grinch could fail to innocently enjoy Christmas movies. As a political scientist, however, it’s my professional curse to be unable to enjoy anything without analyzing it to death. And Christmas movies have an odd habit of showing how Americans relate to the rest of the world.
For example, the world that Christmas movies often present has little to do with the one that U.S. policy actually produces—or even with the dynamic, globalized sector that actually makes those movies. They’re products of a global cultural industry that contrives to reflect how at least some Americans—especially those with the most spending power—want the world to be. And the world that Americans imagine they want every Christmas is one that slips further away with every year.
For millions of Americans, the phrase “Christmas movie” increasingly refers not to beloved old classics but to the emergent genre of seasonal films showcased on Netflix, the Hallmark Channel, and elsewhere. At times, they appear so interchangeable that you could swap their titles (Dear Christmas, A Christmas Wish, A Christmas Crush)—and even plot descriptions—without confusing anyone. One movie is literally called A Cookie Cutter Christmas.
Yet it’s wrong to dismiss these movies. Sure, they follow certain conventions, but so do Marvel blockbusters. And men have a nasty habit of denigrating anything that women like—from romance novels to fashion to Lifetime movies—as frippery. Besides, the audience for these movies is way bigger than you’d expect. The Hallmark Channel, which has done a lot to define the genre, charts as one of the top-rated entertainment cable channels (more viewers than the Food Network!)—and it’s routinely one of the most popular cable networks among women in key demographics. Tens of millions of viewers will tune in to watch at least one of the channel’s Christmas movies—and even more for similar films on Netflix, Lifetime, and other platforms.
To win the holiday viewing season, Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, and the rest have to produce Christmas movies at a frenetic pace. Over the past several years, Lifetime has released more than 100 Christmas movies, while Hallmark premiered 40 in 2020 alone. For comparison, Warner Bros. releases about 20 movies in a non-pandemic year.
Sure, these movies are a lot cheaper than major studio productions. Estimates for the cost of a typical Christmas movie range from about $2 million to $10 million. Even a single episode of The Crown or The Mandalorian might cost as much as several of these movies. Netflix or Lifetime can commission dozens of Christmas movies for the same cost as a single mid-budget Hollywood release.
But keeping costs low is only half of the equation. The other half is making money.
Cable channels like Lifetime and Hallmark earn the bulk of their revenue from advertising. That means they need to be able to promise advertisers they will deliver audiences in a predictable demographic (say, women age 25-54). A major programming event, like wall-to-wall Christmas movies, locks down those audiences.
The studios that make these films, like the Motion Picture Corporation of America or MarVista Entertainment, are relatively anonymous. They aim to produce not Oscar winners but reliable content. That reliability has to extend to the vision of the world presented. Real America is a politically polarized place and a racially diverse country. In Christmas America, there are no partisan political divides, and almost everyone is white. The big-city lawyer who finds love when she goes home for the holidays never has a heated argument about a woman’s right to choose with her new small-town fireman beau.
Even Operation Christmas Drop, which features an ambitious congressional staffer sent by her boss to inspect an Air Force base in Guam to see if it can be closed down, ends with the member of Congress choosing to save the base in Guam by sacrificing one in her own district. Reindeer will fly over the Capitol dome before that happens.
Yet the military and the hardships it places on families are recurring themes. If a parent is absent, there’s a good chance we’ll learn that they’ve been deployed—but rarely to where. In Christmas movies, there’s always a military but never a war. Even in overtly military-themed movies like USS Christmas, there’s only the slightest hint that the military is intended for use against adversaries.
The omnipresence of the military, and the kid-glove treatment it receives, is the most realistic way that Christmas movies depict U.S. politics. The military remains, by a long shot, the most trusted institution in the United States—a rare point of bipartisan consensus. But partisanship divides Americans’ view of whether countries like Russia are friend or foe. In Christmas movies as in reality, Americans agree only that they need a military, not why.
Even by Christmas movie standards of realism, though, the treatment of international relations in these films is fantastical. A stock plot involves a plain-spoken American woman meeting and winning over European royalty. Netflix has turned this basic plot into two successful series: A Christmas Prince and The Princess Switch.
If a standard complaint about Americans’ staggering ignorance about the world is that “Africa is not a country,” the prevalence of princes suggests that Americans also need to be reminded that most European countries are republics. They’re modern versions of the “Ruritanian romance,” the 19th-century swashbuckling novels set in imagined monarchies—though with less adventure and more garlands.
The default assumption of Christmas movies is that Americans’ classless, democratic nature clashes with stuffy upper-crust Europeans’ reserve. Reality is different. Rankings like the Varieties of Democracy index routinely show that the United States substantially lags other rich countries in the quality of its democracy. Americans trying to move up the economic class ladder face a steeper climb than Europeans.
The plucky American woman shows the reserved prince that he should care for his people, almost always using orphans as a stand-in. How there are so many orphanages in prosperous principalities is never explained, but there’s always another one—“It’s a world tour of orphans,” one character exclaims in A Princess Switch: Switched Again. Of course, rates of child poverty in the United States are higher than those in most European countries.
These “foreign” countries are never exactly foreign, either. Everyone speaks English, usually with a Received Pronunciation accent—convenient for monoglot Americans who don’t have to even learn a new language to join the ruling family of a foreign land. Christmas movie royal families don’t just reign like British or Swedish monarchs—they really rule.
If the films accurately depict the military’s place in U.S. society, they also suggest that, for many Americans, the world beyond U.S. borders doesn’t meaningfully exist. Sometimes, this becomes literally true, as with the geography of the Netflix Holiday Movie Universe. An infamous map in A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby shows the countries of Aldovia and Belgravia not as postage-stamp pseudo-Liechtensteins but as immense realms comprising the whole of Eastern Europe between them, presumably the result of an alternative history where Queen Victoria’s grandchildren managed to stay on the thrones of Eastern Europe and keep speaking English at home, as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia did with his wife.
With a couple of exceptions, the fact that such a prominent genre can accommodate the rest of the world only as a fairy tale says something important about how Americans imagine the world. Bluntly—they don’t. When Americans want to relax and focus on what really matters, there’s no place like home.
But there’s another reason why Ruritanian settings are so popular in Christmas movies. Making these movies on tight budgets turns out to require a cutthroat willingness to film them in the cheapest possible locales. It takes a globalized industry to make Americans feel at home during Christmas.
Many—possibly most—Christmas movies are filmed outside the United States. Most of these all-American fantasies are made in Canada. Five holiday movies filmed in British Columbia in July 2019 alone. Canada offers not only landscapes and cities that can double for American locales but also generous tax incentives and favorable exchange rates.
Other countries have copied Canada. The University of Arizona professor Chris Lukinbeal writes that Romania—the original Ruritania—began to attract Hollywood’s notice after the film Cold Mountain filmed there in the mid-2000s.
Back then, the greatest advantage Romania offered was savings on “below-the-line” costs, like extras and technicians, making the location cost-competitive even after Canadian tax incentives. An increasingly sophisticated film industry grew up to support international productions. Combined with an ample supply of castles and palaces, it became a great place to shoot royal-themed Christmas movies, such as the 2017 Netflix hit A Christmas Prince.
In 2018, the Romanian government created Europe’s most generous subsidy program for film, a fund that could cover up to 45 percent of eligible expenses to a maximum of $15 million. That same year, several Christmas movies were filmed in Romania, including a Christmas Prince sequel, The Princess Switch, and Christmas at the Palace. In 2019, news reports indicated that Romania’s Castel Film Studio applied for nearly 900,000 euros (about $1 million) in rebates for production on A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby under this program.
As in most globalized industries, though, tax incentives attract, but they cannot retain. By 2020, production of A Princess Switch: Switched Again had moved from Romania to Scotland. (The third entry in the series will also film in Scotland; perhaps Netflix could honor the history of real-world European principalities and global capital by calling it A Princess Switch: Tax Haven.)
If the finale of every Christmas movie is about finding the true meaning of Christmas, then what’s the true meaning of Christmas movies? It’s because of all of these factors, not despite them, that these films tell us something about Americans and their place in the world.
What Christmas movies show is that the world Americans want to live in isn’t the world they’ve made. Most Americans live in suburbs, but holiday movies exist in a world of small towns and big cities that feel like small towns. Most Americans work in low-status service jobs, but holiday movies promise that fulfilling work is just one true meaning of Christmas away. Giant corporations loyal only to profits dominate the real economy, but Christmas movie economies run on small businesses deeply embedded in their societies.
The genre also reflects a country that’s less satisfied with the burdens of global leadership than elite discourse suggests. Holiday movies that show families adjusting to the toll of foreign wars also suggest a desire to stop bearing those costs. Far from yearning to lead the international community, the audiences for Christmas movies mostly want to be happy at home while foreigners do whatever it is they’re doing. Should anything too terrible happen, the military will always be there to protect us anyhow.
More happily, it is a country that’s open to some forms of inclusion. Pressures to increase representation in these movies have worked. Black, LGBT, and even non-Christian Americans have an increasing number of holiday movies that show their stories, even if those stories so far are mostly just different colors of frosting on the same cookie recipe. The Christmas movie version of the American dream can be stretched to accommodate everyone—in fiction.
The America that Americans—or at least, a substantial number of them—want isn’t one of threats of civil war and global ambitions. It’s a cozy, stocking-strung fireplace where everyone follows the rules of Christmas—even if the presents were made at reasonable cost, overseas.