Old flames, baking competitions, and saving the family business: Time for some holiday TV movies

Old flames, baking competitions, and saving the family business: Time for some holiday TV movies

Made-for-TV holiday movies are having a moment. They’ve been a personal tradition of mine for more than a decade, and the truly overwhelming profusion of options coming from outlets like Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, Hulu, BET+, Great American Family, and more suggests that I have more company every year in my affection. Entertainment Weekly counts more than 170 such offerings this year, which shows you that there’s something going on here (on top of the profusion of streaming services).

The first thing that really caught my attention about these movies that first year I watched them was realizing how many actors I knew from more prominent productions (with, presumably, higher budgets). Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer has made multiple Christmas movies, and they weren’t all years after her biggest success. Amy Acker, who was on Angel and Alias and Person of Interest, has likewise done multiple Christmas movies for television. Jodie Sweetin, famous as a child for Full House, is a regular in the genre. 

There are also actors who have made holiday movies a major specialty, becoming specifically known for them. Case in point there is Luke MacFarlane. MacFarlane is probably best known for Brothers & Sisters, but his appearances in TV movies, and holiday ones in particular, have become a signature. Showing his commitment to the genre, he made one in 2022 despite his starring role in the theatrically released LGBTQ rom-com Bros this year. MacFarlane is gay, and also appeared in 2021’s Single All the Way, Netflix’s LGBTQ holiday movie, but his wholesome good-guy look and presence works extremely well in the absolute most formulaic TV holiday movies. And if a traditionally wholesome-beefcake-handsome LGBTQ actor being able to have that kind of a career isn’t progress, really, what is? (That was a joke. Lots of things. Please don’t latch onto that sentence to yell about.)

In recent years, some holiday movies—particularly on Netflix—have featured splashier casting choices. In 2021, Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes starred in A Castle for Christmas, and if certain aspects of it (like the dress Shields wears in the climactic scene) have a very TV-movie-budget feel, the star power of the lead actors is a real thing. This year, Lindsay Lohan is making a big comeback in a Netflix Christmas movie.

TV holiday movies have also gotten much more diverse in recent years. BET is obviously one driver of that, but in 2018, Hallmark cast its first Black leads in a Christmas movie. In 2020, Hallmark and Lifetime released their first LGBTQ-themed holiday movies, with Netflix following in 2021. You will find the very occasional Hanukkah movie.

But let’s not pretend there isn’t a formula. Or a few of them. Very often, one of the leads is a big-city professional who has to spend the holidays in the small hometown they desperately wanted to leave behind, only to reconnect with an old flame/learn the true meaning of Christmas. (Normally I’d say ex, but in this context, “old flame” is the way to go.) Sometimes they’re there to save the family business. Sometimes, the big-city person is there to shut down the beloved local Christmas business and ends up with the local who dives in to save it.

Baking competitions are very big in the TV holiday movie world. Classical musicians who need to reconnect with their passion for what they do are very much a thing. So are princes of minor, fictional European countries. Conniving rivals in both love and business? Oh, yes. Bed-and-breakfasts? Indeed.

This is a piece of popular culture that, like romance novels, gets a lot of scorn—much of which is very clearly because the culture in question is being consumed by women. And, like romance novels, I’m here for it, albeit in much more limited quantities than the books. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to watch some TV holiday movies and report back, and I invite you to join me. Let’s start with LGBTQ holiday movies: We’ll be watching The Holiday Sitter, out from Hallmark this year; A Jenkins Family Christmas, released by BET last year; and Under the Christmas Tree, from Lifetime last year, with reference to the aforementioned Single All the Way.

But we’re going to need to watch some movies chosen for their classic TV holiday movie tropes. Vote below, and I’ll watch the top one to three results, depending on time, and we’ll dive in together. Maybe by next year, we can put together our own TV holiday movie drinking game—or cookie-eating game, if you prefer.

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