By Cassidy Keenan
I am on the phone with my mother and sister. They both tell me how excited they are for me to come home for the holidays. We are throwing out ideas of activities for us to do during vacation, one after the other. Christmas at the grandparents. Cookies and caroling with the church.
“And of course,” my mother gushes, “neither of you have watched A Christmas Prince 3 yet, have you?”
We assure her that no, of course we have waited.
“Oh, good,” she says. “Because we have to wait and watch it together. We did it with the first two, after all.”
Thinking back, this has become a common trend in my family during Christmastime. Our days may be filled with sledding, present exchanges, and putting up decorations, but a staple holiday activity comes in the evening, when we gather around to enjoy whatever cheesy Christmas movie is on the Hallmark channel. And one of our family’s biggest traditions is wrapping up in blankets to watch the Polar Express every Christmas Eve.
Many modern American families express a similar sentiment. Nearly everyone has their favorite Christmas movie. The genre is an extremely specific one, different from our usual action films, dramas, or romantic comedies. It is one of the only instances when you can rewatch a movie again and again for years and it never seems to get old.
So the question remains. Why has this genre remained so popular over the years? Why do we glean so much delight from the cheesy clichés, the C-list acting, the sappy writing and the happy endings? What is it about classic Christmas movies that draw us in so much?
New emerging studies have actually suggested that there is an element of psychology to it. An article written in The Kansas City Star affirms that the trend is definitely going up. They write that there is an “unprecedented number of Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel, Netflix, Ion, UPtv…Lifetime started playing them 24/7 this year, over 1,000 hours of mistletoe and magic on that network alone.”
The reason, they go on to suggest, is that these movies actually have a positive impact on mental health. The article cites Skip Dine Young, a psychology professor at Hanover College in Indiana, to get a professional opinion.
She stated, “I do think … with the holiday season in general, the themes of those times, particularly Christmas, are by and large healthy themes. They’re themes of community, they are themes of caring, they are themes of hope, they are themes of forgiveness. And those things all are central to mental health.”
According to leading psychologists and TV historians, holiday movies are significant because they have a deeper impact than most people realize. They have the power to go beyond mere hours of surface entertainment. Often, they have a profundity that can hit viewers harder than they expected.
Another article published by NBC news dives deeper into the nuances of this impact. They quote behavioral scientist Pamela Rutledge, who explained, “[Hallmark movies] still allow us to experience the emotions associated with social validation, the yearning for connection, compassion and empathy. The movies provide simplistic solutions to all those stressors that the holidays can bring: family conflict, isolation or financial pressures.”
This suggests that the vehicle of storytelling can actually improve our mindset. The viewer is invited to take a journey with the character, whose difficulties and triumphs are a weak reflection of our own. It is like looking in a mirror. It leads us to experience our own emotions more deeply alongside the character’s, which can serve to make us more optimistic as we watch their journey.
Furthermore, the formula of Hallmark movies is one that is engineered toward a happy mental response. The unrealistic plot helps us suspend our disbelief and sink into a form of escapism. All the tropes and clichés establish expectations. Rutledge explains, “The human brain loves patterns and the predictability is cognitively rewarding.”
Finally, because stress is unusually high during the holiday season, we will have a heightened reaction to anything which alleviates it.
It is important to acknowledge that cheesy Hallmark films will not solve our problems. Holiday movies are not a long-term solution to genuine life trials. However, it is comforting to know that there is a psychological reason we all seem to be crazy about them!
It is also an easy, light-hearted activity to do, and a tangible step to take to help your headspace, even in such minor ways. If you are feeling down this Christmas season, never fear. It could be a very good idea to curl up with a blanket, pop in your favorite holiday movie, and enjoy the journey.
I recommend A Christmas Prince.