It's hot cocoa time again, it's snowman time, it's gift-giving time, and of course, it's time for "we gotta save the local gingerbread factory with the help of a hot and newly reformed corporate raider who was permanently changed when he got a dab of whipped cream on his nose."
In other words, it's time once again for holiday-themed TV movies. Does this largely mean Christmas romcoms? It does. Is Hallmark still the hallmark (I'm so sorry) of these efforts? It is. But there are also big pushes from Lifetime and Netflix, plus lots and lots more from lower-profile places, some of which (like UPtv and ION, say) are old pros and some of which (Discovery+, for instance) are newer to the game. There are family movies and kids' movies, and there are even musicals. So how on earth do you navigate? We're here to help.
Get the lay of the land
Let's start here: Your heavy hitters in terms of volume are still Hallmark and Lifetime. What's more, Hallmark has two cable channels with two different Christmas mission statements. Regular Hallmark, with its "Countdown to Christmas" event, is where you find your romantic comedies and your lighter fare. Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which calls its slate "Miracles of Christmas," is where you find the more dramatic, "inspirational" stories where people may be dealing with more straightforward grief or loss.
It's also where the straightforwardly religious material lives, like this year's The Gift of Peace (Dec. 10), about a woman who has lost her faith in God. You can find endless reruns of their movies that have already premiered, you can check out their new streaming deal at Peacock (which does not make all movies available, only some, sometimes, for a while), and you can always find their schedule online. They even have an app so you can check off the ones you've seen.
Lifetime doesn't center its network branding around Christmas movies as much as Hallmark does, but it also puts out a big schedule every time. (Here's the one for this year.) And not for nothing, it's been showcasing actors of color (especially Black actors) since well before Hallmark started the overdue broadening of its storytelling. And Lifetime continues to bring in big names, as in this year's A New Orleans Noel (Dec. 3), which features Keshia Knight Pulliam, Patti LaBelle and Tim Reid. Netflix, meanwhile, typically has a mix of formula romcoms (like the Lindsay Lohan-Chord Overstreet Falling for Christmas, which is really quite cute!) and things that fall more into the realm of regular comedy or kids' movies — same with Hulu. For instance, Hulu's Santa Games stars Faizon Love in a comedy about a competition to replace a beloved Santa.
There are also outlets that reliably offer up some notables every year, even if they don't get as much press. BET+, for instance, has Jasmine Guy! Who doesn't like Jasmine Guy? There are also outlets involved in Christmas movies now that I can guarantee many of you have never heard of. Did you know there's a Chicken Soup for the Soul streaming service? Their movie is called Meeting Mr. Christmas, which really sounds like a placeholder title where someone forgot to fill the place it was holding. Even our old friend CBS is in on the fun! Their Fit for Christmas (Dec. 4) is, naturally, about a fitness instructor who wants to save the community center, which places it in the great tradition of both countless Christmas movies and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.
By the way, if you want to go find the Great American Family movies that seem to exist on the premise that Hallmark has changed, you can go and look them up. I know marble statues that have changed more than Hallmark Christmas movies have with the exception of the inclusion of (occasional) same-sex couples and (somewhat) more diverse actors and stories, so that's the only change I know of that anyone would be creating a new network to swerve away from. It's not like they suddenly got really horny or anything — you still barely even get to kiss with your mouth closed! Anyway.
Trust that title
One way to navigate the flood of offerings? Trust that the movie's name is its name for a reason.
My friends, there is a movie this year called The First Noelle on BET+, in which a man has an old girlfriend named Noelle and a new girlfriend named Noelle. The way this story has to have been reverse-engineered to make this title possible is a feat, I tell you, a feat. This kind of gleefully literal title happens a lot with women's names — there's also Holly & The Hot Chocolate, for instance, airing on (I kid you not) QVC+. It is, of course, about a woman named Holly. And because it's QVC+, you at home will get the chance to buy the hot chocolate featured in the movie. A woman and a consumable product! It's right there in the name! What more could you ask for? MERRY SHOPPING CHRISTMAS!
Sometimes, instead of giving you a name, the title gives you the person's job or hobby. Expect these to be ... well, the kind word would be "straightforward." Rolling into Christmas (VH1) (Dec. 2) is about roller-skating. Cloudy with a Chance of Christmas (Lifetime) (Dec. 2) is about a meteorologist. Scentsational Christmas (Lifetime) (Dec. 8) is about a perfume. Well Suited for Christmas (Lifetime) is about a woman who enters a design competition to make a tux for a single guy.
Now you try one: What do you think is the milieu for A Christmas Fumble (OWN) (Dec. 10)? I bet you got it right.
A shout-out to simple elegance, like UPtv's Dec. 17 film, Sappy Holiday. Yeeeeeeah!
There are even times when it seems like programmers name films in order to make your family laugh at you if they ask you what you're watching. Lifetime, for instance, has one called Single and Ready to Jingle (Dec. 11) ("What are you watching, Grandma?" "Single and Ready to Jingle." "GRANDMA!")
Franchises aren't just for superheroes
In the time I've been following the world of holiday movies, one of the big stories is the growth of franchises in which one holiday movie is followed by another the next year, then another, then another. (It's an old trick in romance novels, so it does make some sense.)
This year's champ, I would argue, is on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Time for Him to Come Home for Christmas (Nov. 26) is the fifth installment in a series based on the Blake Shelton song "Time for Me to Come Home." The franchise includes Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas (2018), Time for You to Come Home for Christmas (2019), Time for Us to Come Home for Christmas (2020), Time for Them to Come Home for Christmas (2021), and now Time for Him to Come Home for Christmas.
I'm going to make a wild guess that next year will bring Time for Her to Come Home for Christmas, but beyond that, I don't know what to expect. Time for the Dog to Come Home for Christmas? Time for You to Have Been Coming Home for Christmas? Fine I Guess It's Time for You [Jerks] To Stop Coming Home for Christmas If I Have to Keep Asking?
Similarly, last year's Hip Hop Family Christmas (VH1) gives way to this year's Hip Hop Family Christmas Wedding (Nov. 30). And, of course, the arc is much longer, but A Christmas Story Christmas on HBO MAX is the sequel to the classic A Christmas Story, with Peter Billingsley back as a grown-up Ralphie with kids of his own.
Find the outliers
Yes, there may be five Blake-Shelton-related movies out there. There may be two different Hallmark Movies & Mysteries outings based on the same Scotty McCreery song (last year's Five More Minutes and this year's Five More Minutes: Moments Like These (Dec. 17), which I must point out is a real lost opportunity for a movie called Even More Five More Minutes.) But there are a few each season that really do make you say, "Huh."
For instance, Christmas Bloody Christmas (Shudder) is the only 2022 film with a description that includes the line "Santa Claus begins a rampant killing spree."
Even the very traditional Hallmark sometimes hits upon a concept that is strangely brilliant. The Most Colorful Time Of The Year (Dec. 9) has this premise: He's color-blind and she's an optometrist. Come on! That is amazing. He wears only gray in all the photos! You could try to come up with an idea for a romantic movie about an optometrist, and it would take a while to get to "he literally wears gray all the time. Only she can understand his eyeballs!"
A close second: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas (Dec. 17), which is described thusly: "A former actress trying to break into directing tests her skills with a Christmas Eve courtroom production in which the true authorship of the famous poem 'A Visit from St. Nick' is debated." It's mock trial? About a poem? On Christmas Eve? Who pitched that in a meeting? "Boss, hear me out. It's Christmas Eve in a small town. A woman has big Hollywood dreams. Enter ... some lawyers."
I am also intrigued by Steppin' Into The Holiday (Nov. 25), a Lifetime movie that features Mario Lopez as a former Broadway star whose name is ... Billy Holiday. (It's a pun-name and a weird reference that is probably accidental and it suggests that someone is stepping into Mario Lopez, Fantastic Voyage-style!) He goes back to his hometown after being dumped from a TV show called Celebrity Dance-Off, and the local dance teacher needs help with a fundraiser, and from there it's fairly standard. Except, of course, for the fact that the supporting cast includes Cheri Oteri and Mario Cantone, and now I'm intrigued all over again. (Please tell me they both dance. If Cheri Oteri dances with Mario Cantone, who cares who steps into Mario Lopez?)
And dig this, from ION, about A Prince and Pauper Christmas (Dec. 11): "When her down-on-his luck confidential informant in a criminal investigation suddenly goes missing, a desperate young federal agent recruits his doppelgänger to play his role. But her job gets even harder when she falls for the criminal's stand-in... who just happens to be a European prince visiting the states for Christmas." This is a great plot for a wacky holiday movie, because I am already confused, and that is only two sentences. Honestly, that's how I like it.
Jingle bells, jingle bells, branding all the way
It used to be that the height of Christmas movie branding would be, for instance, a Mariah Carey film that kept inserting adoring close-ups of big plastic jars of Folgers Classic Roast. But that's kid stuff. It's getting to be more complicated than that.
You can understand how someone at Discovery+, the streaming home of Food Network and HGTV, looked at all the Christmas movies about decorating and eating and thought, "We are leaving money on the table, my dudes." After all, they have business custody of a lot of people who are famous for eating and decorating! Thus, they have four movies this year featuring cameos from their established personalities. One Delicious Christmas has Bobby Flay as a food critic; A Christmas Open House has Ben and Erin Napier as "local artists" who help a budding couple renovate a house, A Gingerbread Christmas has Duff Goldman as a gingerbread contest judge, and Designing Christmas has Love It or List It's Hilary Farr as the mentor to one of the hosts of ... a home-renovation show. I have only seen the Duff and Bobby Flay entries on this list, but they deliver on the promise of the promotional art that shows them hovering over young couples like guardian angels. Or pop-up ads.
Want more? Holiday Harmony on HBO MAX is a whole movie about getting your shot at being featured on iHeartRadio. A Holiday Spectacular (Nov. 27) on Hallmark is all about the Rockettes (and it includes Ann-Margret and Eve Plumb).
Dickens you glad I didn't say Dickens again?
I'm not going to lie: I don't honestly think they're ever going to make an adaptation of A Christmas Carol with the sheer title-driven audacity of 2012's It's Christmas, Carol featuring a supporting performance from Carrie Fisher, or one with the casting verve of 1995's Ebbie, starring Susan Lucci. But that doesn't mean they don't keep trying.
Both Spirited, an Apple TV+ movie with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, and the animated Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (Dec. 2) on Netflix, are musical takes on the Scrooge story. Hallmark also has one called Ghosts of Christmas Always. (That one features the absolutely delightful Lori Tan Chinn as well as Reginald VelJohnson, in what will undoubtedly be the most important Christmas movie of his career!)
Christmas movies know about Christmas movies, you guys
The more holiday entertainment you get, the more likely you are to see it become self-aware. This year has a movie called Lights, Camera, Christmas! that's about a woman working on a Christmas movie who falls in love with the lead actor. (A note for people who believe, as I do, that the best one of these movies ever is The Nine Lives of Christmas: the woman in Lights, Camera, Christmas! is played by Kimberly Sustad, the marvelous Nine Lives lead.)
A Hollywood Christmas (Dec. 1) on HBO Max is also about a woman who falls in love while making a Christmas movie. Next year, I hope to see one that's about a woman making a Christmas movie about two actors falling in love during a Christmas movie. We'll just keep going. It's at least as good an idea as Time for Both of You and All of Us Guys to Come Home for Christmas.
Make the yuletide gay
That's right, I did the pun, I regret nothing.
I will admit to having believed at one time that there would never, never be a Hallmark movie centered on a gay couple. They have gradually been sneaking up to it like they are trying not to scare themselves — there was one a couple of years back where two of the supporting characters were clearly a gay couple running a dog charity, but their romantic relationship was only implied. Then, they had one (and its sequel) where the gay couple was one of several stories within a family, so they were only making the yuletide like 33% gay. Well, this year, the year of Fire Island and Bros, they are bringing you The Holiday Sitter (Dec. 11), in which a hot man gets stuck taking care of a kid (pretty standard) over the holidays, and he starts becoming fond of the neighbor (same). But in this case, the neighbor is a hot man named Jason. It's the most traditional groundbreaking act of 2022!
Of note, Lifetime has a gay couple also, in its A Christmas to Treasure (Dec. 16). Those guys are old friends who run into each other again at Christmas, and you won't believe it, but sparks may fly. Lifetime has been doing this for a couple of years, though, starting with The Christmas Setup in 2020, and then 2021's Under the Christmas Tree, which featured two women. So when it comes to the major players, don't overlook Lifetime just because it didn't take them quite as long to get here. (And don't overlook smaller providers either. Keep your eyes peeled.)
In addition to long being known for its straightness, the cable holiday movie season has long been known for its whiteness. That has been changing in some ways, at some outlets, with some success. As I mentioned, Lifetime has been casting a lot of Black stars for years, Hallmark is starting to do it more, and there are very beloved performers being booked by outlets including BET+, OWN and VH1.
There are some films this year about people and families who might have a broader range of traditions than seen in your traditional snow globe — Hallmark has one called Christmas at the Golden Dragon, about the closing of a family's beloved Chinese restaurant, and one called A Big Fat Family Christmas (Dec. 2), centered around the Chang family holiday party. Lifetime is featuring Sweet Navidad, a story about a woman who wants to open a Puerto Rican-influenced bake shop. Lifetime's Merry Textmas (Dec. 4) is about a woman who goes home to Oaxaca, Mexico for Christmas and accidentally gets the family group text tangled up with a guy who has "lost touch with his own Mexican roots."
You'll find more actors of color across the season in general than there were, say, 10 years ago — to give just one example, Tiya Sircar, who played Vicky on The Good Place, is carving out a nice holiday-season niche for herself and is one of the leads in A Gingerbread Christmas. Fortunately, happily, there are a lot more examples than I could list in the space we have. In matters of representation, there are many more doors left to be opened: most leads have very similar body types, and indigenous representation and disability representation are still hard to come by. But is it a little more varied than it used to be? I would say so.
Is it all Christmas, though? Is the idea of "holiday movies" a lie?
When probably 98% of the holiday movies in a given year are about Christmas, it can be hard to acknowledge movies about other winter holidays without seeming like you're offering cover for the overwhelming Christmas-ness of what's on offer. But at the same time, what's there deserves to be noted!
In the past, much of the limited Hanukkah fare has centered on clashes between Christmas and Hanukkah or the idea that celebrating one means you are baffled by the other, which is not ideal, to say the least. This year, however, there is a straightforwardly Hanukkah-centric movie called Hanukkah on Rye (Dec. 18). On the one hand, that title sounds incredibly corny and like a complete cliché of what a Hanukkah movie would be, but on the other hand, when it comes to Christmas, so are all these titles like Jingle Jangle Santa Bells: Snowflake Family Christmas at Elves' Falls or whatever. At any rate, this film features Jeremy Jordan and Yael Grobglas (Petra from Jane the Virgin!) as rival deli owners. Perfectly obvious in every way! I'll watch that!
There's also a Hallmark entry called Holiday Heritage (Dec. 16), in which the family celebrates both Christmas and Kwanzaa. It features the reliable Holly Robinson Peete, so this year, when people ask me if they're all Christmas movies, I can happily say, "No, they are just almost all Christmas movies."
People ... people who watch people
Sometimes, the biggest draw of a movie is the cast. Sometimes just because you love the people, but also perhaps because the people are being reunited from something else, or because they make an impressive group. Luke Macfarlane, who showed up as Billy Eichner's boyfriend in Bros this year, has been doing Hallmark movies for years, and he's still here this year in A Magical Christmas Village opposite Days of our Lives legend and holiday movie stalwart Alison Sweeney. Bruce Campbell (yes, Evil Dead Bruce Campbell) got into the game last year, and he's back this year in My Southern Family Christmas. I do feel a bit like if Bruce Campbell can do these movies, then anyone can. Anyone!
Holiday films also love putting people together in interesting or nostalgic ways. My eyes popped at the sight of Jane Seymour and Joe Lando, the stars of the '90s drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, who are once again falling in love in the Lifetime offering A Christmas Spark (Nov. 27). Hallmark put three of their best-known leading men in Three Wise Men and a Baby to create a kind of supergroup, Traveling Wilburys sort of thing, or like Silk Sonic with kissing (or more kissing). And A New Diva's Christmas Carol (Dec. 14) on VH1 (the original A Diva's Christmas Carol aired in 2000) has a very impressive lineup: Ashanti, Vivica A. Fox, Eva Marcille, Robin Givens, Mckenzie Small and Mel B. (Marcille, whom you may also remember going all the way back to her win on America's Next Top Model, also is in the aforementioned A Christmas Fumble.)
And finally: I am pretty sure they're messing with us
Listen to the description of Reindeer Games Homecoming, a recently released Lifetime movie starring — and written by — Grey's Anatomy vet Sarah Drew:
MacKenzie Graves (Drew) is a brilliant, competitive, crossword-puzzle-loving biology teacher in Vermont who recently lost her father, beloved fire chief and the heart of the town's holiday fundraising tradition the Reindeer Games. Every year since his death, she competes with her dad's former team, a group of colorful retired firefighters, to win the Games and keep his tradition alive. This holiday however, her world is rocked when fading Hollywood star, and Mac's high school crush, Chase Weston (Bruening) comes home for Christmas to visit his pregnant sister and nephew and is begrudgingly roped into participating in the Games. When the opportunity to compete against her former megacrush arises, Mac is determined to show him up and win the Kris Kringle Cup at all costs. As the competition heats up, so does the spark between Mac and Chase, and Chase soon finds himself eager to not only win the games, but also to win her heart.
Puzzles, lost parents, firemen, small town holidays, a Hollywood visitor, a high school old flame, moppets, competition ... this is a veritable avalanche of tropes from these movies, like it's a challenge somebody did at a party to fit as many as possible into one paragraph. Also ... the couple is named "Mac and Chase." I am pretty convinced this one is a real movie that is also, at some level, a put-on.
If you are among the many people who both embrace holiday movie season and find it a little bit strange — I hope you find the story your heart desires. And then I hope you fall off a ladder while decorating the Christmas tree at your vacation home and hit your head and get amnesia and forget who you are, and then I hope an absolutely gorgeous person comes to your rescue and lets you recover in their beautiful log cabin while working in their pie shop, and then I hope you come to believe that you don't miss your old life at all, because in reality, all you have ever wanted is to live in a log cabin anyway, and also you love pie, so when you hit your head again (this time you fell off a sleigh), you remember who you are but you run back to the log cabin just in time to tell your new loved one that you are not going back to the big city, you are leaving your job at Rapacious Industries, Inc. and becoming a small-batch hot chocolate purveyor whose specialty is pie pairings.
Happy Holidays! God bless us, every one.