‘Tis the Season for Romantic Sap

Christmas romance is in the air, whether you want it or not

It’s the time of the season for loving! Holiday entertainment means sugary-sweet, feel-good rom-coms brimming with Christmas spirit. You can count on small-town charm, magic realism, awkward encounters under the mistletoe, and plenty of sap, of both the literal and metaphorical variety. For some, that’s a glowing recommendation, but those who think Die Hard is a Christmas movie might want to steer clear of 2020’s best and buzziest contributions to the genre.

In a Holidaze

Christmas

If your idea of a perfect Christmas is chick lit and hot chocolate by the fireside, snuggle up with In a Holidaze by romance-writing duo Christina Lauren. After ruining an annual multi-family cabin retreat with an ill-advised drunken hookup, Maelyn Jones must relive the vacation, Groundhog Day-style, until things are put to rights. It’s a high-concept commentary on how holiday rituals can be both comforting and stifling, one that infuses a standard friends-to-lovers romance with tension and humor. In order to save her cherished traditions—from not just her own worst impulses, but the encroaching gentrification of the Utah mountain town where the group gathers—Maelyn has to shake them up. That means dying, over and over again, in increasingly ridiculous ways, as she struggles to figure out what’s worth holding onto and what’s just a lazy habit.

Maelyn passes through all the stages of time-looping by now familiar from movies like Palm Springs and Edge of Tomorrow: confusion, denial, anger, acceptance, giddy mischief-making, and, finally, existential reckoning. The gimmick updates the Dickensian notion of Christmas as a time for taking stock of the past while moving forward with renewed optimism. Maelyn’s realization that “I don’t have to try to shoehorn my life into the current template” recalls a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge’s pledge to “live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

If you can get on board with the meta merriment, In a Holidaze is a hilarious and heartfelt yuletide treat. Three generations of characters—the group of former college roommates who started the Christmas traditions as well as their adult kids and grandkids—become fully fleshed out over multiple retellings and find their own happy endings. The book’s structure replicates the experience of getting to know and love people you only see once a year. Despite the anodyne lights and ornaments on the cover, this romance is both naughty and nice, truly putting the “dick” in “Dickensian.”

 A Timeless Christmas
a Timeless Christmas
A Timeless Christmas

Time is the essence of the Hallmark Channel’s A Timeless Christmas, adapted from a Hallmark Publishing romance by Alexis Stanton, who also writes as Eva Leigh and Zoe Archer. Turn-of-the-century engineer and businessman Charles Whitley is living in the future at the expense of the present; he has plenty of time for tinkering with his inventions but none for his faithful servants or fiancée. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s wasting time,” he tells his housekeeper, Rosie. “Don’t you think that true love is worth waiting for?” she shoots back. “Time will tell.” Through the magic of a possessed clock (!), a snifter of sherry, and a “Christmas moon,” Charles “mysteriously disappears” in 1903, only to resurface in the present day, where “times have changed.”

Megan Turner is a different kind of time traveler; she’s the curator of the Whitley mansion, where she leads tours as a costumed interpreter playing the role of Rosie—who is also her ancestor! By the end of the movie, Megan will have to choose between museum work and a new career in academia, as if there are plentiful jobs in both fields. “With your Ph.D., you’re a shoo-in!” her mom tells her. (This is why underemployed Ph.D.s everywhere are secretly relieved that they can’t go home for Christmas this year.) Charles wins Megan’s heart by showing her where all the house’s hidden compartments are and charms her parents (and everyone else) with his circa-1903 manners and penchant for swear words like “rogue” and “rapscallion.” As he gamely joins the house tours, his flirty banter with Megan wins praise from thirsty Yelp reviewers. “A hunk of what, exactly?” Charles muses.

Compared to 2015’s The Spirit of Christmas—the gold standard of holiday time travel romances, in which a handsome ghost (!) from the early 1900s materializes in the present and easily (!) passes for a grumpy hipster—or 2019’s goofy guilty pleasure The Knight Before Christmas, A Timeless Christmas is ho-ho-ho-hum. Though Charles initially reacts exactly as anyone would to finding tourists and carolers roaming his house, he comes to grips with cars, airplanes, microwaves, and Megan’s “computing device” and “portable telephone” all too quickly. Megan is similarly unfazed by his sudden appearance, chirping: “I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about you!” Even the present-day dramas, like Megan’s fear of disappointing her parents with her choice of excellent job prospects, or her co-workers’ thwarted acting ambitions, feel manufactured.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? The holidays bring enough actual angst; the Hallmark Channel has built a television empire on the fantasy of a conflict-lite Christmas, capped by a chaste kiss. As Charles says: “I know it makes absolutely no sense, but none of this does!” A Timeless Christmas may not make much sense, but it’s saved by its charismatic leads—Hallmark Channel stalwarts Ryan Paevey and Erin Cahill—and sly humor. (“Are you absolutely sure that these dungarees are appropriate attire . . . on a public street?!”). And, like In a Holidaze, it dares to suggest that not everything in the past is worth holding on to, just because it’s Christmas.

Happiest Season
Christmas
Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart in ‘Happiest Season’.

Hulu’s Happiest Season may be a LGBTQ romance, but it’s as sappy and slapstick-y as any cishet Hallmark Channel offering. Within the first five minutes, Abby (Kristen Stewart) falls off a roof and lands on an inflatable snowman! Abby has hated Christmas ever since her parents died; her partner Harper (Mackenzie Davis) loves it! In this case, though, the “big misunderstanding” central to any rom-com is that Harper hasn’t told her conservative family that she’s gay, and that the “orphan roommate” she’s bringing home to her quaint small town for the holidays is actually her girlfriend. Cue surreptitious hand-holding, sexting from the guest room, and accidentally falling asleep in the same bed. At one point, Abby literally hides in a closet, prompting Harper’s mother to ask: “Abby, what are you doing in the closet?”

Luckily, almost everyone in Harper’s family is too self-absorbed to notice their corny subterfuge. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and Harper’s is deliciously cringeworthy. Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen are pitch-perfect as her uptight parents, Ted and Tipper, a politically ambitious city councilman and his Instagram-obsessed wife, who barks: “Don’t wear anything that will strobe!” There’s naked hostility between Harper and her sisters (Alison Brie and Mary Holland) as they compete for the position of favorite child. Harper’s adorable twin niece and nephew might just be sociopaths. This is a family that would be fixated on appearances at the best of times, but Ted is running for mayor on a “family values” platform and expects his kids to bring their A-game to the obligatory Big Christmas Eve Party.

Happiest Season will resonate with anyone who has ever gone home for the holidays with the love of their life and watched in horror as they turned into a different, less loveable person. Harper spends most of the movie either gaslighting or ignoring Abby. Abby has to confront not only Harper’s internalized homophobia but her vapid high school friends, her childhood bedroom plastered with embarrassing posters of Josh Hartnett, and her exes of both sexes, including Aubrey Plaza, who’s so cool and comfortable in her skin that you wonder why Abby doesn’t just ditch Harper for her. Abby learns things about Harper she’d rather not know, but also gains some insight into how she got that way.

There’s drama over getting the perfect family photo and picking out a crowd-pleasing white elephant gift, but, beneath the usual festive trappings, there are serious stakes on the line: Abby and Harper’s relationship, Harper’s relationship with her family, her dad’s political career, dismantling the patriarchy, etc. It’s a tricky needle to thread, and Happiest Season—directed by queer actress/filmmaker Clea DuVall—does a good, if not perfect, job of balancing warm fuzzies and cold, hard truths. Abby’s sassy gay BFF John (Schitt’s Creek’s Daniel Levy), who gets all the funniest lines, gives her some straight talk: “Just because Harper isn’t ready [to come out], it doesn’t mean she never will be and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.” But will Harper be ready in time for the closing credits? Only a Scrooge would doubt it.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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