Hallmark boasts a whopping 80 million viewers during their annual Countdown to Christmas when they run holiday fare 24/7 from the end of October to the new year. Those numbers are simply astounding.
The Hallmark phenomenon is even more fascinating when you consider that they produce the yuletide version of Groundhogs Day. Most of the films have strikingly similar plots, or at least plot points. Still, they are beloved.
Let me state upfront that I’m a fan of these candy-coated concoctions for reasons that I detailed a few years ago in a light-hearted article, which espouses the virtues of these films while expressing some areas of concern. Not long after writing that critique, Hallmark veered into agenda-driven television, adding an additional concern for faith-based believers. I covered that topic in a follow-up article and wrote a piece on how to discuss these issues with your kids from a Biblical point of view.
But analyzing the pros and cons and addressing the concerns doesn’t answer a critically important question:
What makes these films so popular?
Or more particularly, what is the overwhelming need that these films meet?
I address that question head-on in the latest episode of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD.
But before I answer that question here, I’d like to put the Hallmark phenomenon in the proper perspective.
There is no end to the selection of television shows and movies that we can watch. Literally no end. Some programs stick with you for months, even years making an indelible mark. Some shows teach us valuable lessons from history. Some bring our favorite literary characters to life. Some change the way we think or view the world.
Hallmark… doesn’t do that.
Why do we binge-watch films that have very little educational or artistic value, films that we can doze off in the middle of and not miss anything, films that are forgotten in less time than it takes to watch them?
I touched upon the answer in my first article, but I want to expand upon it here because I think the answer is very significant both culturally and spiritually.
So many people watch these movies for one primary reason: we watch them in order to escape.
That is the story I hear over and over. That is why I watch them as well. We want to forget about what is really happening in our lives and the lives around us.
With that in mind, this question is worth asking: what are we trying to escape from?
We are trying to escape from stress.
The pace of modern life is relentless. Early mornings, late nights, days filled with car lines, impossible work situations, meals on the go, homework, practices, shopping, laundry, cleaning, bathing, and bedtime routines. If you are lucky, you might have a few spare minutes before turning in for six hours of shut-eye and then doing it all over again.
Dostoyevsky is great. So is a riveting documentary on church history. But most nights, you don’t want to fill those precious few minutes with something deep or life-changing. You want to fill it with something light, fluffy, and mindless, just an outlet to let the stresses of your day escape like the steam from a hot tea kettle.
Personally, after a long day of homeschooling five kids and a night working towards a graduate degree, I don’t want to tax one more brain cell. I want to veg with a mug of Earl Grey, some dark chocolate peanut butter cups, and a made-for-TV movie with a ridiculously predictable plot that I frequently fall asleep before finishing.
Can you relate?
We’ve all got something that we want to forget at the end of the day. Without question, escaping from stress is a major contributing factor to the success of Hallmark. It’s a nightcap for non-drinkers.
We are trying to escape from fear.
A more serious escape for most viewers, though, is dread of the unknown or what might be.
Hallmark experienced an astronomical 40% increase in viewership during the first half of 2020, the year of Covid. A “feel-good” movie goes a long way toward helping us to forget what keeps us up at night. Immersing yourself in a world where Covid doesn’t exist, a world without disease, a world without protests or riots or political unrest, a world without warring factions or war at all, that—is an attractive world.
In all the Hallmark movies I’ve watched, only one had a leading character who feared dying. She was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and needed a liver transplant to survive. After a few months on the transplant list, her perfect match (a very attractive, single male who happened to live nearby and was ready to settle down) ended up wooing her heart while saving her life, in true Hallmark fashion.
In real life, I’ve only known one person who needed a liver transplant. He suffered for many years and ended up taking an organ with Hepatitis B in order to survive. No love match, just a defective organ from a stranger who tragically died.
Real life and Hallmark rarely meet.
Fear of disease and death is an ever-present reality in life. The only people who get sick and die in Hallmark films, died a long time ago, and you only see them in photos when their loved ones are finally ready to move on into a new happily-ever-after.
There is something incredibly comforting about spending a couple of hours in that world instead of the world we live in.
We are trying to escape from pain.
The only thing worse than fear of death is pain from death. My daily prayer list currently consists of several Covid widows (one has three young sons), a precious friend whose father and sister died in the same week, another sweet friend who lost both of her parents and her young grandson in the same year, and so many others.
Loss is all around us.
And then there are those who suffer, those who need a miracle to make it.
I recently gathered with a group of friends to pray over a dear brother-in-Christ, Wade, who has a cancerous tumor pressing on his left eye. His face is swollen, and the lump has taken up residence in his nasal cavity. Once a healthy, strapping six foot two, he could now fit into the jeans of my 120 lb. 13-year-old son.
Wade needs a miracle. We are believing God for one.
After our prayer meeting, Wade’s wife, Rachelle, mentioned that at the end of a long day of taxing doctor’s visits, expensive health protocols, and trying to figure out how to make ends meet without an income, they love nothing more than to watch a Hallmark movie. They want something very predictable with a very happy ending. It’s a soothing massage when life treats you like an emotional punching bag.
The need to escape pain is a real draw to the make-believe world of Hallmark.
We are trying to escape from evil.
But perhaps the greatest escape that drives us to the sunny shores of Hallmark is the absence of evil.
Evil doesn’t exist in the world of Hallmark, at least not in an overt fashion. There are no child abductions. No rapes. No murders (except on their designated mystery channel). Whether you like Hallmark movies or not, who doesn’t want to live in that world?
Several years ago, an Amber Alert in our community went terribly wrong. I won’t go into the details, but the outcome was far worse than we could possibly imagine when all our phones lit up late one night. Far worse. Complete strangers would comment about their anguish at the store or the doctor’s office.
For weeks, I couldn’t sleep. I would yell at the abductors in my bathroom and in my car. One day as I was praying for this sweet family, I screamed at the top of my lungs—"I WANT TO LIVE IN A HALLMARK FILM!” And I meant it. I wanted to live in a world where that kind of evil doesn’t exist.
I needed a release, a cathartic exercise to work through the anger and grief. So, I sat down and wrote a blog about all the Hallmark scenarios I wanted to live in rather than this world filled with abductors, rapists, and murderers.
I’ll be honest—it helped. It really helped. I laughed my way through the silly plots and clichés as I imagined living in that Christmas village on my mantle.
But then, I turned a corner. I realized that…
I don’t really want to live in a Hallmark film.
After writing about all the small towns I wanted to save, all the baking competitions I wanted to win, all the ladders I wanted to fall off of near the cutest stranger in town—I realized that the happy world of Hallmark isn’t where I really want to live. Here’s what I concluded:
“I don’t want to live in a land where love is so easy and life is so shallow. A land where there aren’t struggles and triumphs and problems and purpose and even a little pain.
I don’t want to live in a land where there aren’t real obstacles and real victories and real pressures and real people.
I don’t want to live in a land where there isn’t a God and there isn’t a Savior and there isn’t redemption and there isn’t the promise of something much better to come.
One day, I’ll live in a land that really is perfect, the kind of perfect that makes a Hallmark film look like a cheap carnival ride. Silly and short-lived. Shallow and unsatisfying.
That—is where I really want to live.”.
In the latest episode of CPCW, I dust off my old acting boots and share this heart-warming blog with my listeners. I conclude that I don’t really want to fall off a ladder into the arms of a handsome stranger… I want a man dressed in white to embrace me by some pearly gates on some streets made of gold. I want him to wipe away my tears and heal my hurting heart.
That is what we all want.
We want to live with Jesus.
Our bruised and battered hearts want to be in heaven. This is a natural, God-given longing. But it is a longing Hallmark can’t fill because at some point, we have to turn off the TV and face reality. We must face the stresses, the fears, the pains, and the evil of this world. Hallmark can’t make sense of that.
So, while some might say that Hallmark films are shallow, the need that they meet isn’t. But equally true is the fact that they don’t really meet that need. They just help us forget it for 120 minutes.
I don’t think that Hallmark will hurt a heart that needs to heal, but it can’t heal a hurting heart.
We need a much Higher Source than Hallmark to do that—that Source is the real reason we celebrate Christmas. God came to earth and suffered every stress, fear, pain, and evil we encounter in this world, so that someday we can live in a perfect world with Him.
These candy-coated concoctions are a sweet escape from the heartaches of this life, but Hallmark isn’t heaven. When we turn off the TV and spend some time on our knees, we don’t find an escape. We find the One who helps us face the real world. And He gives us hope of redemption and of a better world to come, the world we really want to live in.
That may not be what we are looking for when we binge-watch some Hallmark. But at the end of a long, hard day—that it is what we need.
Catherine Segars is an award-winning actress and playwright—turned stay-at-home-mom—turned author, speaker, podcaster, blogger, and motherhood apologist. This homeschooling mama of five is the host of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD, a Life Audio podcast about raising godly kids in an ungodly world, and she is matron of the Mere Mother website, which delves into critical cultural issues that affect families and marginalize mothers. Catherine helps parents navigate through dangerous secular landmines to establish a sound Biblical foundation for their kids. You can find Catherine’s blog, dramatic blogcast, and other writings at www.catherinesegars.com and connect with her on Facebook.