Something has been happening to Christmas over the last decade or so, and it’s happening on the nation’s preferred delivery system of wholesome schmaltz, The Hallmark Channel.
Every year, throughout the months of November and December, the network plays wall-to-wall Christmas movies, many of them original productions, that blithely espouse wholesome family values. Small towns are always better than big cities. Spending time with the family is always better than going to work. And people who hate Christmas are always just a few shenanigans away from learning a valuable lesson about why Christmas is totally freakin’ awesome.
Whether you believe in these ideals, find them hypnotically naive, or even if you just get an ironic kick out of all this silly sincerity, there’s a lot of entertainment to be found in all these Hallmark Christmas movies. And as it turns out, a LOT of people are watching them. They’re one of the top-rated networks on television every holiday season.
Of course, not all Hallmark Christmas movies are equal. Some are bad by any estimation, many are simply forgettable. But if you’ve watched as many as I have (and I’ve watched a LOT, don’t judge me) you’ll find that some films clearly stand out. There are a handful legitimately well-written, acted and produced Christmas movies that have come out of Hallmark over the last decade or so, and a lot of other movies that entertain despite themselves, or because they commit to being unapologetically cheesy.
So set your DVRs, folks: these are the Hallmark Christmas movies that are actually worth calling hallmarks!
25. The Nine Lives of Christmas
Brandon Routh (Legends of Tomorrow) plays a bachelor firefighter who accidentally adopts a cat and learns how to take care of the critter with the help of a veterinary student played by Kimberly Sustad (A Bride for Christmas). It doesn’t get much cuter, or simpler, than that. But although Nine Lives of Christmas is a shabby tabby of a movie, and feels like a lot of the production was basically thrown together at the last minute, Routh and Sustad have fantastic chemistry together and make the whole film airy and cheerful.
24. Let It Snow
Candace Cameron Bure from Full House, who is in a LOT of these movies, stars as a busy business executive who doesn’t much care for snow or Christmas. But when her company acquires a family-owned ski lodge, she has to spend the holidays at their small town getaway, learning that love is more important than money, and (of course) falling in love with the rugged hunky guy, played by Jesse Hutch (Arrow). It’s even more cookie cutter than A Cookie Cutter Christmas (which didn’t make the list), but that’s what we want from a Hallmark Christmas movie. Let It Snow hits all the right beats. With a snowball.
23. 12 Gifts of Christmas
A busy businessman (Aaron O’Connell, The Haves and Have Nots) is so busy with business that he can’t make the time to buy Christmas presents. So he hires a down-on-her-luck painter, played by Katrina Law (Arrow) to buy gifts for all his friends. Along the way she teaches him the importance of giving with your heart instead of your wallet. It’s a relatively novel premise for a Hallmark Movie, with a positive message that goes a little bit beyond “Christmas is good” and “business is bad”.
22. Christmas Song
It took a surprisingly long time for Hallmark to make their own Christmas version of Glee, but it was worth the wait. Natasha Henstridge (Species) and Gabriel Hogan (Heartland) play mismatched high school music teachers – she’s a little bit classical, he’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll – who hate each other because reasons, and also because at the end of the season, only one of them will get to keep their job. Naturally it all culminates in a singing competition, but there are amusing stops along the way. Henstridge and Hogan seem to be having a lot of fun as they accidentally wind up on a blind date through an online service, and then they end up on a blind date AGAIN after they both change their profiles to make sure they don’t end up on a blind date again.
21. A Christmas Detour
A blizzard strikes the eastern seaboard and a bunch of Hallmark characters are trapped at the airport together. Candace Cameron Bure (again) is en route to see her suspiciously perfect husband, Paul Greene is the guy who didn’t want to go home for Christmas anyway (bah humbug), and Sarah Strange and David Lewis are an estranged married couple, in a rare Hallmark portrayal of married life as something other than total bliss. The protagonists are boiler plate, and sometimes even a little annoying, but Sarah Strange and Paul Greene are incredibly genuine and heart-warming, and they steal the whole movie.
20. Once Upon a Holiday
The princess of the fictional European country of Montsauri has gone AWOL in New York City! (There are a lot of fictional European countries in Hallmark movies. We’re going to run into more of them.) Briana Evigan from Step Up 2 The Streets plays the princess, Paul Campbell from Battlestar Galactica plays the hunky guy who thinks she’s a delusional vagrant, and somehow this obvious riff on Roman Holiday finds its own romantic groove.
19. Farewell Mr. Kringle
Busy reporter Christine Taylor (Zoolander) thinks that her latest assignment will be all business, but when she reports on the retirement of a small town Santa Claus, who’s been doing this for 50 years, she learns about the true meaning of small towns and Christmas and falling in love with bed-and-breakfast owners. Meanwhile, Vivica A. Fox literally phones in her whole performance as the heroine’s boss, who keeps calling from the big city. Taylor is very convincing and the film’s heart is definitely in the right place.
18. A Royal Christmas
Lacey Chabert (who, like Candace Cameron Bure, is in a lot of these things) finds out her hunky boyfriend is the crown prince of the fictional European country of Cordinia, so she spends Christmas marveling at his opulent castle and running afoul of his disapproving mother, played with despicable relish by Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). Oh, and Chabert is a struggling dress designer. That might be important later. A Royal Christmas is wish-fulfillment claptrap, but it’s SINCERE wish fulfillment claptrap, and Seymour is so danged good that you won’t care that you’ve seen it all before.
Christmas is in danger! People aren’t being festive enough! And the only way to stop it is to send a magical elf (Bailee Madison, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) to help a single mother and her young son find the yuletide spirit. There’s something infectiously ludicrous about how, with all the horror and despair going on in the world, a single mom reporter having generalized trouble connecting to her son in a small town is the cultural tipping point. Tiffani Thiessen (Beverly Hills 90201) co-stars, and for once Hallmark spent some serious money on visual effects. The city of “Northpole” is enchantingly Christmasy.
16. Just in Time for Christmas
The best of the (many) Hallmark Christmas riffs on Family Man stars Eloise Mumford (Fifty Shades of Grey) as a psychology teacher who gets the business opportunity of a lifetime, on the same night that her small town boyfriend Michael Stahl-David (The Light of the Moon) proposes to her. She can’t choose both, so a magical William Shatner shows up and rockets her into a future where she picked business over love, and reconnects with her boyfriend, who has since moved on. Also, Christopher Lloyd shows up as her grandfather, who poo-poos the whole idea of time travel. Ha ha ha. Anyway, the premise works, and the cast is uniformly great.
15. One Starry Christmas
One of the most common jokes (heck, I’ve made it several times already) is that Hallmark Christmas movies aren’t very original. But I’ll say this about One Starry Christmas: I’d never seen a romantic comedy about a Christmasy astronomer falling in love with a cowboy before. Sarah Carter (Falling Skies) plays the scientist, en route to meet her boyfriend for the holidays, who gets sidetracked with a hunky hunk. It’s amazing how just giving these stock characters unusual occupations can liven up a Hallmark movie. It’s the little things that make them magical.
14. Ice Sculpture Christmas
Ice Sculpture Christmas is a movie about ice sculptures and Christmas. But it’s an unusually good one. Rachel Boston (Witches of East End) stars as a chef who reconnects with her childhood best friend, played by David Alpay (The Mistletoe Inn), after he signs them up for an ice-sculpting contest. The only problem is… she’s competing against her new boss! Boston and Alpay are fantastic together, and the backdrop of a yuletide competition makes the film more engaging and suspenseful than most of the rest of its Hallmark ilk.
13. Marry Me at Christmas
Rachel Skarsten (Birds of Prey) owns a small town wedding dress shop, but when two young lovers want to get hitched quick, she also signs up to be their last-minute wedding planner! Oh yeah, and the bride’s brother is a famous movie star! That’s a whole lot of contrivance for just one movie, but Marry Me at Christmas makes it work. Skarsten and her co-star Trevor Donovan (90210) are exceptionally likable together, and he’s an unusually distinctive character, repeatedly trying to make his sister’s wedding more creative and elaborate than anybody else does.
12. I’m Not Ready for Christmas
It’s Liar Liar but at Christmastime. That’s it, that’s the whole premise. But it’s a good premise, and it works because I’m Not Ready for Christmas stars Alicia Witt (Twin Peaks: The Return), who may be the most charismatic star in Hallmark’s staple. She plays a busy businesswoman who lies to her family because business, and she really seems to struggle with the unexpected revelations – to her friends, family and herself – when she starts being 100% honest all the time. Also, she sings the film’s theme song, which is pretty darned catchy.
11. Crown for Christmas
It’s Maid in Manhattan but at Christmastime. Mostly. Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years) plays a lovable hotel maid who accidentally winds up impressing the crown prince of the fictional country of Winshire, and gets herself hired as the governess of his ill-behaved young daughter. Good people fall in love, stuffy people get stuffed, and everyone’s just so danged pleasant that you don’t really mind how formulaic it all is. Most of the Hallmark Christmas princess films are pretty interchangeable, and Crown for Christmas is no exception, but it’s hard to deny that it gets the formula right.
10. Christmas at Cartwright’s
Alicia Witt (again) stars as a down-on-her-luck single mom who gets a little extra help for the holidays, in the form of an angel played by the great Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride). Now she’s playing a department store Santa Claus and romancing the handsome owner of the store, who has no idea that she’s also the old Kris Kringle who he confides in over lunch. It’s actually a pretty cute premise, and – SPOILER ALERT – when the lies are ultimately revealed, it’s extremely heartwarming that the town fully embraces a woman playing Santa Claus.
9. Fir Crazy
Sarah Lancaster stars as a busy businesswoman who loses her job and is forced to take over her family’s Christmas tree lot during the busy holiday season. Along the way she runs afoul of a Grinchy department store mogul (Colin Mochrie, Whose Line Is It Anyway?) and romances a studly guy (Eric Johnson, The Knick). The change in scenery makes a lot of the familiar Hallmark Christmas clichés feel fresh, or at least freshly pine-scented, and Mochrie brings a lot more to his villain role than you might expect. Fir Crazy is fir real.
8. Hitched for the Holidays
Hitched for the Holidays would probably earn a spot on this list just for being one of the rare Hallmark Christmas movies that acknowledges the existence of Hanukkah. But on top of that, it’s probably the second best of the (many, many, MANY) “fake engagement” movies that populate this genre. Joey Lawrence (Blossom) plays a bachelor whose dying grandmother wants to see him married before she goes, so he enlists Emily Hampshire (12 Monkeys), who has a meddling mother of her own, to pretend to be his fiancée. Lawrence and Hampshire are great together and their families are brimming with humor and personality as well.
7. Charming Christmas
Busy businesswoman Julie Benz (Dexter) is the manager and soon-to-be owner of a small town department story, but she’s just to busy with business to get into the holiday spirit. All that changes when she gets roped into playing Mrs. Claus with the store’s new Santa, David Sutcliffe (Gilmore Girls), whose real name is Nick and who may turn out to be the real deal. Or maybe not. Julie Benz is particularly good here, David Sutcliffe matches her at every turn, and the strong supporting cast reminds us that there’s more going on than just the protagonist’s (rather predictable) problems.
6. Help for the Holidays
Hallmark Christmas movies don’t get sugarier than Help for the Holidays, a schmaltzy story about an elf played by Summer Glau (Firefly) who disguises herself as a nanny to bring Christmas cheer to a family torn apart by, you guessed it, business. You see, Mom and Dad are busy business people making money off the Christmas season, and their kids aren’t having any fun, and apparently that’s the worst thing happening in the world this year so they get a lot of magical assistance. Thank goodness Summer Glau is such a genuinely cheerful performer that the film overcomes its obvious flaws, and becomes a delightful (albeit somewhat guilty) pleasure.
5. A Very Merry Mix-Up
A Very Merry Mix-Up, and all the other films in our top five, are legitimately rather good movies, not just in the context of the Hallmark Christmas genre. Alicia Witt (again) is traveling to meet her fiancé’s family for the holidays, but he’s a busy businessman who gets called away on business, so she ends up traveling all by herself and accidentally spends Christmas with the wrong family. That’s actually a pretty good set-up, and the cast playfully dances around the obvious reveal as long as possible before dealing, kindly, with the emotional fallout after the big reveal. Mark Wiebe plays the hunky hunk who loves Christmas, who has to stay up all night making cookies with Alicia Witt because they both get concussions (it’s a long story), and he compliments her charismatic lead performance nicely.
4. The Mistletoe Promise
The best Hallmark Christmas fake engagement movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just makes a really good wheel. Jamie King (Sin City) and Luke Macfarlane (Killjoys) star as busy business people who have pretty good reasons for souring on the Christmas season, and who decide to pretend they’re in a romantic relationship to make it easier to navigate their many social responsibilities. Smart writing, clever dialogue and two splendid lead performances elevate a very simple premise into a movie that easily stands out from its fake engagement ilk.
3. The Mistletoe Inn
Alicia Witt (yes, again) stars as a Christmas romance novel writer – it’s a real thing – who decides to come out of her shell and finally show the world her work. So she goes to a writer’s conference and meets, bonds and explores her creativity with a fellow struggling writer, played by David Alpay (Ice Sculpture Christmas). The two leads are genuinely great together, and the film’s affection for its own genre and metatextual references to other Hallmark Christmas stories make it a real treat for anyone who genuinely loves these movies. And if you’re a writer, or any sort of artist, The Mistletoe Inn‘s themes and suggestions are truly sensitive and helpful about the process.
2. Naughty or Nice
The snarliest Hallmark Christmas movie is also one of the best. Naughty or Nice stars Hilarie Burton (One Tree Hill) as a yuletide Grinch who stumbles across Santa’s fabled list, and uses the information she gathers for her own personal gain, and to expose the misdeeds of everyone she knows. Of course, her shenanigans get out of hand, and she has a valuable lesson to learn. Another solid premise, and Naughty or Nice plays with the possibilities well, building likable relationships and telling jokes that are – unlike many Hallmark comedies (which often coast on amiability) – legitimately pretty funny. And because it’s a little more cynical than most Hallmark movies, the happy ending doesn’t feel like foregone conclusion, making the whole film very satisfying.
1. Christmas Under Wraps
Candace Cameron Bure (again) stars as a doctor fresh out of college who accidentally finds herself with only one job prospect… in a small town… in Alaska. She thinks it’s only temporary, but she finds herself increasingly charmed by this small town with weird traditions, and that would have been enough this time. Smartly written, cheerfully acted, Christmas Under Wraps is perfectly charming on the surface. The filmmakers don’t even overplay the many, many clues that something else is going on in the background, and that there may be a reason why Garland, Alaska feels so magical.
There are cleverer Hallmark Christmas movies, there are weirder Hallmark Christmas movies, but Christmas Under Wraps is the quintessential Hallmark Christmas movie. It’s everything you think of when you think about this genre, done right.
Top Photos: Hallmark / Crown Media Holdings
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.