David Gowan, 30, has long been known to bust out his favorite Christmas movies a little on the early side, often just before Thanksgiving. “Elf.” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” “Christmas With the Kranks.” But in 2020, he pulled the trigger much earlier than even he expected. The instructional-support teacher who lives by himself in Jamestown, N.Y., was home channel-surfing on a Tuesday night when he unexpectedly took in his first Hallmark Channel holiday movie of the year. It was July 28.
Gowan can’t remember the name of the movie he landed on that night, but he remembers it involved a guy losing his job, moving from the big city back to his quaint hometown and falling in love with a beautiful woman who owns a bookshop (not terribly helpful as a search filter, it turns out). Gowan also remembers the movie was an excellent distraction from his real life. He wasn’t working at the time. He was bored and stressed staying home alone. Outside, the country was in the grip of a deadly pandemic.
“Christmas movies just bring that warm feeling,” he said. In such a tense time, “seeing happy movies just helps.”
In 2020, a year when an alarmingly small number of things are normal, Christmas movies are affecting viewers and would-be viewers in unusual ways. Over the many months of pandemic-related chaos and isolation, some people have made holiday movies their anytime movies, with their low stakes, guaranteed tidy and hopeful endings, and ability to make staying indoors seem appealingly cozy. Meanwhile, in a season when festive family gatherings are discouraged, others have found that watching holiday movies is a more bittersweet experience than usual.
Nicole Sunderland, a 36-year-old travel blogger and influencer based in Alexandria, Va., got an even earlier start on the holiday-movie season than Gowan did: When she had to abruptly stop traveling the globe in March, she found comfort in old favorites such as “Bad Santa” and “Mixed Nuts.” As the year wore on and she felt more and more distressed by the worsening pandemic and the tumultuous presidential election, she kept returning to them.
At this point, Sunderland estimates she has watched Netflix’s 2018 original “The Holiday Calendar” between 15 and 20 times. “Christmas is my happy place,” she said.
Screenwriter Karen Schaler — who has earned the nickname “Christmas Karen” by writing two Lifetime Christmas movies, a Hallmark Christmas movie and the 2017 Netflix hit “A Christmas Prince,” as well as multiple Christmas novels — isn’t surprised by this trend. Holiday movies aren’t their own genre just because they take place during holidays, she pointed out: They also contain uplifting messages about “honoring our family, our friends, our faith, our community.”
Screenwriters have long understood that people crave from entertainment the emotions they aren’t getting from the real world, Schaler added. “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes has said that after the Obama administration ended and the more unpredictable Trump administration took over in 2017, the appetite for the show’s suspenseful story lines about turmoil in Washington waned.
Schaler has seen firsthand how pop-culture appetites have changed in 2020. She said she faced pressure not to release her new Christmas book, “Christmas Ever After,” because of the pandemic but decided to publish it independently in response to requests from readers.
“My fans were reaching out basically saying ‘Please, please, please, please — we need something,’ ” Schaler said. “ ‘We need it. We need something happy.’ ”
But for some, the standard holiday plotlines — family bonding and stroke-of-midnight romance — can be difficult to watch once the viewer realizes that, this year, they can’t do any of that. For example, in “Holidate,” a new Netflix offering, two strangers connect in a bustling mall and decide to spend New Year’s Eve together in a crowded club. Nowadays, two singles might strike up a conversation on the street, but they’ll be able to see only one another’s eyes and foreheads. A successful chat might lead to a Skype date but definitely not to a night of dancing in close quarters with hundreds of strangers.
Francis Ferdinand, a 25-year-old woman in Dallas, was watching “Holidate” last week when it struck her that she would be alone for the holidays. “It was definitely something I haven’t been thinking about because my mind’s been consumed with 2020,” Ferdinand said. “Overall I enjoyed the movie, but it hit a lot harder with some of the tropes that you wouldn’t think about as much if you’re with friends and family.”
Some of those tropes include: The hubbub, the arguing, maybe the burning of a turkey and always the prying into single relatives’ love lives. “When I go home, things are definitely chaotic,” Ferdinand said of her big Italian family in Rhode Island. And they’ll usually ask: Who are you dating? Are you bringing anyone special home? “This year it’s like: ‘No, I haven’t gone on a date. I’ve been locked in my apartment,’ ” Ferdinand said. In June, she moved from the East Coast to Dallas, where she doesn’t know many people, and will be cooking holiday dishes solo and re-watching favorites like “White Christmas.”
There are a handful of holiday films that feel in sync with our times. Two strangers corresponding over the Internet in “You’ve Got Mail” with no idea that they’re business rivals. Or this year’s Netflix holiday-themed darling “Dash & Lily,” about two teenagers who write to one another, complete dares and solve puzzles in a notebook they pass off to each other without meeting.
Series creator Joe Tracz said that when the cast and crew were filming in New York in late 2019, they were wondering: “Will people buy that two people can have a connection when they’re not in person?” This year has shown that the answer is “absolutely yes.” And the series has an unexpected lesson for 2020: Even while physically separated, he said, “you can still have connections that are meaningful.”
From the first episode, the lead characters are gearing up to spend Christmas largely alone: Dash by choice and Lily by circumstance. It’s a plot point that hit Tracz hard. A year ago, Tracz’s own family had planned to do a big Christmas in New York for 2020. “And then, obviously, as the year went on, it became clear that wasn’t going to be happening,” Tracz said. “I really felt that I was in Lily’s shoes, realizing that the plans you make to be with your family — sometimes life intervenes.”
For some viewers, watching experiences they won’t have is a way of bringing a small degree of normal into 2020. Felicia Felton, a 41-year-old writer in Los Angeles, watches holiday rom-coms all year round because she writes these kinds of screenplays — and this year was no exception. “It makes me feel like I’m going to get through whatever I’m doing: with work or no work, or dreams I’m going after,” Felton said.
Come holiday time, these movies are some of the only traditions she’ll get to maintain. Whereas last year, she went to tree lighting, had celebratory dinners and activities with friends, this year her plan is to “decorate my house, sleep, watch Christmas movies, watch Christmas movies, watch Christmas movies,” Felton said.
“I’m probably going to be crying a little,” she added. “It’s going to hit me a little bit more than normal.”