Say you’re home for the holidays at your parents’ new house in the same old home town, sleeping in an unfamiliar living room. Say there’s not much for you to do between meals. Say the one or two high school friends you might actually want to see didn’t come home this year. Say you’re wary of going to the movies in town because the other people from high school—the ones you never want to see again in your life—are likely lurking in the concession stand line, or waiting just inside the restroom door, to assault you with awkward hello’s and how-are-you’s and did-you-hear-about-my-wedding/baby/novel/successful start-up/third advanced degree?
Say you’d rather stay in on your parent’s comfortable couch, so much more comfortable than any couch you can presently afford, and watch movies on their enormous flat-screen TV, so much more enormous and flat than any television you can presently get away with hanging on your bare, rented walls.
Say that despite your hometown agoraphobia, and the shroud of sadness and shame that inevitably descends after a few days in your hometown, you are still all about the fantasy of the hap-happiest season of all. You love Christmas, truly; the candy-coated, pine-scented, make-believedness of it all. You yearn for fantasy, for escape. You yearn for impossible scenarios with impossibly happy endings, poorly-scripted and cheaply-produced, probably filmed in Canada, preferably involving film and television stars in career shame-spirals (you can relate). You yearn for things corny and colorful to whisk you away from the dreary mundanity of everyday life. You want to go all-out, cheese-balls-to-the-wall sentimental.
Here, then. Add a little eggnog to that rum. Settle in to your corner of the couch. Turn on the flatscreen. Refer to this guide to made-for-television holiday films—with a guarantee that you will find at least one example from each genre on cable at any given time during the days surrounding Christmas—and give yourself over to the schmaltz.
THE FAITH-BASED FANTASY
Characterized by: tragedy and redemption; Scrooge-like characters rediscovering the meaning of Christmas; third-act shifts into Christian morality play.
Network(s): Ion, Lifetime, Up
The Classic: The Christmas Shoes (2002), based on the popular-among-a-certain-kind-of-Christian-moms, laughable-to-everyone-else song “The Christmas Shoes.” Rob Lowe is Robert, a beleaguered attorney whose work keeps him from engaging with his wife and daughter. Kimberly Williams is Maggie, an elementary school music teacher with a mechanic husband (complete with oil smudges and a cartoonish working-class New England accent) and a sensitive son. Watch as Kimberly Williams develops a mysterious, fatal heart condition, which she faces with dignity and grace! Watch as her precocious, sensitive boy sets out on a quest to buy her the perfect, final gift: a pair of Christmas shoes! Watch as Rob Lowe gives a master class in face-acting for television film: a closed mouth means disappointment; an open mouth means surprise! If you’ve heard the song, you know the ending, but the movie is still worth watching for the climactic, slow-motion race to give mama her special shoes before she meets Jesus tonight.
See also: The Christmas Blessing (2005), a sequel starring Neil Patrick Harris as the grown-up version of the boy from part one. I don’t want to give everything away, but yes, Virginia, there is a race-against-the-clock surprise organ donation. Plus even more of Rob Lowe’s face.
Palate cleanser: Stan Freberg’s 1958 single “Green Chri$tma$,” an indictment of holiday commercialism that makes a surprisingly poignant, and decidedly un-schmaltzy, case for the true reason for the season.
THE MATURE CHRISTMAS COURTSHIP
Characterized by: The country mouse/city mouse paradigm; redemption via charitable acts; middle-aged men and women finding love.
Network: The Hallmark Channel
The Classic: A Holiday to Remember (1995), starring Connie Sellecca and country music star Randy Travis. Divorced, beleaguered businesswoman Carolyn (Sellecca) leaves New York City for her South Carolina hometown, precocious pre-teen daughter in tow. There, she reconnects with her high-school sweetheart/former-fiance (Travis), who is now the town sheriff. He’s seen some trouble in recent years, but back in 1995, Travis was still a dreamboat. A wooden actor with terrible enunciation, but a dreamboat, nonetheless. And yes, he does sing in the film. There’s caroling. There’s a runaway orphan with a shaggy dog. There’s a climactic birthing scene. And as a special holiday bonus, there’s Rue McClanahan (may she rest in heavenly peace), chewing the low-budget scenery as a meddling but well-meaning aunt.
See also: On the 2nd Day of Christmas (1997). Pre-fame Mark Ruffalo as a mall security guard who has a Christmas Eve run-in with a beautiful shoplifter (Mary Stuart Masterson, forever Joon in our hearts) and her precocious, pickpocket niece.
Palate cleanser: “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg. Sure, it’s one of the cheesy holiday singles dominating the local lite-rock radio station every year. But it’s also more realistic take on the bittersweetness of reconnecting with an old lover, when you both “tried to reach beyond the emptiness/but neither one knew how.”
THE MAGICAL ROMANCE
Characterized by: Modern variations on A Christmas Carol and/or Groundhog Day; Santa in trouble; Santa in love; Santa in a skirt.
Network: Freeform (formerly ABC Family), Hallmark, Ion, Lifetime, literally everywhere…the Magical Holiday Romance is the most popular made-for-television holiday movie genre of all!
The Classic: Snow (2004). Tom Cavanaugh (television’s Ed; dreamboat-y in his own right) is Nick Snowden, aka Santa Claus, Jr. His sleigh is grounded when one of his reindeer, Buddy, is captured by a big-game bounty hunter. Because the sleigh won’t fly with only seven reindeer (duh), Nick has to use a magical mirror (obviously) to transport back and forth between the North Pole and Southern California, where Buddy is being held captive in a zoo (of course). But guess what: the zookeeper is a beautiful, beleaguered lady with a tragic past and a big heart, and she loves Christmas! Bobb’e Jacques Thompson of Role Models fame co-stars as the requisite precocious kid who helps Santa spring the reindeer and get the girl. The best thing about Snow is that all the performers appear to be having a genuinely good time, even when holding a one-sided conversation with a reindeer. The worst thing about Snow is that all the kissing is close-mouthed. Can’t a Santa get some tongue?
See also: 12 Dates of Christmas (2011). A truly charming entry in the “Groundhog Day but for Christmas” subgenre (see also-also 2006’s Christmas Do-Over starring Jay Mohr, and 2013’s Pete’s Christmas featuring Bruce Dern), this one stars Amy Smart as a beleaguered advertising exec in New York City whose stepmother sets her up on a Christmas Eve blind date with Zack Morris, er, Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Naturally, she hates him in at first. Naturally, they fall in love, but not before she relives the day over and over again, a magical journey triggered when a department store perfume salesperson spritzes her directly in the face.
Palate cleanser: Do you really need one? The magical romance made-for-television Christmas movie is the most wonderful made-for-television Christmas movie of all. Let yourself linger in the sickening sweetness of wintertime redemption and love. If you really must return to earth (don’t you know it’s terrifying here?), Judy Garland’s gut-wrenching rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” should do the trick. The real world is increasingly nightmarish, but we have to muddle through somehow.
To quote Dino and the Chairman of the Board, “it’s a marshmallow world in the winter.” Marshmallows are fluffy, confectionary fun, of course, but they’re also full ground-up pig skin and bovine bones. As merry and bright as this season can be, something dark lurks beneath the sweetness. You can’t avoid the darkness forever, but you can give yourself a day off.
This December, for at least an afternoon, save your cynicism and tell your refined taste to stuff it. Bury yourself in deep cable and hardcore holiday schmaltz. Will it make you feel a little dirty, a little guilty in the pleasure you take from seeing faith, love, and Santa save Christmas again and again? Sure. But you can purge the sickly-sweetness in January, when Oscar nominations are announced and you rush to see every respectable film you overlooked during the year. For now, let yourself sink into the sweet, pillowy, air-puffed nothingness of made-for-television holiday films.