Phylis Mitchell is a woman who is transformed, through the magic of the holidays, into a drill sergeant. Early on in The Christmas House, an already classic Hallmark rom-com, she enlists her husband and two adult sons in her mission to revive an old family tradition: creating the aggressively festive home that gives the movie its title. Phylis (played by Sharon Lawrence) devotes herself to the cause with comic zeal. At one point, a whistle around her neck and a clipboard in her hand, she reminds one of her conscripts that “that garland’s not gonna fluff itself.” At another, she yells at her nearest and dearest: “Now get out there and make Christmas happen!”
The Christmas House is in most ways typical of the holiday movies churned out by the Hallmark Channel and many (many!) other networks this time of year. It is set in a mostly white and vaguely upper-class town; it is by turns campy and self-serious; its plot is propelled by the notion that a skewed world might be righted—estranged couples reconciled, professional setbacks overcome, joys reclaimed—through the magic of Christmas. But The Christmas House is also notably different from its fellow films in its outspoken concern for garlands that need fluffing and trees that need trimming. The Christmas House is a story, fundamentally, about anti-magic. It is about all the work that is required to make Christmas happen.
Holiday rom-coms are popular for many reasons. They layer their cheese with more skill than a Neapolitan pizzaiolo. Their plots are soothingly predictable. But I’d argue for another explanation. The films’ core audience is women. And for many women, the holidays may involve joy and togetherness—but also a lot of work. Cooking. Cleaning. Baking. Hosting. Card sending. Gift buying. Gift wrapping. All of it on top of life’s more evergreen demands. Holiday rom-coms, by contrast, are distinctly effort-free zones. Their sets sparkle with lights hung by unseen hands; their mugs of whipped-cream-crowned cocoa are not made so much as they materialize; their lush trees shed no needles. The presence of a vacuum in these movies would be a betrayal of trust. Work, in their worlds, is studiously expunged. The Christmas House, which treats the holiday season as a labor of love, is an exception that highlights the rule: The ultimate fantasy these rom-coms are selling is not the possibility of romance. It is the possibility of relief from the man-made magic of Christmas.
Phylis, at the outset of The Christmas House, provides her family with a detailed checklist of all they must accomplish before they can alchemize architecture into holiday cheer. The work involves the installation of animatronics, multiroom trains, outdoor lighting, and indoor snow. She illustrates her plans with the help of 3-D renderings streamed to the TV. On-screen, digital snowmen emerge in the yard. Ornaments drop from the ceiling. Trees—several of them—spring, fully formed, from the floor.
Her sons, Mike (Robert Buckley) and Brandon (Jonathan Bennett), nod along, amused and resigned. Jake (Brad Harder), Brandon’s husband, is eager to help but dubious about the projected complexity of it all. “You really think it’s gonna take all of us two weeks to put this together?” he asks earlier. Phylis’s sons smile. He has no idea. Soon, the cartons and crates and ladders appear. The house looks like a construction zone. Movers are called. Trucks are involved. Phylis was not messing around. “We’ve got a heck of a task ahead of us,” she tells her familial foremen—“and it’s gonna take a strong will and a mighty heart to get it all done.”
Compare all that with … pretty much any other holiday rom-com on offer right now. Among all the tropes at play in these films—big-city career women who have lost their way; protagonists with names like Holly and Carol; princes set to inherit the throne of a small European nation—one tends to be a constant among them: magic. Not the magic of Santa or elves, but the more generalized enchantments of what Umberto Eco called hyperreality. Everything in these movies is brighter than bright, warmer than warm, merrier than merry. note: I Don’t Want To Be Alone Movie Full Version