You’re likely seen the memes: A collage of posters for a bunch of Hallmark Christmas movies, all of them featuring nearly identical images of blonde white women and brown-haired white men in variations of red and green sweaters. As a brown-haired white man with an acting background, I do not think it is bad that these movies exist or that you, perhaps, enjoy them. But maybe there’s also room for something…different?
The assumption that only a narrow (white, straight) audience would be interested in goofy holiday romances during the dark winter months was always fundamentally wrong. Yet only recently have the networks and streaming services — which put out dozens of these things every year — started to pepper the mix with more movies featuring diverse casts and themes. This will only increase their audience; last year brought us several queer-friendly variations, and I can’t be the only one who gave the entire genre a second look once they felt like they I’d at last been invited to the incredibly dorky party.
Hallmark, Lifetime, et al. still have a long way to go (movies representing non-Christmas holidays, for example, are extremely limited in number, and most of those are still Christmas-centric). But it’s still worth celebrating the recent progress: Here are 16 diverse (in different senses of the term) holiday romances worth watching.
Wrapped Up in Christmas (2017)
The one where Tatyana Ali teaches Jackée the true meaning of Christmas at the mall. With her grinch of a boss (Jackée Harry) looking over her shoulder, shopping centre manager and Christmas-lover Heather (Ali) has no choice but to shut down a beloved but poorly performing toy store. Enter new love interest Ryan, who just happens to be the nephew of the woman who runs the toy store. The predecible story that follows is charming and silly in all the right ways, even if the store that everyone’s so desperate to save only stocks the kind of boring off-brand toys that literally zero kids will be asking for.
Part of the fun of these things is playing spot-the-celebrity — very often a TV or soap star having some fun during the off season. Here we’ve got a heap: there’s Ali (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Young and the Restless), Kim Fields (The Facts of Life, Living Single), Jasmine Guy (A Different World, Dead Like Me), Brenden Fehr (Roswell), Mindy Sterling (Austin Powers, The Goldbergs), and, of course, the legendary Jackée (227, Days of Our Lives), who spices up any holiday party.
A Sugar & Spice Holiday (2020)
As with so many of these movies, this one begins with a busy big-city go-getter returning to her hometown. Here, it’s Suzie (Jacky Lai), off to Maine to spend Christmas with her Chinese-American family. She’s quickly guilted into taking her late grandmother’s place in the annual, and all-important, gingerbread house competition. Fortunately, she won’t have to do it alone — teaming up with an old friend from high school (Tony Giroux) who got kinda hot in the years since they’d seen each other. The movie deals, gently, with cultural traditions and stereotypes, so, though the set-up is fairly stock, the plot wisely acknowledges that non-white characters may well have different experiences of the holidays.
Billed as the first cosy Christmas movie with a mostly Asian cast and crew, it’s both a timely sign of progress and a reminder that there’s still plenty of room for growth in the genre (and the industry). It came out last year.
Happiest Season (2020)
This was the big one in 2020: a splashy Christmas comedy with big names that sits somewhere on the border between Lifetime/Hallmark-style Christmas movie traditional rom-com. The talk about queer-friendly holiday movies all centered around this one, with a marquee cast (Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, etc.) lending a fairly standard meet the parents/lesbian coming out romance some real cred.
Where to stream: Foxtel Go
A New York Christmas Wedding (2020)
If Christmas movies are to be believed, we’re all destined for a reckoning over our life choices involving either a friendly angel or some scary ghosts. In this spin on It’s a Wonderful Life, a woman gets a chance to reimagine life if she’d pursued a relationship with her childhood best friend, Gabrielle. A queer Black woman leading a largely Latinx and Black cast is unique in the field, and there’s plenty of holiday charm here — not to mention some jaw-droppingly wild plot twists that may well have you howling with laughter when you’re meant to be sobbing. Which is very much my idea of a good time at the movies, but your mileage may vary.
Where to stream: Netflix
Dashing in December (2020)
The set-up here is so wonderfully typical — big city investment banker Wyatt Burwall (Y&R’s Peter Porte) returns home to convince his mother (Andie MacDowell) it’s time to sell the family’s money-losing Colorado ranch. A ranch best-known for its over-the-top Winter Wonderland attractions, of course. But a new romance is in the offing for Wyatt, one that will force him to reevaluate his parsimonious obsession with “profit” and “not going bankrupt.” What’s unique here is the love-interest…dashing and folksy ranch hand Heath Ramos (Juan Pablo Di Pace), who could honestly make just about anybody rethink their whole entire scene.
It’s smart that openly gay actors have been given the lead roles here, as they have in most of the other recent queer TV holiday movies. I don’t have strong feelings about straight actors playing gay for the most part, but it’s important that this first generation of films gets it the representation right.
Where to stream: Paramount+
Mistletoe & Menorahs (2019)
Hard-driving toy designer Christy is determined to impress her potential Jewish client David that she’s the right woman for the job. She enlists the help of Jewish history teacher Jonathan who (can you believe it?) needs to learn all about Christmas to impress the family of his new girlfriend. And they have just eight days to learn each other’s wild traditions! It’s extremely silly that Christy knows nothing about Hanukkah, and even sillier that Jonathan somehow never learned anything about Christmas — but it’s all thoroughly well-intentioned, and hopefully a good step toward representing different faith and holiday traditions in these movies without being quite so on-the-nose.
Christmas Ever After (2020)
Disability representation is another new frontier in made-for-TV holiday movies (it’s not stellar across media more generally). Tony winner (and wheelchair user) Ali Stoker plays Izzi, a novelist with writer’s block who finds inspiration — and romance! — at a snowbound B&B. The tone is one of complete acceptance, with almost no discussion of the character’s disability, and accessibility treated as the norm. There’s a bit of a fantasy in that aspect of it, but it’s a dream worth having.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)
This one’s a little different, both in style and in pedigree. It’s a straight-up fantasy (rather than the more traditional romantic variety) with a toymaker inventing a living matador fighting for his right to individuality. The pedigree includes playwright David E. Talbert in the director’s chair and a nearly all-Black cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, and Anika Noni Rose, all having a lot of fun in the colourful (and musical!) adventure.
Where to stream: Netflix
The Christmas House (2020)
This was Hallmark’s first-ever LGBTQ+ -friendly holiday movie, released all the way back in…2020. In the charitable spirit of the season, we’ll applaud the network for finally getting around to inviting the gays over for Christmas (as if straight people even watch these movies). Just the year before, the network came under fire for bowing to pressure and pulling a series of wedding commercials that included a pair of kissing brides, so we’ll consider this cute movie, about a Christmas family gathering including a gay couple waiting for word on a planned adoption, an apology. The Christmas House 2: Deck Those Halls is coming later in December of this year.
Feliz NaviDAD (2020)
Like approximately 40% of protagonists at the outset of these holiday movies, David Morales (Mario Lopez) hates Christmas. The high school principal, widower, and single dad moonlights as a delivery driver during the season just to avoid having anything to do with yuletide cheer. His meddling family and the quirky musician on his route are all determined to make sure that he gets somma dat sweet holiday spirt…and also a girlfriend.
Let It Snow (2019)
Not to be confused with Hallmark’s 2013 Let It Snow, which is also a Christmas movie but not particularly (or at all) diverse. Nor is this isn’t the 2020 snowboarding horror movie of the same name — not much margin for error when you’re hunting for this one, being the point. Based on a novel by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle that intertwines three distinct stories, the movie involves a large and diverse cast of characters figuring into holiday romances both straight and gay, all taking place in the same small town.
Where to stream: Netflix
The Christmas Setup (2020)
The innovation here is, obviously, that the Canadian-American production involves actors of mixed nationalities involved in a highly taboo Canadian/American romance. They’re also, very charmingly, husbands in real life. Ben Lewis plays a hard-driving business something-or-other who returns home to visit his energetic, meddling mum (Fran Drescher) and meets Blake Lee, who forces him to reconsider an upcoming transfer to the London office while encouraging him to fight to save a local landmark. It’s all deeply cute.
Where to stream: Foxtel Go
Operation Christmas Drop (2020)
Congressional aide Erica Miller (Kat Graham) drops everything for a mission to visit a beachside Air Force base — and find reasons to defund it. She clashes with the studly pilot assigned to escort her around, who is particularly involved in one of the base’s pet projects: an annual airdrop of supplies and gifts to various Micronesian Islands. You know where this is all going, but that’s part of the fun.
Where to stream: Netflix
You Light Up My Christmas (2019)
Kim Fields (The Facts of Life, Living Single) returns to her hometown to discover that her family’s Christmas Light Factory is on its last legs (the idea of an American company making Christmas lights in the US in 2019 is probably the most fantastical of any of the films on this list). Which is as good a set-up for one of these movies as you’re likely to find. Adrian Holmes plays love interest Ben, and Fields’ Facts of Life costars pop in to help save the business, and Christmas.
Ghosting: The Spirit of Christmas (2019)
It’s a little hard to take the movie’s don’t-text-and-drive message too seriously, given the charmingly comedic repercussions for our lead character, who is killed at the outset — but this one came out around the same time as Last Christmas, so it was a good year for absolutely bonkers holiday movies. Turns out, she had unfinished business with the guy whose text caused the crash, and she enlists her best friend to help her deal with it. Not only does the movie feature a cast that’s largely Black and Asian-American, there’s also a gay subplot. (Seriously, though, don’t text and drive.)
Merry Liddle Christmas (2019)
Kelly Rowland produced and stars in the first of what became a series (the third was just released), making her the head of the Christmas movie equivalent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, she plays Jacquie Liddle, a tech entrepreneur who’s got it all together until her incredibly messy family shows up for Christmas. Still, she’s determined to put together a marketing video that shows her vision of a perfect Christmas, which goes about as well as you can imagine. Complicating things further is her hot new neighbour Tyler. Like Jacquie herself, the whole movie is a bit more impressively put together than the standard quickie Christmas movie, with a competence and charm that’s made those sequels welcome indeed.