I confess I’ve only come into the holiday TV movie fold within the last few years, as the advent of the gay Christmas movie spurred me to explore other classics of the genre. What one immediately discovers, when delving into these worlds of small town values overcoming big city cynicism, is that a suspension of disbelief is not just suggested but required; these movies are as much fantasies as Lord of the Rings. To hold them to the standards of reality (or even plausibility) is unfair and un-fun. It’s been a long year, and we’re looking for an escape, not an opportunity to nitpick.
That said, some of these flicks are fucking weird. Hallmark/Lifetime/BET holiday movie veterans will hardly lead you to bat an eyebrow at a wacky premise, but even still, there are examples that go above and beyond, and into explicitly whackadoo territory. This isn’t intended as a criticism, exactly. These movies aim for the lofty heights of high holiday camp, and some nearly reach it. After all, who among us hasn’t dreamed of throwing away our high-powered career in favour of a flannel-loving, TV-movie-handsome guy and a job at the…family reindeer-rendering plant? But with a literal angel or a bounty hunter or a magically animated nutcracker thrown into the mix?
I would have loved to have been in the pitch meetings for any of these movies.
Santa Jr. (2002)
Santa’s son, Chris Kringle Jr. (Nick Stabile channeling Noah Wyle), isn’t into the whole Christmas thing, which is standard for leads at the outset of these movies — they’re just normally not the offspring of mythological characters. Tasked with delivering presents on behalf of his pops, he’s arrested in a clear case of over-policing by cop Judd Nelson and, rather than being further discouraged, winds up leaning the true reason for the season with some help from a tough but helpful public defender.
Cosy casting: Night Court’s Charlie Robinson plays the judge.
Becoming Santa (2015)
There are many paths to Santa-hood, it seems. Certainly, you can rent a suit and hire yourself out to kids’ parties; you can murder the actual Santa and steal his clothes (a la The Santa Clause). Or, as depicted here, you can marry into the job. A struggling toy designer meets his girlfriend’s parents, only to discover that they’re the actual Mr. and Mrs. Claus…and that he’ll take over as Santa if and when he marries their daughter. Who, as a woman, is apparently ineligible for the job and exists solely to entrap a man who will serve as breeding stock to perpetuate the Santa line. (Don’t confuse this one with the 2011 documentary of the same name.)
Cosy casting: Mr. and Mrs. Claus are played by Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, best remembered as the Keaton parents on Family Ties.
Christmas Bounty (2013)
Coming at the tail end of the Dog the Bounty Hunter era, before it ended in lawsuits and a proliferation of racial slurs, this ABC Family movie stars Francia Raisa as an erstwhile bounty hunter trying to put her violent past behind her…but they keep pulling her back in. Persuaded to take on one final job and desperate to keep her fiancée from finding out about any of it, she compounds her poor decision-making by re-teaming with her ex-boyfriend. Christmas Booty is more like it.
Cosy casting: The WWE-produced movie stars none other than The Miz as the once and future boyfriend.
Fir Crazy (2013)
This is the incredibly, if unintentionally, dark story of a man who develops an obsession with Elise, the proprietor of a family-owned Christmas tree lot, and spends the rest of the movie stalking her relentlessly, even buying multiple Christmas trees from her, as if that isn’t a giant red flag. There’s also a whole bit about how the Christmas Tree business is in danger of shutting down if Elise can’t find the holiday spirit (and cash) to keep things going, but the tree-centric central romance definitely commands the reindeer’s share of your attention (and concern for the female lead’s safety).
Cosy casting: The Grinch-y landlord is played by Whose Line Is It Anyway’s Colin Mochrie; otherwise I have no idea who any of these people are.
A Boyfriend for Christmas (2004)
The generic title might fit almost any treacly made-for-TV holiday movie you’ve ever seen, but here it’s literal: At the age of just 13, Holly wishes for a boyfriend. For Christmas. Santa, in the universe of the film, is very real, but also garbage, in that it takes him 20 years to deliver — 20 years during which lonely, single Holly has been waiting around and hoping each year that her man will show up gift-wrapped under the tree. Until one day he does (well, he shows up on her door, at least). If a strange man shows up at your house claiming to be a gift from Santa, do not let him in under any circumstances, unless you’d like to become A Statistic for Christmas.
Cosy casting: Prolific performer Charles Durning shows up as Santa, and great actor/comedian Martin Mull plays the dad.
Holidays in Handcuffs (2007)
It’s a delightful holiday romance brought to us as a side-effect of Stockholm Syndrome. Stressed wannabe painter Trudie (Melissa Joan Hart) is so worried about impressing her parents (which involves, apparently, having literally any boyfriend) that she kidnaps a customer in her restaurant to present to her credulous family. Luckily for her, she chooses Mario Lopez, who handles the situation way better than anyone else would. When his attempts to escape from the family’s isolated winter cabin fail, he opts to play along until he can find a way to contact the police — but, of course, real love is in the air, and he soon finds himself falling for the woman who might otherwise make of him a toasty Christmas skin suit. Pitching a sequel called Holidays in Prison.
Cosy casting: Night Court’s Markie Post and The Last Picture Show’s Timothy Bottoms play the parents, while iconic TV mum June Lockhart plays the grandma.
A Carol Christmas (2003)
The premise isn’t particularly weird, given the genre, but the casting certainly is. Starring Tori Spelling as Scrooge-ish shock talk show host Carol Cartman, the title makes clear what we’re in for: Carol will be visited by spirits who will help her to see the error of her ways. And here’s where it gets a little wild: The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by late Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, Christmas Present is Star Trek’s William Shatner, and the role Christmas Future is Oscar nominee James Cromwell. Without meaning to sound as though I’m slighting the talents of those involved, there’s a real Love Boat energy here to the chaotic casting.
Cosy casting: It’s anarchy. All of it.
A Very Nutty Christmas (2018)
Psycho-sexual themes abound in this ostensibly cute movie in which baking boss and former one-time Sabrina the Teenage Witch Melissa Joan Hart invokes dark magic in order to animate her favourite wooden nutcracker to help make 15,000 Christmas cookies. Because that’s so much more reasonable than hiring seasonal staff. Naturally, romance is in the air! With the nutcracker. I can think of better inanimate objects with which to warm up my winter nights, frankly.
Cosy casting: Look for Two and a Half Men’s Conchata Ferrell.
12 Men of Christmas (2009)
The ever-delightful Kristin Chenoweth stars in and very nearly sells a movie that feels like a bunch of leftover plot points from other holiday movies were tossed in a blender with the buttered rum. Chenoweth plays tough, big city publicist E.J. Baxter who loses her job and her boyfriend at the same moment (she catches him making out with a co-worker at the office Christmas party). What else to do but take a gig doing publicity for a tiny Montana town, which for some reason involves raising money for their Search and Rescue team…by creating a TV-movie-level sexy calendar involving the members of the hottie rescue squad. One of the members of that team is the pig-headed Will (Josh Hopkins), with whom E.J. clashes, before the inevitable holiday romance. None of it makes a ton of sense, but I’ll give this one bonus points for showing some skin rather than just the traditional sweaters and flannel.
Cosy casting: E.J.’s Montana co-worker is played by Anna Chlumsky (My Girl, Veep)
Christmas Comes Twice (2020)
Holiday-movie mainstay Tamera Mowry-Housley stars as Cheryl, an astrophysicist by education who’s been stuck doing boring administration work while pining for the man who got away five years earlier. Fortunately, the holiday carnival is coming to town with a magic carousel capable of sending her back in time to fix the mistakes of Christmases past. This one stands out for its use of scientifically accurate merry-go-round-based time travel science.
Cosy casting: Sheryl Lee Ralph! Sheryl. Lee. Ralph.
Christmas 9 to 5 (2019)
When you’re a tough and respected crime reporter, what could be more natural fit for a holiday season assignment than to investigate the true meaning of Christmas? And where else but a department store could one uncover such a truth? (I suppose that Miracle on 34th Street primed us for this.) Tiya Sircar plays Jennifer, who goes undercover at Desmond’s for the absolutely bonkers assignment, and who (spoilers, I guess) thereby finds love and decides that her true calling is as a department store seasonal temp.
Cosy casting: Hey, look! There’s George Wendt of Cheers fame.
The Spirit of Christmas (2015)
Another generic title that works by turning out to be impressively literal, this one involves an actual ghost. Daniel was murdered a century ago, but fortunately is able to enlist the help of modern-day attorney Kate in solving his murder, even as she oversees the sale of the inn he’s been haunting. Naturally, they fall in love, and there’s even hope for their relationship, given that Daniel gets to be corporeal for a couple weeks a year for some reason, and right around the holidays at that. It’s like Brigadoon but with ghost sex.
Cosy casting: Good luck identifying anyone.
Christmas Déjà Vu (2021)
Amber Riley plays a George Bailey type whose her life is not going great; when she hits rock bottom, an angel grants her dearest wish: to become a gospel singer. This one’s genuinely fun, but anyone who’s wished to magically, instantaneously be transformed into a music star knows that it happens only rarely.
Cosy casting: Several recognisable faces here, with Loretta Devine’s the most prominent.
Dear Santa (2011)
Jason Priestley (of 90210 infamy) directs this Lifetime movie about a young woman (Amy Acker) who gets an ultimatum from her ultra-rich parents: get serious about your life or we’ll cut you off. What to do but engage in some perfectly charming holiday fraud? She happens upon a letter to Santa from a seven-year-old girl asking for a new wife for her widowed father; what could possibly be more reasonable than to pretend to be Santa’s gift in response? After all, the widower owns his own business and runs a soup kitchen for the homeless, so ingratiating herself into such a family will be a sure path into her parent’s good graces.
Cosy casting: You’ll know star Amy Acker from genre favourites Angel, Alias, and Person of Interest.
The March Sisters at Christmas (2012)
The pitch here is simple: Take the core characters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, stick them in an explicitly Christmas-themed movie, and bring them into the modern era via frequent Twitter references. Except for that last bit, it’s not a terrible idea, and the movie is fairly faithful (in spirit) to the source material. But some of the updates are on the weird side, including Jo’s job as a celebrity ghost-tweeter and a central plot point involving a social media misunderstanding. All that stuff dates the movie far more than any of the period trappings in more conventional Alcott retellings.
Cosy casting: Jo actress Julie Berman won three Daytime Emmys for the role of Lulu Spencer on General Hospital.
Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014)
Lifetime got into the Grumpy Cat (RIP) business big-time with this one, in which Aubrey Plaza plays the frowny cat who, after being repeatedly passed over at the pet store, discovers she can magically communicate with a young girl named Crystal. The two team up to rescue a kidnapped dog from the store in a surprisingly action-packed adventure. It’s simultaneously not nearly enough plot and an awful lot of plot for a movie built around a cat whose whole thing was just looking kinda pissed off.
Cosy casting: Letterkenny’s Tyler Johnston puts in an appearance.
A Bramble House Christmas (2017)
When a dying father leaves the family inheritance to his nurse, the family gets suspicious and his son travels to Bramble, Oregon to recover the $US100,000 ($138,820) in question. Naturally, romance is soon in the frosty air, and we learn that it was all an elaborate plot from beyond the grave, and that the son was disinherited precisely so that he’d come and marry the nurse he’d never met. Which is, of course, “charming” and “delightful,” not “cruel” or “an arguable case of elder financial exploitation.”
Cosy casting: Stargate and Cedar Cove alum Teryl Rothery plays the perfectly named Mable Bramble.
The titular city of Northpole is a bustling metropolis (well, a TV movie budget-level metropolis) that’s home to Santa, Mrs. Claus, all the elves…and possibly Jesus? We don’t get to see the whole thing. Regardless: it’s dying. Powered not by fossil fuels but by the spirit of Christmas, things there are going downhill fast. Fortunately there’s at least one kid who understands that the holiday (and the city) can be saved if only he can convince his teacher to make a move on his mum. Hook-ups being, of course, the reason for the season.
Cosy casting: It’s TV and movie favourites all the way down: Robert Wagner, Jill St. John, Dermot Mulroney, Saved by the Bell/90210 alum Tiffani Thiessen, and beloved fraudster Lori Loughlin.
Poinsettias for Christmas (2018)
Low-stakes is the name of the game with these movies. We’re here to chill out for the holidays, not deal with world-shattering consequences. Even in that vein, though, the problem faced here is pretty chill. A woman is forced to return to her hometown (of course) to figure out why the poinsettias on the family farm aren’t turning quite the shade of red that people kinda like. Turns out (spoiler!) tall buildings are blocking the starlight that makes them thrive, which may or may not reflect current scientific thinking on plant coloration.
Cosy casting: NYPD Blue alum Sharon Lawrence; Dukes of Hazzard/Smallville star John Schneider.
A Karate Christmas Miracle (2019)
Buckle up, this one’s quite a ride: After a kid’s father disappears during a mass shooting on Christmas Day (you heard me), the boy comes up with a list of things that he can personally do to ensure that his dad will return the following Christmas, one of which involves becoming a karate blackbelt. If you think that the natural lesson here would be about grief and acceptance, you are a fool and a Christmas movie neophyte. It’s actually about how you can absolutely bring your dad back from the dead if you’re just willing to work hard enough at karate.
Cosy casting: Cobra Kai’s rugged sensei Martin Kove is the perfect seasoning here.
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