Some years ago, my partner's father, a man then in his 70s and a lifelong Republican, told me he'd given up Fox News. In the past, Fox had struck him as a useful conservative alternative to CNN. Now it was the opposite of conservative. He couldn't vote for Trump, and he wouldn't watch Fox for the same reason: too decadent, illogical, tawdry.
Had he gone back to CNN? I asked. No, he said. The Hallmark Channel.
Thus began my fascination with all things Hallmark. It turns out the 70-something devotee of the channel was avant-garde. Old, young; left, right: Everyone loves the Hallmark Channel now. It's always in the top five most-watched cable channels during the holiday season, and in mid-November the channel estimated that nearly 36 million viewers had already watched at least part of one of its Christmas movies.
Sure, you may never give the channel a thought, and the word "Hallmark" has long been a byword for greeting-card sappery. But sappery may be what we need now. As negotiators between warring parties can tell you, sometimes only a third way will do, and that third way might not be a political compromise so much as a shared meeting place where we might let our hearts be light. Picture an old inn or a frosty skating rink or maybe a gazebo, warmly lighted and adorned with holly. A red scarf. Hot cocoa. Let's all meet there.
What a relief. Even those of us who embrace political discussion complain that tempers in the U.S., including our own, are too high. Meditation apps are handy. But nothing cools the American nervous system like our most treasured cliches: that the little guy can win out over the unjust corporation or the bigoted institution. That even a closed heart can be unlocked by love.
Proof of Hallmark's soothing power shows up right from the opening scene of "A Majestic Christmas," which I watched last week: The contemporary streets of New York are bustling with maskless shoppers in a normal December.
All our 2020 troubles are instantly far away. But of course there's still a quaint setback or two in the cards for the heroine, Nell Harper (Jerrika Hinton of "Grey's Anatomy" ), a high-profile interior designer at work saving a historic theater from conversion into a multiplex.
Nell is a sweetheart surrounded by cynics. When she first meets the love interest, theater owner Connor (the dancer Christian Vincent), he falsely accuses her of stealing. The street exchange could turn heated in a 2020 key, but Nell, who never stops twinkling, ends up merely encouraging Connor to have a little faith in his fellows.
Nell and Connor are both Black, and this movie is among the first Hallmark holiday films to feature Black actors as romantic leads. But race is not a theme here; that would be beyond the ideological skills of Hallmark. Instead, the salient distinction among characters is the same in all the Hallmark holiday movies. Connor, in his words, is "not a Christmas person." Twinkling Nell is. On this, Connor — like all of the initially stone-hearted non-Christmas people in Hallmarkland — is going to have to give.
These movies are not in any sense progressive. They take a folksy, anti-corporate approach to social divisions that imagines America as a place of earnest citizens making subtle, good-natured moral adjustments to present reality. And don't forget about that emotional growth: Every heart in every one of these films grows three sizes.
But none of these sweet films walls out modern life altogether, and among Hallmark's favorite scenarios are Sharks-Jets couples facing discrimination; workaholic women making room for love; and demoralized female artists rediscovering inspiration. In this generous wonderland, humans with their goofy humor and big hearts always win against the unfeeling jerks out to crush us.
These movies are to Fox News what scalloped potatoes are to Pop Rocks soaked in Red Bull and PCP. A balm.
Michelle Vicary, executive vice president at the Hallmark Channel's parent company, recently cited "warmth and positivity, meaningful connections, family gatherings, and seasonal traditions" as the Christmas movies' "winning formula … at the end of a tough year."
Hear, hear. I'm now a full-blown Hallmark fan; my cynicism is gone. I officially join the likes of cyberwarfare expert Molly McKew, who knows the Hallmark filmography inside and out, and lefty journalist and sportswriter David J. Roth, who likes Hallmark movies so much he started an affectionate podcast about them called "It's Christmastown."
But I'm especially happy to get to trade notes with Alana Newhouse, the founder and editor of the American Jewish magazine Tablet and devoted Hallmark fan. Her favorite this year is "Christmas in Evergreen: Bells Are Ringing" because it shows moving scenes between the heroine and her mother. Alana is Jewish, but she has always loved Christmas; walking around with her son in Brooklyn one Christmas Eve, she told me, she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the churches with their open doors.
Alana is also my kids' stepmother. Yes, you read that right. My friend married my ex-husband and, after a short period of adjustment, we joined forces to create a new version of family. We're now closer than ever. We trade gifts at Hanukkah and Christmas, and we share sentimental movies about good people overcoming personal obstacles to find happiness.
It's a very Hallmark kind of love.
Virginia Heffernan is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.