My family has a fun game we like to play around the holidays — we call it “Guess the Hallmark Movie Plot.” The game is quite easy to win, and we’re rather amused when we guess correctly. If you guess that the big-city, career-oriented character will fall for the small-town, community-centered yet emotionally-guarded character, you are probably right. Bonus points if you correctly identify how they will find a missing festive family relic or what cookie they’ll bake while discussing the impact of a deceased loved one.
My family is not alone in our viewership of Hallmark movies — in fact, in this last month, the Hallmark Channel had three movies amass over 3 million viewers during their live debut. With their soothing and sentimental storylines featuring goofy yet good-hearted characters, plus nary a mention of Covid, Hallmark has cracked the 2021 holiday entertainment code. The movies always end well with characters finding solutions to their problems and even getting a smooch along the way. And while the plot points are easy to predict and some scripts are cringeworthy, it’s not only true that I can’t stop watching Hallmark movies, but I don’t want to, either.
It’s unquestionably cooler to be the kind of person who exclusively listens to Sufjan Stevens’ “Christmas Songs” and only watches the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And it’s certainly more theologically correct to be the kind of person who leans wholeheartedly into the melancholy longing of Advent instead of pining for a Hallmark kind of holiday. But I am must admit that I’d rather have a Hallmark Holiday than the kind of Christmas that Covid has forced us all to confront. This Christmas, I felt that sentiment like never before.
In the days leading up to this Christmas, I felt like I was experiencing my own version of a Hallmark Holiday. One night, I walked my golden retriever into the center of my small college town, where laughing families from my church skated on the free ice rink the city installed. I bought vintage Christmas vinyls at the record store and played them while wrapping presents. I made and delivered cookies to my friends, then hosted a guest for an everything-from-scratch dinner. But the next day I woke up to a text from my dinner guest — “Hey, I tested positive this morning.” Then my nephew was exposed. Next we canceled plans to gather with my other brother and his wife and baby — too risky. Covid for Christmas was not a plot point I saw coming.
After waiting 5 days and experiencing the Christmas miracle of finding an available rapid test kit, I tested negative for Covid and was able to go to my parents’ home. I was glad to avoid the kind of Christmas that would force me to confront the disappointment of spoiled plans, unwanted illness, and a whole lot of loneliness. My holiday was spared. Or so I thought.
The day after Christmas, it was time to drive my grandma home. Having her with us for the holiday was easy — she is incredibly kind and generous with her smiles and encouraging words. Oh, and she loves Hallmark movies, too. But as my mom and I got her settled back into her home, a lump began to form in my throat. It was the bedroom closet with only one set of clothes. The fridge plastered with photos from many years ago. The post-it note reminders of how to fix the bandages. The portrait she keeps on her bedside table. The ring she wears on a gold chain around her neck. As I hugged my grandma goodbye and got in the car to drive home, I put dropped my head and began to cry. Nothing about it felt like a Hallmark Holiday.
At that moment after dropping off my grandma, my manufactured holiday happiness began to unravel within me. In its place was an ache that comes from being together. Being together at the holidays means being privy to the pang of watching someone we love not have their beloved beside them anymore. It means reckoning with your own impatience and seeing that grace in practice is much easier to read about than actually live out. It means realizing that death will come for us one day, too. A real Christmas almost never looks like the movies. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes wish that life would play out like the tidy, happy trajectory of a Hallmark script.
Unlike a Hallmark script, the plot points of this life are not easy to guess, and conflicts are rarely solved in a neat, ninety-minute timeframe. Not every small business can be saved by a wayward child who decides it’s time to move home. Grief isn’t a distant memory casually confronted over a cup of hot cocoa. Loneliness isn’t solved by a rousing neighborhood snowball fight. If my experience with real-life Christmas has taught me anything, it’s that life is so, so beautiful and so, so hard.
In a December 23rd article by Peter Wehner, professor and author Kate Bowler is quoted as saying this about Christmas:
Jesus’ tender birth and violent death leave the problem of suffering unanswered until the end of days. We must learn to live and die in the not-yetness of suffering and empire, fear and uncertainty. But our questioning hearts in the face of evil is not an affront to faith. Jesus simply says: Wait. All will be revealed.
Christmas marks Christ’s first coming, and the practices of Advent serve to remind us that he will come again. But what are we to do while we wait? Well, some of us watch Hallmark movies. I’m tempted to label our Hallmark movie-watching as a sort of blue pill pacification, but I think there’s something more to it. And this something, I would argue, is what Paul Zahl spoke about in “The Age Issue” of the latest The Mockingbird magazine. Speaking to Mockingbird’s Todd Brewer, P.Z. said this:
So then I’m in the hospital myself a few months ago — I mean, I’m much better now, but there was a real low point when all I wanted was for Mary to hold my hand. I didn’t want prescriptions, I didn’t even want anything read to me, because I was so sick that I couldn’t even take in information, good as it is, and Mary happened to be there, and she did hold my hand, and I was struck: Oh my gosh, this is the only thing that I actually, consciously want. So what does that say? That says that while many other things pass away, something that endures to the absolute end of bodily life is the desire, the need, to be physically touched by a person who loves you, not somebody who hates you. That seems to be something.
I think we watch Hallmark movies because they have that something that P.Z. is speaking about. Yes — Hallmark’s brand of stories are sappy, but they also seem to get at a universal feeling of longing, specifically the longing for our stories to end with the ones we love by our side. So though we’re all haunted by heartache and disillusioned by death, we can’t keep ourselves from being drawn towards stories about love, even cheesy ones. As much as we can pretend we’re fine all on our own, we’re designed to be loved. We’re not designed to endure the suffering, fear, and uncertainty of this life all alone. We want a witness to our Christmas tears.
As I dropped my grandma off in her empty home after Christmas, I had to reckon with the fact that there will not always be someone to hold my hand through every hard moment of life. My Hallmark husband hasn’t turned up yet, and it could be that he never will. For my grandma, her husband of 70 years has been gone for over two years, and my grandma has learned to live without him. Life and love are broken and beautiful things, lonely and lovely experiences. How are we to endure them? I see in my grandma an answer to this question, an answer that Hallmark movies cannot always include in their scripts. We endure the tender and violent parts of life with the hard-wrought hope of Christ.
I have seen my grandma lean into this hope most through her own experience of loss. While my grandma is one of the most cheerful people you could meet, she is also a woman who has lived a life that I imagine was full of questions, too. Questions like: why is my son an alcoholic? Why did my father never get to know my children? Why did my husband of 70 years have to die right before an isolating pandemic began? I’ve never heard my grandma ask these questions, but if she has, her questioning has not been an affront to her lifelong faith. Hers is a faith that took her to Brazil as a missionary when she was in her twenties and that same faith still sustains her in her nineties. It’s a faith that dares to question and dares to hope; it’s what helps her believe Jesus when he says: “Wait. All will be revealed.”
In my grandma, I see a woman who knows how to wait well. She isn’t pining for the past or longing for a new love to come and hold her hand. She is taking German lessons so she can talk to her granddaughter’s German boyfriend in case he comes to visit. She is making cards on her Hallmark Greetings desktop computer program for the bus driver who passes by her house. She is changing her bandages as the post-it note directs. And to me, “that seems to be something.”
Right now, we are all in our own time of waiting, in a period of not-yetness. It is the week after Christmas, and a new year is fast approaching. As one year ends and a new one begins, we all have questions that remain unanswered and uncertainties that exist. We reflect back on times this year when we tried to walk in the way of Christ yet still stumbled. How we searched for truth and yet still struggle with doubts. How we sobbed on Christmas Day.
“So what does that say?” as Paul Zahl asked. What do our feelings of post-holiday melancholy suggest, our craving to become characters in a Hallmark movie reveal? Well, I think it reveals our desire and our need for the enduring love of Christ. Living a life of faith in Christ does not guarantee that our stories will end as happily as a Hallmark film, but Scripture does tell us how the whole story ends.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39
So that’s what we’re waiting for in this weird in-between time of not-yetness. This truth compels us to carry on, to ask the hard questions and to love each other boldly even though we might break our hearts in the process. But the hard-wrought hope we hold on to through it all reminds us that ours is not a permanent pain. In the end, everything sad really is going to come untrue, and it all will be even better than the best Hallmark movie. The everlasting life to come is not one of romance or nostalgia, sentimentality or sap, but of a sort of goodness that we have only had a foretaste of. And best of all, Love will be with us there, too, in the flesh. Forever.