with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

Pleasure-y Guilts: The True Meaning of Christmas Movies

Holly is a dedicated social worker who can’t make time for love. Even as a teenager, she was the only one of her friends without a boyfriend. Love has simply never worked out for her. Neither has Christmas. Despite her perfect (wealthy, loving, football-watching) family’s obsession with the holiday season, Holly doesn’t “do” Christmas. There’s a secret reason why, though.

Twenty years ago, she asked Santa for a boyfriend for Christmas. And Old St. Nick never delivered. Bitter, dejected, and betrayed Holly had no recourse but to prioritize her do-gooder career over love until one day, Santa finally sends her a boyfriend for Christmas. After a few minor roadblocks, they end up happily-ever-after by New Year’s Eve because Holly learns the true meaning of Christmas.  This is the plot of the 2004 Hallmark original movie “A Boyfriend for Christmas.”

It’s not that far off from the plot of any Lifetime or Hallmark made-for-TV Christmas movie. There are a few variations: the guy can be secretly rich, secretly a prince, secretly someone she knew a long time ago, secretly Santa himself—or all of the above. What’s important is the learning-the-true-meaning-of-Christmas bit, which makes all of these Hollies finally deserving of love. (The protagonists of these movies are quite frequently named Holly, for obvious reasons. Other options are Carol or Eve.)

Often Holly or Carol or Eve lies about having a boyfriend to try to hide her lost love for Christmas, an emotional reality that she can’t bear to admit. Jordan Bridges—son of the second-most famous Bridges actor—has been in not one, not two, but three such movies wherein he plays an actor the protagonist has hired to pretend to be her boyfriend for Christmas. Of course, with the magic of Christmas, the pretend boyfriend becomes real. (See “The Nutcracker.”)

These bad Christmas movies have always offered a special pleasure for me because I am also a career-minded woman who hasn’t learned the true meaning of Christmas. So I find Holly or Carol or Eve “relatable,” except for the key point that Santa will probably never send me a boyfriend for Christmas because I’m Jewish.

Being Jewish at Christmas is truly magical. You can skip through the store past all the Christmas displays to buy the things you regularly buy and march straight up to the express checkout lane and when the cashier wishes you a Merry Christmas, you can smile your very brightest smile and wish them a Merry Christmas right back. When they ask if you’ve finished your Christmas shopping, you can give a confident yes.

Sometimes such strangers want to know how you’re celebrating and here is where you can really shine. Like a Hallmark movie protagonist who must lie about her shameful secret not liking of Christmas, you can invent a fictional family in matching sweaters, a fictional architect boyfriend about to propose, or both. You can spin tales of frosting cookies shaped like reindeer with your elven nieces or lovingly tell of a family tradition of selecting vintage ornaments for one another year after blessed year. Deep inside you will cherish your truth: that you will eat takeout Chinese food and watch bad Christmas movies, preferably alone.

I am not a religious person, but I do feel the most Jewish at Christmas. Perhaps, even, the most Jewish thing I do is, like Holly, not doing Christmas. I realize Holly isn’t really Jewish. But in Christmas movies, no one is ever Jewish nor Buddhist nor Muslim nor Sikh. So the figure for the non-Christian can only be the Christmas-hater, the character who must be reformed by the true meaning of Christmas to be worthy of love and to get her happy ending: a prize boyfriend for Christmas.

Even the grinch, that creative outcast loner, has always seemed to me a Jew. He is, according to medieval scholar Ryan Szpiech, “in keeping with the medieval tradition of viewing the Jew as both an outcast and a baleful force in society, one who is unable to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and who is also stubbornly unwilling to try.”

This “unwillingness” is why the grinch is responsible for his own unhappiness.  When you’re unwilling to accept the true meaning of Christmas, these fictions argue, you’re the guilty party. And this antisemitic caricature of the Christmas-hater goes right back to the pointy-nosed moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge. “Why? Why?” Scrooge’s nephew asks him, utterly perplexed by his refusal of an invitation to Christmas dinner, to which Scrooge responds,

‘Why did you get married?’
‘Because I fell in love.’
‘Because you fell in love!’ growled Scrooge, as if that were the only one thing in the
world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas.

What is this Dickensian moment if not the birth of the refusal-of-heteronormative-romantic-love/christmas-hating nexus?

This “Why? Why?” is the hallmark cry of people who simply cannot understand how anyone can feel loved without first accepting the true meaning of Christmas. It’s why, every single year, non-Christian people must, if they’re feeling honest, assure their well-meaning acquaintances that yes, I’m really okay with not celebrating Christmas.

I certainly don’t hate Christmas. I’ve had many lovely Christmases with the families of friends and partners. I’ve decked halls and trimmed trees and opened presents in pajamas. All of that is very nice. But there’s nothing like the secret pleasure of knowing that this thing that seemingly everyone else delights in and experiences together will never really be mine. For the true meaning of Christmas is always discovered in the same way: the protagonist must connect to that childlike Christmas love inside of them.

In “A Boyfriend for Christmas,” Santa gives young Holly a creepily engraved snow globe that tells her she will be sent her true love within twenty years. She keeps it like a small ember of Christmas love still warm in the cold recesses of her overworked heart. To be a Jew at Christmas is to be without a snow globe. There’s no childhood ember to rekindle the flames of love, no cherished Christmas memories to remake.

That globe is a Chekhov’s gun in the first act if there ever was one. You know Holly’s true love will come as surely as you know someone will be shot in the play. And herein lies my greatest pleasure in these movies that cast me as ultimately unworthy of that gunshot—a forever unreformed Holly whose Christmas boyfriend will thankfully never arrive. I don’t want a love who makes me quit my job or move to a Christmas tree farm or responds to the question “do you want children?” by saying “tons!” as Holly’s boyfriend-for-Christmas, Douglas Firwood, does. I’ve never gotten work off for Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah or Passover—the real big-deal Jewish holidays. But at Christmas, I’ve often had a full week or more to relish in not celebrating, not cooking, not visiting family, not reconnecting with old loves nor meeting new ones at skating rinks. Without a snow globe, the plot is mine.


Arielle Zibrak would never be the name of a protagonist in a Christmas movie. She is the author of Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures.

Related Posts