Please welcome today’s guest writer, Grace Ruiter. Grace graduated from Calvin in 2015 with degrees in writing and linguistics. She lives in Grand Rapids and works at the Reformed Church in America in digital content management/creation/strategy—summing up jobs in the non-profit world succinctly is hard. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, baking, diving down Wikipedia rabbit holes, and watching way too much TV.
If you’ve seen one Hallmark Christmas movie before, you already know the plotline of just about all of them. A career-driven person leaves the big city to spend the holidays in a small town with big Christmas enthusiasm. A chance encounter with a homegrown charmer soon sweeps them up in more than just the Christmas spirit. The ending is as predictable as the arrival of the new year on January 1.
Their recycled storylines aren’t the only reason these movies don’t tend to win Oscars. Half the actors are botoxed frozen and the other half contort their faces with so much theatrical abandon you wonder if they think the botox is contagious. They are set in Norman Rockwell towns that make Disneyland’s main street look almost gritty. They reek of nostalgia for a mythical past we have a bad habit of mistaking for history. And the dialogue bears about as much resemblance to normal conversation as a phone call with Comcast support.
I love them.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that tracing the roots of my appreciation for Hallmark Christmas movies lands you smack dab in the middle of the Great Recession. My family was struggling; my dad had to leave behind a business his own father began, and he struggled to find a new job. As a young teenager, I had to face the fact that I had a lot less control over what happened to me than I thought. My parents couldn’t always make sure everything turned out okay, and neither could I. And I was afraid.
But in Hallmark, my worst fears never wrote the ending. Small family businesses beat out big corporations, the Montagues and Capulets set aside their differences in time to save Romeo and Juliet, neighbors treated each other with care and kindness, strip malls were banned from main street, the snow was wedding white (even the dogs knew better than to yellow it), Scrooges either transformed into Santas or found greed was no match for Christmas cheer, and everyone found true love by New Year’s Day.
Faith doesn’t come easily to me. I’ve always understood Thomas’s doubts better than Peter’s trust that if he jumped out of a boat Jesus would help him walk on water. I’ve tasted the holy hope just enough to know I’ll probably be chasing it forever. But that doesn’t mean I never doubt anymore. The Christmas season has a way of reassuring me I still believe in what I’m chasing.
The chase is harder than it was when I was a kid. I rarely feel joy or hope on their own these days; they’ve become emotional hard liquor—too strong for me to drink unless I mix them into a cocktail with something safer, like doubt, duty, or fear. At its best, Advent brings me close enough to childhood to drink joy and hope straight again.
Advent promises that joy and peace are waiting for you just around the corner on Christmas Day, nestled in a manger on the outskirts of first-century Bethlehem. And on its promise of Christmas, Advent consistently delivers. But not everyone experiences peace and joy when that day arrives. What’s around in the corner doesn’t always seem to live up to the hope.
Advent is also a season of waiting. And even when you feel sure your hope is secured for the long-term, waiting for what you hope for in the short-term can be hard.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt the pain of waiting as acutely as this year. And there are times I don’t truthfully feel all that hopeful. I’m tired. I’m cynical. I still have hope for the distant future, but around the corner right in front of me, I’m expecting a lot more division and suffering than peace and joy. I need Christmas this year more than usual. But I also need a little more help hoping than I do most years.
So just like when I was a 14-year-old searching for an escape from economic anxiety in made-for-TV Christmas movies, I cocoon myself in Hallmarkland. At the beginning, my snark seeps in; I roll my eyes at the cheesy pick-up lines and “aw-shucks” small-town stock characters. But as I watch the couple fall in love, I fall in love a little, too. And for a moment, I am immersed in a thrill of hope.