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Why Write Christmas Movies?

December 9, 2020
6 min read time

As we head into the holiday season of 2020, the year that many are calling a dumpster fire year, there is a sense of getting it over with. People want to head into next year with the hope it will be better, even if we’re still dealing with cleaning up the mess. The year has been challenging and very few have escaped the stress of dealing with a viral pandemic and all it caused.

Every day social media posts ask if 2020 could get any worse. If it isn’t climate change, murder hornets, sickness, and bankruptcy, it’s politics; not to mention having to be isolated and quarantined.

The fact that the most joyous time of year is on the horizon has many of us feeling like we have a glimmer of hope right now. Or at least we might be able to finish the year with a degree of redemption. We’ve been hunkered down for months; worried, losing sleep, only going out for food or essential work and finally we have something to look forward to.

The Holidays.

I’m not talking about going to holiday parties or the traditions that involve gathering in crowds. I’m just talking about the feeling of Christmas. This year mall Santas have plexiglass between them and the kids who, as little hands press on the divider, shout their toy choices to a 2020 Santa Claus who’s in a bubble to keep from getting a deadly virus from all the boys and girls.

If you celebrate a different holiday at the end of December, that’s fine if you insert Hanukkah or Kwanzaa in there. But the message is clear: The time of year that we know as our opportunity to be hopeful is on the way.

Is it any wonder that at this time of year people love to be reminded of the heart-warming emotions surrounding that holiday? We feel the need to recall the childhood innocence of Santa Claus. We want to remember a time when the magic of a person launching a sleigh full of presents pulled by reindeer into the sky to visit each and every house in the world on Christmas Eve seemed entirely possible. It’s the same reason we love to look at puppy videos, or to hold a baby (before Covid). We want to be reminded of innocence and goodness because it warms our hearts.

Not every country or culture tells the same Santa tale, and some cultures don’t even have a Santa Claus but if you’re thinking of writing a Christmas movie for American audiences, they involve St. Nick. And not the one who rides a white horse from the Netherlands or the German Krampus who’s a horned half-goat. Or the witch who leaves coal for bad Italian kids.

I’m talking about the guy we make movies about to evoke Christmas emotions. I was raised in Canada where Santa comes Christmas Eve sliding down the chimney or sneaking through the front door with a large sack of toys. Remember he wouldn’t come if you were awake? Christmas morning toys were laid out like we’d won the lottery along with eaten cookies and a glass of milk almost finished. We’d rouse our parents, and they’d don housecoats and slippers to join my sister and I around the tree for stockings and present opening. Are any of you drifting into nostalgia as you read this?

Of course you are.

And if you didn’t experience this type of Christmas, let me take a moment to say every child should be surrounded by this kind of magic and excitement one day a year. For myself and my sister, Christmas was counted on. We got bikes and Barbie dolls when we were young, and always spent the day playing and eating candy from our stockings. Later in the day, we had a wonderful feast at our grandparents’ table (or at the kids’ table with our beloved cousins), and zonked out early after so much happiness. We didn’t know about wars and politics and famine and sickness or even family squabbles and drama. We were innocents who still believed a man could fly a thousand-pound sleigh. If you had less than magical Christmases, you might need a Christmas movie in your viewing lineup this year.

Christmas is the epitome of goodness, joy, happiness. Goodwill abounds, even during wars, and going door to door to sing to your neighbors isn’t thought of as invasive but neighborly and festive. It’s human nature to want what we believe is the perfect Christmas. That feeling of being transported to a happier time is the same reason I go from watching the nightly news to watching The Great British Baking Show. After bad news I need to be immersed in a lovely world of frivolity where a person’s only problem is someone’s pastry being too tough or a cake being too stodgy for Paul Hollywood to give the coveted handshake. The baking tent is so colorful and happy. Christmas is a similar escape.

Movies, shows and stories evoke emotions in the audience. As writers, we have the ability to magically weave nostalgic wonderment with perfectly chosen words strung together into sentences about sugar plum fairies and a jolly old man in a red velvet coat who loves everyone. Our words have the ability to put someone in a holiday headspace where worries are forgotten. What power. And opportunity.

I write Christmas movies for the same reason I once chose to set my stories on Maui; I want to live there in my head while I write. These days, I set many of my movies in snowy towns where everyone knows everyone else, where the downtown looks like a Christmas card and where the whole town comes out to good-naturedly compete in a gingerbread house decorating contest to benefit the new library or the poor children two towns over. Writing a Christmas movie enables me to live in that town and be one of those wholesome folks.

Whether this type of Christmas is a memory for you or a wish, in writing a Christmas movie you get to design your own Christmas world. Sure, there has to be conflict but the worst-case scenario is that the handsome real estate developer is planning to turn the charming local bakery into office buildings and your protagonist has to help him see that community is more important than financial success.

Problems in Christmas movies are sanitized, worries are hardly worth thinking about, conflict is minor. If not, we are taken away from that floaty feeling of goodness we’re going for. Christmas movie bad guys are only slightly on the bad side of the middle and there are no weapons or crime (unless a prankster stole a Christmas tree!) Remember the bumbling idiots in Home Alone? They were so stupid a young kid could outwit them. In writing a Christmas movie, you get to awaken the child in everyone and facilitate a transformation that allows your audience to experience the innocence and magic again.

These days, happy movies are in demand the same way that movies about the world’s population being wiped out by a virus are probably not in demand. Christmas movies are selling, getting read, getting optioned, getting made. Romance and comedy are at the top of executives’ wish lists.

In this series of articles, I’m going to dive into who’s buying what and how to write to that market as well as how specific markets ask for specific Christmas movies. If you are a screenwriter interested in writing a Christmas movie, your main task is to evoke emotions in your audience that take them to a place where, for a brief moment, they can forget their troubles and live inside your fairytale world where things are wonderful. Nostalgia is the name of the game.

Now go jot down all the words that are associated with Christmas, start that holiday vision board, and see if that process doesn’t lift your spirits like Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.

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