Let's Talk Tropes

What’s the Deal with Christmas Specials?

The Smut Report has long recognized that Christmas romance is almost its own sub-genre. Perhaps a sub-sub-genre? When a number of holiday-centric ARCs started appearing on NetGalley back in August, we decided that we would do a Christmas/holiday promotion between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (In the event that you’re not from the U.S., that’s when Christmas festivities really get into full swing.)

As we were reading all of these Christmas-related books, we noticed a few trends, and we wondered…

What’s the deal with Christmas Specials? Why are they always warm and fuzzy? What is it about Christmas in particular? 

Ingrid: I think the holidays are a really lonely for a lot of people, and so Christmas specials are a way for them to feel not so alone, hopeless, and miserable. 

I had a hard week. 

Erin: I was reading one of the stories in The Dukes Who Stole Christmas and there was a moment when the heroine was horrified that the hero worked on Christmas. Like there’s this special, magical thing about Christmas that is sacrosanct and everyone buys into this. And I realized that I thought that until I had a friend whose mom was a nurse and she was just like, “Oh yeah, we just have Christmas whenever my mom’s not working.” Like, there’s ways to have Christmas without it being on Christmas day? And a lot of people have to do that because of other considerations, but for some reason we’ve glorified this as some magical day where magical things happen and it’s this whole thing…

Holly: I blame Love Actually.*

E: You’re not wrong… 

H: What you said is interesting, though, because it’s one place where mainstream romance and Christian romance intersect and it’s totally okay. Like, the main characters in a mainstream romance generally aren’t overtly religious, but in a Christmas romance–technically it’s a Christian holiday, but it’s become a mainstream cultural thing.

I: Feeding off of how this an exception–this works for a lot of authors. It’s like an awesome magical bubble. You can bring all of these characters together and let something happen because it’s Christmas.

E: Okay, but–what we end up with is a lot of schmaltz, and if you look at what we have reviewed this month or what you view on TV (like Christmas holiday specials), it’s generally not thought to be very good. And overall our results have proven to be…not very good. We may struggle to have recommended reads this month. So it’s like this wonderfully magical and romantic time, but it kind of doesn’t really work in storytelling. Like, what really good Christmas books or movies are we dealing with? A gazillion short stories, not a lot of full-length novels…

I: There are a lot of full-length novels, it’s just that Christmas is a factor not a trope. You know what I mean? I think there is a Christmas trope, like it’s that magical time of year and Christmas is magical.

H: A couple of years ago, I read Under the Mistletoe by Mary Balogh, and every single story involved children and the couple going out and cutting pine boughs. And the fact of them decorating the country estate brought love and joy. I think what Ingrid means by the Christmas trope is that specifically by doing Christmas it brings you love, and that comes across as–

I: Fake

H: –Yes, fake.

I: I think the Christmas trope doesn’t work for me personally, but it being used as a setting does work.

H: But the Christmas trope does work for a lot of people. Are we just curmudgeonly?

E: So what I would say to that is: yes. But also it’s sort of like category romance. 

H: You know exactly what you’re going to get?

E: Or, that category romance or Christmas specials means you get your 6 books delivered and you eat them up and these tropes just really work for some people–but they don’t tend to happen in “single-title” books.

H: As an aside, I read that 40% of romance sales are category romance.**

(Everyone exclaims over this.)

E: So anyway, I would say what our experience has been, from my perspective, has been something like a category romance. Those have been hit or miss for us, and so have the Christmas books. But when it’s a hit, it’s usually not something that we’re in alt about, it’s just something that we enjoy. Fluffy, fun, let’s have a little treat. So maybe that’s what the Christmas special is about.

I: Which, if you’re following the Netflix Christmas special thing on social media–

H: What is this?

I: People are binging these movies–like “junk food”–Christmas movie specials, and loving it. It’s not like they have to be high quality. No one expects them to be high quality–they’re not looking for high brow, they’re looking for something sweet. And half the fun for some people is that they are “junky.” There’s no stress, it’s just enjoyable.

H: And to your point, that goes back to how you opened your conversation and how people aren’t happy. People are really stressed around the holidays. But with that said, I think there are ways to do the Christmas special in an interesting or thoughtful manner.

E: One that I really liked this month that’s a full-length novel that embodies this Christmas special element was An Alaskan Christmas. So the synopsis was: workaholic is forced to take a vacation.

H: So a Hallmark movie.

E: Yes, so this workaholic goes home to hang out with her friends she hasn’t talked to in ten years and finds love with her best friend’s brother. So it’s all set around Christmas and it’s set in Alaska so there’s legitimate snow. And she’s home and realizing that she’s been really goal-oriented her whole life, and it’s only when she realizes she has nowhere to go that she sees she’s been neglecting whole areas of her life. So this one totally bypasses the decorating or “doing Christmas is what brings love,” but it does encompass the “family and friends are important and fulfilling” aspect. It sort of explores the idea of what’s valuable in life. Where do we make sacrifices or compromises to have the life we want and how does that include the love that we want?

I: So what I’m hearing you liked about this one is that it kind of pulls all of the values and feelings from the Christmas trope without it necessarily feeling like you’re getting bogged down with the expectations of the holiday. I think it’s really hard for people when they’re getting bogged down with the expectations in real life. So this narrative feels more real and honest. 

In the Christmas trope, I think the ones that have been hard for me are the ones where you get that feeling of “but this is Christmas and we have to do these things because this is Christmas.” Frankly, there’s enough of that in my life as it is.

E: So what have you liked?

I: The Christmas books that I have liked have been full length, where everyone is piled together for this holiday, and it makes interesting pressure cooker situations where the holiday tends to bring out the best and worst in people and ultimately bring them to a better place. There was one historical romance I read but I can’t remember the title – the heroine went to meet his extended family. So she’s stuck with people who are judging her, and this situation forced them to ask themselves what they were going to prioritize as a couple and how they were going to do this as a couple. It’s the time of year where this stuff can unfold, not just because there’s greenery.

H: So this is interesting because in Love in the Stacks, which I thought was just a fun erotic romance, there’s a bit at the end where the hero is like, “I’m Jewish,” and the herione is like, “Oh, sorry!” and the hero is like, “It’s okay, it’s just a time of year where we can talk about love.”

I: It’s like a vehicle not a forced image.

H: Yes. I also have to admit I really like An Affair Before Christmas, but even though Christmas is in the title, it’s barely about Christmas. That’s not the important thing. It’s like, “It’s Christmas, so love is all around and we get engaged” and then four years later “It’s Christmas, love is all around so we can fix our marriage.”

I: That’s charming!

I do feel like there’s nothing wrong with people enjoying their “Christmas cookies” and eating it up. They shouldn’t feel bad about it. Usually one of us tends to like something that the others don’t and that’s normal. It’s okay that people like to enjoy these books, too.

*Though, to be fair, there are mid-century movies like Christmas in Connecticut and White Christmas that also use the Christmas trope.

**Delving further into the source data reveals that this number is from 2006. Presumably the rise of e-readers and self-published romance (particularly through programs like Kindle Unlimited) has shifted the breakdown of market share within the genre dramatically.

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