These are my notes from the Romance Writers of Australia 2022 conference. Please be aware that this is not a transcript.
Deck the Halls: An Exploratory Look At The Tropes And Rise of The Christmas Romance Novel – Kathleen Stanley
Stanley is doing her PhD on small town Christmas romance. Amy T Matthews is her supervisor (Amy also writes as Tess LeSue and Amy Bary).
– reviewed 100 films and 100 novels
– focused on Aus, UK, and USA
– rise of Christmas romance in times of crisis (eg pandemic, as well as Mills & Boon in WWII)
– comfort in the familiar, eg Hallmark movies (note, nearly all the covers and films have the women in red and men in green clothes)
Hallmark’s output has increased:
2010 – only six Christmas movies
2020 – 40 Christmas movies
Each movie has a rough budget of $2million (with $50,000 spent on fake snow). Each one takes about 3 weeks of filming, and averages 2.5 million viewers.
– the movies are culturally identifiable as Hallmark
– low heat
– no religion
– take submissions from authors in October only
– LGBT books wanted
-> adaption from books to movies
Small town features heavily in Christmas films/books, also city and kingdom. Kingdoms represent small towns in the sense of close-knit communities
Community and family
– the key reason why Christmas works in small towns
– comfort in the familiar
– nostalgia for the past
– relationship to social change
– imagining a better future while holding childhood emotions (comfort, warmth, family, belonging)
– female characters tend to end up in domestic roles (kitchen, doing gifts) (big gap in market is to reimagine this)
Does Christmas have to be religious?
– religion rarely drives the plot in Stanley’s studied books and films
– Australian books/films mention it the least, but has the most old fashion ideals with the woman giving up her career for domesticity the most often
– Hallmark don’t take religious romance but do allow faith as part of a character’s life
– is religion inherently implied? (unknown)
– often include all belief systems, not just Christianity, but only in vague terms.
Data from the 100 films & 100 novels
Obstacles: In 80% of the films, the main conflict is career, but in books it was only 20%
Christmas Trees: In 77% of novels and 83% of films
Presents: In 78% of books and 71% of films
Santa: In 36% of novels and 50% of films
Cooking: In 68% of books and 79% of films
Community and family: 100% of books and films studied feature a family or community coming together for some reason. In films, they often have to “save the town”, while in books, it tends to be an annual event such as a theatre performance or town parade.
Children: Not often in either books or films for the main couple, but family is common, and the Christmas traditions tend to feature childhood moments or childishness.
Three Consistent Themes
Small towns tend to be white and straight, and Christmas movies tend to be “worse” in terms of lack of diversity. There are huge gaps to be filled. The few Christmas movies with a more diverse cast tend to be city based.
Only 50% of books ended with marriage or engagement, and this was most often in the epilogue
Only 17% of films end with marriage or engagement, and frequently films end without resolving the core conflict – who is giving up their career to move to where?
Religion: A book or film qualified as having no religion if it had no church going, no religious imagery (eg nativity scenes)
Season: Northern hemisphere books were winter based (featuring comfort and escape), while Aussie books/films tended to be more ‘real’ with a summer heat bleakness that wasn’t a vibe in the NH books/films.
Pets: The study didn’t track pets, but they do often feature as a substitute for children. Heroes tend to have dogs. Rural settings often included horses.
What surprised you?
– 75% of the films were written by women, but 75% were directed by white men
– career ideaology of women giving up their city career for a small town domesticity
– high percentage of films didn’t resolve the career issues, just ending before it was discussed
– USA films/books tended to deliberately skirt around religion, presumably because it’s a contentous issue there with the Christmas culture wars, and to avoid making a statement on Christmas and religion pleases both sides for marketing purposes.
– those who like religion believe it is there (due to generic Christmas symbols)
– those who don’t like religion also feel included due to the vagueness around the subject
– films tend to be vague, but average about a week
– books range from two days plus epilogue or longer; average was a week
– both tend to start or end with Christmas with ending at Christmas being more common
Only 4% of the 200 film/book studied