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Viewers overdose on happy endings, sentimental themes with holiday films

| Monday, Nov. 26, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
Let the reindeer games begin! 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' the longest-running holiday special in television history, celebrates its 40th anniversary on Dec. 4 (8 p.m.) on the CBS Television Network. Since 1964, millions of families have tuned in to watch Rudolph and his friends, Hermey the Elf, Yukon Cornelius, and the Misfit Toys, save Christmas. This classic 'Animagic' special features a world-renowned musical score from Johnny Marks and the voice talent of legendary performer Burl Ives (Sam the Snowman). CBS
Hallmark Channel
Carrie Fisher (left) and Emmanuelle Vaugier star in 'It's Christmas, Carol,' a movie on Hallmark. Hallmark Channel
Hallmark Channel
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'It's a Wonderful Life'

Though her family might poke a bit of fun at her, Frances Jones unabashedly loves and indulges in her Christmas movies — one after another, usually by herself in her little television room.

The Fawn resident devours the newspaper holiday-television listings, and highlights the movies she wants to see. Jones watches the Hallmark Channel just about every night and tapes whatever she misses if she is out. She also loves several Christmas classics, such as “Home Alone,” “The Santa Clause” and “It's a Wonderful Life.”

Jones probably could recite every line from “A Christmas Story” and owns a model of the iconic leg lamp. She loves to take the time during the Christmas season to be joyful, nostalgic and sentimental, and to enjoy the happy endings.

“I think I just love the holiday spirit, and just the nostalgia of Christmas, and just the way the movies always have a happy ending,” says Jones, 69. “It's just refreshing. It's just something where you can escape the reality of what's going on in the world.”

'Tis the season for giving, sharing, joy — and movies galore. Movies with a Christmas theme easily number in the hundreds: There are the feature-length films that come to the movie theaters — like “Arthur Christmas” and “The Holiday” — and the often-romantic, made-for-TV movies like those on the Hallmark Channel.

Part of the appeal of Christmas movies for adults is that they often grew up watching their favorites as kids, says Heather Liebling, a visiting instructor with the communication department at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing her doctorate, writing her dissertation on the viewing habits associated with animated holiday movies.

Watching their longtime childhood favorites — including shorter television specials like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — brings viewers back to their magical Christmases of yore, she says.

“We connect the media past with our own,” says Liebling, 28, of Squirrel Hill. “These specials, when we watch them when we're children, those then become indelibly linked to our own path.

“The holidays make you long for childhood fantasy and enchantment. Holidays are child-centric.”

These are the kind of movies that can keep you company while mixing a batch of Christmas cookies or wrapping gifts. You've seen them enough that they don't require your full attention. And even with a new made-for-TV holiday movie, the happy-ending outcome is predictable before the first commercial. And that's the way we like it.

Another appeal of Christmas movies is the family factor: Almost all of them are G-rated in nature, and adults and kids can gather around the “electronic hearth” — the television — and enjoy some wholesome entertainment together, Liebling says.

Michelle Vicary, the Hallmark Channel's executive vice president of programming, says the popular movies reflect the feel-good time and emotional connectedness of the holiday season. Many people, Vicary included, watch one Christmas movie after another this time of year.

“We want to create a unique holiday experience for Hallmark viewers,” she says. “We do embrace feeling good. We do embrace emotional connection. ... People don't get tired of watching them.”

The Hallmark movies — the most popular of which include “The Christmas Card,” a romantic movie with a military theme, from 2006 — remind people of the spirit of Christmas, Vicary says.

“Under the Hallmark brand, if we do it well, we can tell so many different kinds of stories,” she says. “What makes us special is that emotional connection. We're not afraid of a happy ending, and we're not afraid of having people feel good. Those are the things we look for.”

Holiday movies, in general, show recurring themes, according to Liebling. For example:

• There is the “Grinch” story line, where a cold-hearted villain becomes softened by the Christmas spirit and radically turns around.

• There is the “Rudolph” misfit theme, where a seeming physical defect turns out to be something extra-special that saves the holiday.

• There is the happy romantic theme, where two people who had given up on love find each other.

• Then, there is the belief theme. In “The Polar Express,” for instance, kids are told that Santa Claus leaves their lives only when they stop believing in him.

John Linkes, 61, of Leechburg swears by “Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas,” a 1977 Jim Henson classic hosted by Kermit the Frog with other animated animal characters that teaches a lesson about simplicity and giving. He also loves the zany “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and many others. Linkes' wife, Susan, joins him for many of the movies.

“You don't have to be all electronic,” Linkes says. “It's just the small pleasures in life — being around family during the holidays.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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