The comfort of made-for-TV holiday movies lies in their consistency.
You have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get when you turn on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime or flip through the holiday offerings on Netflix between Oct. 31 and Jan.1 of each year. There will be a meet-cute of some sort. There will be a romantic plotline. The whole thing will be infused with the gaudiest, most literal interpretations of “holiday magic” and “the Christmas Spirit.”
And then the rest is sort of like a game of holiday movie trope Mad Libs. A Sad Single Career Woman (occasionally a man, but usually a woman) who is a rising star at [a job] based in [Big City], but still feels that something is missing from her life has to go home for Christmas to [Small Town] where she grew up. By [random basic happenstance] she encounters [a former crush/an ex/a royal sowing his wild oats]. At first, they seem [awkward/like opposites], but they soon form a bond as everyone in [Small Town] gets ready for the big [Christmas Festival/Christmas Ball/Christmas Wedding/Christmas Dinner/Christmas Party/Christmas Bake-Off]. As the central couple realizes their feelings might signal true love, Sad Career Woman must decide whether to [take a promotion/move back home/give up her life to be a royal princess]. [Conflict] is resolved at the [Christmas Festival/Christmas Ball/Christmas Wedding/Christmas Dinner/Christmas Party/Christmas Bake-Off]. They all discover the magic of the holiday season and they all live happily ever after.
One red-and-green color palette flows seamlessly into the next, and suddenly you realize that you’ve watched five movies and cannot really discern the differences between them. All you know is that it felt good to temporarily float away into a blissful sea of snowman-covered throw pillows and childhood crushes.
In the year of our lord 2020, we all need a little thought-free escape. So we’ve done the Very Serious Service Journalism of watching a bunch of holiday movies so you can discern what type of tropes you want to lean into before you hit play. Below the chart, you’ll find our quick and quippy descriptions of the films. Happy watching.
Scroll horizontally to see the full chart.
“Good Morning Christmas!” (Hallmark)
“Good Morning Christmas!” racked up the most checkmarks with 10 predictable tropes. Start here to truly get in the holiday spirit.
Melissa Merry and Brian Bright may be the jovial co-hosts of the top morning TV show in the country, but behind the scenes, they are at each other’s throats. That is, until this Sad Career Woman™ and Even Sadder Career Man are forced to spend a week broadcasting from a very Christmas-y small town. As they participate in holiday ice skates, stocking decorating parties and other festive events, will the spark of Christmas reignite in Brian’s wintry heart? And will he dump his cold, holiday-hating girlfriend Christy and see that the right woman has been his co-anchor all along? — Claire Fallon
“Good Morning Christmas!” airs again Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET.
The next three films offer up a little bit of everything, ticking off eight tropes in our list including royals, a Sad Career Woman™ and the rediscovery of the Christmas season.
“The Princess Switch: Switched Again” (Netflix)
What could be better than two Vanessa Hudgens with varying Anglo accents? Three Vanessa Hudgens with varying Anglo accents! The sequel to “The Princess Switch” catches up with baker Stacy, now Princess of Belgravia (Vanessa Hudgens) and Margaret, future Queen of Montenero (Vanessa Hudgens). Between fraught love affairs and a meddling cousin (also … Vanessa Hudgens), hijinks ensue before the Christmas coronation! — Emma Gray
“The Princess Switch: Switched Again” is streaming on Netflix.
“The Christmas Yule Blog” (Lifetime)
Sad Career Woman™ is serious travel journalist and vlogger for a prestigious travel publication. But what her Serious Travel Reporting lacks is heart. So her thoughtful boss sends her off to the small southwestern town of Carte De Amor, New Mexico, where she can take off her buttoned-up workwear and throw on an ugly Christmas poncho. As she grows to love and appreciate the small town energy now that she’s out of the big city, she always grows to appreciate Oscar Ortiz, the local high school music teacher with a tragic past. — Emma Gray
“The Christmas Yule Blog” airs again Christmas Eve at 8 a.m. ET and is available on demand.
“A Christmas Aunt” (Lifetime)
Sad Career Woman™ is dedicated to her job at an art gallery selling art to rich people, dreaming of opening her own gallery that will help the community. For the holidays, she goes back to her hometown to watch her sister’s kids while her sister and her husband are on vacation, and to help her mother, who was supposed to watch the kids but broke her leg recently. She embraces the role of doting aunt, planning holiday activities for her niece and nephew and driving them to their music class. Oh, and also, the music teacher is an old high school friend who has grown up into a very cute and charming guy, because of course he is, and it wouldn’t be a Lifetime holiday movie without some will-they-won’t-they intrigue. — Marina Fang
“A Christmas Aunt” is available on demand.
And then these three films feature seven tropes a pop, including a dead parent storyline, a Christmas bake sale and of course, more Sad Career Women™.
“Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” (Netflix)
Sad Career Woman™ comes to town and is really just an overall Grinch as she serves up eviction notices to folks in the town — including her longtime friend. But this musical takes several unsuspecting turns, including a very sad child separation storyline that is very tightly wedged into the tail end of the film. — Erin E. Evans
“Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” is streaming on Netflix. Read our longer chat on the film here.
“Christmas on Wheels” (Lifetime)
Sad Career Woman™ is dedicated to her job as an antiques collector and appraiser, dreaming of opening her own shop one day. For the holidays, she goes back to her small town to help her uncle, who broke his leg recently and needs some help around the house. Without telling her, her uncle recently sold her late mother’s classic car, which is of sentimental value to her. To track down the car, he enlists the help of his lawyer, who also happens to be an avid antiques collector. Oh, and also, the lawyer is a very cute and charming guy, because of course he is, and it wouldn’t be a Lifetime holiday movie without some will-they-won’t-they intrigue. — Marina Fang
“Christmas on Wheels” airs again Christmas Day at 4 p.m. ET and is available on demand.
“One Royal Holiday” (Hallmark)
While on her way to her father’s B&B for the holidays, a single doctor unknowingly meets the rather uptight Prince of Galwick, who is stranded in Boston with the queen thanks to a snowstorm. With nowhere to go, the royals, of course, stay in the picturesque New England inn and, in turn, embrace the little things in life. Like love, and Christmas. — Leigh Blickley
“One Royal Holiday” airs again Christmas Day at 6:30 a.m. ET.
This group of films includes the first appearance of Mario Lopez on this list along with a perhaps too on-the-nose depictions of media professionals.
“Feliz NaviDAD” (Lifetime)
Mario Lopez is the Feliz NaviDAD, a widowed father and high school principal who moonlights as a delivery driver during the holidays. He claims it’s to save money to lend to his daughter for college, but really it’s to avoid all the painful reminders of family Christmases before his wife’s death. On his delivery route, he meets-cute with beautiful concert musician Sophie, who soon volunteers to help prepare his daughter’s music group for a Christmas concert. Could she be the New Mom every orphaned holiday movie child is looking for? All signs point to yes! — Claire Fallon
“Feliz NaviDAD” airs again Wednesday at 10:05 p.m. and is available on demand.
“The Christmas Edition” (Lifetime)
As a media professional, there’s nothing more relaxing than sitting down to escape the drudgery of your struggling industry with a movie about ... a digital media acquisition and subsequent layoffs. Sad Career Woman™ Jackie sticks it to her new corporate overlords and heads off to a small town in Alaska to revitalize their local (print!) paper ahead of the holidays. With profitability on the horizon and a potential new romance with the former newspaper owner’s son, Sad Career Woman™ might be getting less sad! But when the Corporate Media Overlords get wind of the paper’s success, another takeover might be on the horizon. — Emma Gray
“The Christmas Edition” airs again Dec. 26 and is available on demand.
“Let’s Meet Again On Christmas Eve” (Lifetime)
A woman and her college sweetheart make an agreement to break up and meet again at a Christmas tree two years later. Unfortunately, he never shows up. Seven years later she’s a Sad Career Woman™ (i.e. a successful event planner) sent to Connecticut to plan the Christmas vow renewal of a very rich couple who for some reason only hired an event planner two weeks before their event. She tries to stay dedicated to her job, but the photographer turns out to be her wayward ex-boyfriend. Will they find love and rediscover the Christmas Spirit? Guess you’ll have to watch. — Emma Gray
“Let’s Meet Again On Christmas Eve” airs again on Christmas Eve at 10:05 p.m. ET.
Perhaps you want your holiday movie watching to include a diverse cast list. This batch of films features Black cast members, an Asian family and Lifetime’s first holiday film featuring a gay couple.
“Dear Christmas” (Lifetime)
Audio nerds, rejoice! It was only a matter of time before podcasting made its way into a holiday movie. “Dear Christmas” follows a Sad Career Woman™ (Melissa Joan Hart) who heads to her hometown of Tahoe to livestream an episode of her #1 Hit Podcast, winner of The Podcast Award, which is, conveniently, a holiday love-themed podcast! She meets a former middle school weirdo-turned-Jason Priestley — who really, really loves Christmas ― and ... well, you can probably guess the rest. — Emma Gray
“Dear Christmas” airs again Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET and is available on demand.
“The Christmas Setup” (Lifetime)
Lifetime’s first holiday movie featuring a non-straight couple does not disappoint. Essentially it takes all of the tropes you know and love to hate from other made-for-TV holiday movies and just sticks a gay couple into them. The Sad Career Woman™ becomes Sad Career Man™ Hugo, a lawyer from New York City who is angling to be made partner when he takes his BFF (a straight woman) home for Christmas and ends up bumping into a former crush from high school. Sparks fly, and everyone is very supportive, including his mom, Fran Drescher, who we are inexplicably supposed to believe is Christian. — Emma Gray
“The Christmas Setup” airs again Christmas Day at 6 p.m. ET and is available on demand.
“Christmas Comes Twice” (Hallmark)
Sad Career Woman™ is in search of love when a Christmas festival comes to town, and she time travels five years back after riding on a mysterious carousel. Cheryl (Tamera Mowry-Housley) spends quite a bit of time contemplating her past, er, future, career choices and gets to spend time with a mentor and her arch rival. Obviously, her new perspective gives her a new leash on life. — Erin E. Evans
“Christmas Comes Twice” airs again Monday at 6 p.m. ET.
“Christmas Unwrapped” (Lifetime)
Charity is a bright young reporter, hungry for her first crack at a feature, when she gets a killer assignment: digging up the dirt on Erik Gallagher, a hot young philanthropist who gives out millions of dollars’ worth of gifts every Christmas. He swears they are from Santa himself, but Charity’s editor, a true Grinch, doesn’t buy it. As her investigation deepens, Charity has to choose between writing the truth (a puff piece about Christmas magic) or lies (a muckraking piece speculating about secret financial backers). — Claire Fallon
“Christmas Unwrapped” is available on demand.
“Christmas She Wrote” (Hallmark)
A Sad Career Woman™ — in this case, an advice columnist — gets laid off at a holiday party by the new head honcho at her newspaper gig. Kayleigh (portrayed by Danica McKellar) returns to her small town only to soon after be met by the same bigwig, Tripp, who begs her to take her job back because an executive said she’s important to their readership. But Kayleigh doesn’t jump quickly at the chance to get back to work, and Tripp ends up staying in the town for quite a while. You can guess probably where this is going. — Erin E. Evans
“Christmas She Wrote” airs again Christmas Day at 10 p.m. ET.
“A Sugar & Spice Holiday” (Lifetime)
Sad Career Woman™ is dedicated to her job as an architect up for a big promotion. For the holidays, she goes back to her small hometown in Maine, juggling holiday festivities with a project that will decide her promotion, which inexplicably has a Christmas Eve deadline. While procrastinating, she joins a team competing in the town’s annual baking contest, wanting to honor the memory of her late grandmother, a champion baker. Oh, and also, the team captain is an old high school friend who has grown up into a very cute and charming guy, because of course he is, and it wouldn’t be a Lifetime holiday movie without some will-they-won’t-they intrigue. — Marina Fang
“A Sugar & Spice Holiday” airs again Christmas Eve at 4 p.m. ET. and is available on demand.
Yes, there are fewer tropes in these next films, but trust us when we say, that doesn’t mean they are any less zany.
“A New York Christmas Wedding” (Netflix)
The most bizarre Christmas movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a love story, a horror movie, a sci-fi flick and ... Mr. Big (Chris Noth) from “Sex and the City” is a priest. (Noth is also a producer on the film.) A woman in New York is set to get married to her husband when she is ... transported back to an alternate reality where she is a lesbian and gets married to her childhood best friend instead. There are like seven other plot points, but I will spare you. — Erin E. Evans
“A New York Christmas Wedding” is streaming on Netflix.
“Inn Love By Christmas” (Lifetime)
Mandy rarely goes back to her small town, but this Christmas her grandma convinces her to return home. The local inn is up for sale, and, desiring a shake-up from her corporate job in the hotel industry, she hopes to acquire the inn for company. Of course, when you return to a small town, you’re likely to run into an old flame, but in this case ... she runs into her nemesis, who also wants to buy the inn. Guess what happens next. — Erin E. Evans
“Inn Love By Christmas” airs again Tuesday at 10:05 p.m. ET and is available on demand.
“Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” (Hallmark)
Lest any Jews feel left out of the made-for-TV movie mania, Hallmark has recruited Ben Savage to fill the gap. A Christmas enthusiast, Sad Career Woman™, restaurateur and adoptee (Mia Kirshner) takes a DNA test which turns up some blood relatives. Surprise! They’re Jewish. How do I know they’re Jewish? They run a Jewish deli, are obsessed with dreidels and randomly say things like “shayna punim.” They also inexplicably cover their home with wreaths and blue ornaments. But I digress. Sad Career Woman™ is thrown together with a restaurant critic who once wrote a mediocre review of her lasagna. Sparks fly and noodle kugel is baked. — Emma Gray
“Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” airs again Christmas Day at 2 p.m. ET.
“Operation Christmas Drop” (Netflix)
Just a feel-good holiday rom-com about ... the U.S. military? Perhaps an odd vibe for 2020, but here we are! “Operation Christmas Drop” follows Sad Career Woman™ Erica who has been sent by her tough-on-spending congresswoman boss to cut costs and recommend the closure of a U.S. Air Force base in Guam. She meets hot Captain Andrew who shows her the good works they do at the base, including a long-running tradition of dropping Christmas gifts down to locals on the surrounding islands. It’s called ― you guessed it! ― Operation Christmas Drop. — Emma Gray
“Operation Christmas Drop” is streaming on Netflix.
“A Welcome Home Christmas” (Lifetime)
Can a woman be too charitable? If so, Chloe Marquee is that woman. By day, she works as a counselor helping Army veterans reintegrate to civilian life; by night (and most of the day as well), she volunteers for every soup kitchen and toy drive in town. As she helps recently discharged vet Michael reconnect with the community by involving him in organizing a toy drive, she brings not only Christmas goodwill into his heart ― but also, perhaps, true love. — Claire Fallon
“A Welcome Home Christmas” airs again Tuesday at 2 p.m. EST and is available on demand.
“Christmas Lottery” (BET)
The patriarch of the Davenport family has won the lottery, and he gets all his daughters home for Christmas to celebrate and spend time with their mother who has dementia. Mom goes on to lose the ticket, but of course, that brings the family closer together. The film stars Reginald VelJohnson (“Family Matters”) along with Candiace Dillard (“Real Housewives of Potomac”) and A’siah Epperson (“Greenleaf”). — Erin E. Evans
“Christmas Lottery” airs again Christmas Day at 9 p.m. ET on BET Her.
“Forever Christmas” (Lifetime)
Will is just a simple, hot man who celebrates Christmas every day of the year. Sophie is a Sad Career Woman™ who has lost her love for the holidays and given up her documentarian aspirations for a career as a reality TV producer. When she recruits him for the new season of “Extreme Holidays,” they are immediately drawn to each other’s symmetrical features ― but can love flourish between a soulful Christmas enthusiast and a cynic? Maybe if Sophie discovers she’s not such a cynic after all! — Claire Fallon
“Forever Christmas” airs again Wednesday at 8 a.m. ET and is available on demand.
“Christmas in Vienna” (Hallmark)
Concert violinist sounds like a dream gig, but Jess is a bonafide Sad Career Woman™. She’s lost her passion for music, and intends her solo Christmas concert in Vienna to be a swan song. Then her old roommate, a native of Vienna, enlists her to help babysit the adolescent kids of her cousin, a handsome widowed diplomat. As she plans cookie-baking parties for teens (who actually seem a bit old to need constant supervision), she finds her heart opening to love, stepmotherhood and even the joy of music. — Claire Fallon
“Christmas in Vienna” airs again Christmas Day at 5 a.m. ET and is available on demand.
Time travel, Christmas weddings and a “chicken man” to boot. (Yes, we included Lifetime’s mini-movie “A Recipe for Seduction.”)
“Holidate” isn’t as sunny as these other films. But the tension between Sloane (Emma Roberts) and Jackson (Luke Bracey) fits the bill for a holiday rom-com narrative just like its made-for-TV sistren. You may not root for them to be together — they’re generally insufferable — as they plus-one each other throughout the year at any and every holiday gathering. Fortunately, thanks to a charmed performance by Kristin Chenoweth, there are other plot points to enjoy about this flick. — Erin E. Evans
“Holidate” is streaming on Netflix.
“A Timeless Christmas” (Hallmark)
An inventor living in 1903 is magically transported to 2020, where he meets a lovely tour guide at his now-historic mansion. Not only does he get to experience a 21st-century world, but he gets to fall head over heels for a 21st-century woman ... during Christmastime. Now that’s festive. — Leigh Blickley
“A Timeless Christmas” airs again Christmas Day at 12:30 p.m. ET.
“A Christmas Waltz” (Hallmark)
Weeks before her wedding, a Sad Career Woman™ is dumped by her fiancé and left to take the dance classes they signed up for all by herself. But when she meets and gets to know her hunky instructor, the post-breakup season turns out to be a whole lot better than expected. — Leigh Blickley
“A Christmas Waltz” airs again Christmas Day at 9:30 a.m. ET.
“Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding” (Lifetime)
Who actually wants a Christmas wedding? Not me. I can’t imagine that being convenient for anyone. Kelly Rowland glows in this film as a beaming bride to be who has planned out a glamorous wedding with a fab wedding planner … that is, until he up and quits because her family annoys him about all of the bride’s decisions. Then there are the kids who truly believe in Santa, which is perhaps the perfect glimmer of hope you need. — Erin E. Evans
“Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding” airs again Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. ET and is available on demand.
“A Recipe for Seduction” (Lifetime)
OK, this technically is a mini-movie. But “A Recipe For Seduction” was too corny to not add to this list. And any 15-minute flick that can squeeze in three tropes — a Christmas wedding, an attempt at diversity and featuring a famous famous actor — in record time deserves to be on this list. — Erin E. Evans
“A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado” (Hallmark)
Brooklyn, Colorado, needs tourist dollars to stay afloat, and so Sad Career Woman™ Erin, a city official, needs the perfect tree for a ceremonial lighting. Kevin, a handsome firefighter and single father, has the perfect tree: Not only is it stunning, it actually grows on the land that used to be the town square. Just one hitch: He doesn’t want to let Erin cut down the gorgeous evergreen on his property and haul it away. Let the games begin! Perhaps these two seeming adversaries will come to find they have more in common than they realize ... starting with seasonal spirit. — Claire Fallon
“A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado” airs again Dec. 26 at 12 a.m. EST.
Just two tropes in each of these films, and one features some beloved Black ’90s TV stars.
“Midnight at the Magnolia” (Netflix)
Ah yes, the classic Harry Burns-ism comes to a made-for-TV holiday movie: “Men and women can never really be friends.” Best friends and co-radio hosts Maggie and Jack are trying to climb that corporate audio ladder and get their show nationally syndicated! In order to drum up interest, they decide to fake being a couple after they both get brutally dumped. But will faking it make them realize they’ve actually been in love all along??? Yes. Yes it will. — Emma Gray
“Midnight at the Magnolia” is streaming on Netflix.
“Christmas Dilemma” (TV One)
“Christmas Dilemma” stars one of my (many) actor crushes, BJ Britt, but even his gorgeous smile couldn’t hold my attention with this film. It features a newly married couple who want to have a quiet holiday in their home, but instead their in-laws drop in for an unwanted surprise. Fans of ’90s television will be happy to see Carl Anthony Payne (“Martin”) and Christopher B. Duncan (“The Jamie Foxx Show”) make appearances. — Erin E. Evans
“Christmas Dilemma” airs again Christmas Day at 10 p.m. ET.
“Christmas on Ice” (Lifetime)
Courtney, a former competitive figure skater, runs a free public skating rink ― until the mayor informs her that it’s going to be closed due to budget shortfalls. Noah, a hunky former pro hockey player and widowed father, is opening a huge indoor winter sports center in town. His daughter, however, prefers to take skating lessons from Courtney at the outdoor rink, so Noah decides to help Courtney campaign to save it. Anything can happen at Christmas! — Claire Fallon
“Christmas on Ice” airs again Tuesday at 10 a.m. EST and is available on demand.
One of these films is a must-watch. Seriously.
“Christmas by Starlight” (Hallmark)
Annie is a Hallmark channel “After” picture: Though she’s a lawyer by day, she has gone the wholesome route of family law, and when she’s not helping adoptive parents form their forever families, she’s hanging out at her parents’ beloved Starlight Café. When she learns that the restaurant is losing its lease, thanks to soulless real estate developers, she races over to beg for a reprieve. William, the lazy but debonair son of the corporation’s CEO, needs to throw a glitzy benefit to prove to his father that he’s ready to take over the reins. Their paths collide, a deal is struck, and soon Annie is teaching William all about cafés, competence and Christmas cheer. — Claire Fallon
“Christmas by Starlight” airs again on Christmas Day at 3:30 p.m. ET.
“Jingle Jangle” (Netflix)
This is the best Christmas movie of the year, and I don’t need to see more than the 10 new holiday films I’ve watched in 2020 to be sure. The costuming, the storylines, the music, the performances are all stellar. It probably doesn’t actually belong on this list, per se, but you should definitely make the time to watch this with your family. — Erin E. Evans
“Jingle Jangle” is streaming on Netflix.