I have a confession to make: Up until very recently, I had never seen a Hallmark holiday film. It wasn’t like my Jewish parents didn’t allow my siblings and me to watch Christmas movies — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a staple in our home — but we never watched Hallmark movies. I just need you to know that before you keep reading: Holiday Date is the first Hallmark holiday film I’ve seen.
Before I watched, I was pretty excited. Last year, Hallmark announced that they were finally adding some religious diversity to their holiday mix with two original Hanukkah movies, including Holiday Date. While I didn’t know what it would be about, it was fun imagining all the possibilities (Alma contributor Kate Schulman even came up with five absurdly good storylines for the taking).
The premise of Holiday Date is simple: Our protagonist, Brooke, is dumped by her boyfriend, Ethan, right before she’s about to bring him to her hometown, Whispering Pines, for the Christmas holiday. Heartbroken, she attends a friend’s holiday party, where she meets Joel. Joel is auditioning for a role in a play about small town America, but he has never been to a small town in America! So, Joel and Brooke’s friends suggest that Joel pretend to be Ethan and accompany Brooke home.
Simple, right? Not really, because you see, Joel is Jewish — gasp! — and Brooke has told her parents her boyfriend, Ethan, loves Christmas so much she calls him “Mr. Christmas.”
Spoilers ahead, so stop now if you don’t want to know what happens or what my feelings are!
Let’s start with the basics: For a “Hanukkah movie,” there’s no actual mention of Judaism, Jewishness, or Hanukkah until 24 minutes in, when the dialogue is as follows (for context, Joel-as-Ethan has just bought Brooke’s family a Christmas tree, without them, and they are annoyed):
Brooke: I know you meant well —
Joel: I get so excited! This is my first tree.
Brooke: You’ve never had a Christmas tree?
Joel: Well, not until now! I’m Jewish.
Brooke: Ohhhh… Okay, why didn’t you tell me?
Joel: Well, I didn’t think it was relevant.
Brooke: No, normally, it wouldn’t be. However, we came here to celebrate Christmas with my family, who loves Christmas! They think you’re Ethan. They think Ethan loves Christmas.
A little later in the conversation, Joel tells Brooke, “Well, I’ve never celebrated Christmas before, but I always wanted to! You know the perfect storybook version: decorate the tree, the stockings on the mantle, Christmas cookies, candy canes, sleigh rides, all the fun stuff! It always seemed so great to me!”
So here is the plot of our “Hanukkah movie”: a Jewish person who longs for Christmas.
On some level, I can give the folks behind this movie the benefit of the doubt: I understand what they were going for. “Christmas envy” is a definite Thing. Take the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ben Sales, who wrote “I celebrate Hanukkah — but here’s why I love Christmas.” Or Alma’s current social media fellow, Rachel Levin, who grew up in Atlanta and always wanted to celebrate Christmas. As Rachel explained to me, “Hanukkah became less of something to celebrate and more something I hated, because it made me different and made me feel embarrassed. I’d compare and contrast Hanukkah to Christmas every year, like Christmas sounds so much more fun, why do I have to celebrate stupid Hanukkah!?”
When I posted in the Alma Facebook group about whether people had “Christmas envy,” the responses ranged from “nope” to so much so that they grew up having a “Hanukkah bush.” So yes, “Christmas envy” is real for many Jews.
But that part of Holiday Date isn’t the issue. Sure, it’s totally plausible that Joel would have wished to celebrate Christmas as a kid. That’s fine! Let him have Christmas envy! Who cares! Not me!
But then it gets weird.
“Your family thinks I am really bad at Christmas and they have no idea why,” Joel says to Brooke later in the film. “Maybe we should tell them?”
“That you’re not my boyfriend?!” she asks in surprise.
“That I’m Jewish. You don’t have to be any particular religion to decorate a tree or feel a sense of goodwill or make a lopsided gingerbread house. Ethan has nothing on me except a little bit of practice,” he replies.
And so here we have our other plot line of the film: that no matter what religion you are, you too can celebrate Christmas. And this, my friends, is where I got uncomfortable.
Christmas is not secular. Christmas is a Christian holiday, and no matter how much Hallmark and consumerism at large want to make it a universal one, it simply is not. As Erin Biba tweeted, “Only Christians think Christmas is secular.” It’s literally in the name:
It's definitely not secular. The holiday literally has the word "Christ" in it LOL.
Like I said only Christians think it's secular now because it has been watered down but the truth is that if you're not a Christian, it is still and extremely "someone else's religion" holiday.
— Erin Biba (@erinbiba) November 18, 2019
Now let me be clear: I have nothing against Christmas! Truly! I just don’t celebrate it, like many other Jews, Muslims, and other people in this world.
But back to Holiday Date.
When Brooke’s dad tastes sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts traditionally eaten on Hanukkah) for the first time, he says, “I’m sold. Hanukkah tastes just as good as Christmas.” Which — does it really? Why do we keep trying to put Hanukkah and Christmas on equal footing? Hanukkah, genuinely, is a minor holiday about religious extremism that only became super popular in America because of assimilation, which is something the Maccabees literally fought against. And to be honest, if we’re talking Jewish holiday food, Hanukkah doesn’t even rank in my top three. If you’re curious: Yom Kippur (fresh bagels, people!!), Rosh Hashanah, Purim.
When it comes down to it, Holiday Date feels more like a Christmas movie with a brief informational PSA about Hanukkah, and not at all what the holiday is really like for many Jews in the U.S.
Hanukkah, to me, is getting socks multiple nights in a row; it is lighting the candles; it’s fighting over who gets to light the candles; it is my family saying the “Shehechiyanu” every night just because my parents love that prayer and my siblings getting annoyed because it is “only supposed to be said on night one”; it is betting on which candle will last the longest; it is sometimes just not celebrating at all because we are away and it’s really not a big deal. It has never been Christmas, and has never been something I thought was even remotely like Christmas.
In the Washington Post, Britni de la Cretaz writes about how Hallmark’s slate of “Hanukkah” films aren’t just bad, they’re anti-Semitic. “The trope of the sneaky, untrustworthy Jew, who is a perpetual outsider, is an enduring and pernicious stereotype,” she explains. And while I have not seen the other films she discusses, the idea of the Jew as the constant other is troubling. Holiday Date didn’t come off as anti-Semitic to me, but, I see how quickly the line can be drawn from “Jewish person doesn’t fit in” to “Jewish person is the source of all our evils.”
Once Joel finally does tell Brooke’s family that he’s Jewish, they bend over backwards to include some Hanukkah traditions in their Christmas celebration. Which is a nice sentiment, and one that Matt Cohen, the actor who plays Joel, told me (read our interview here). “I feel lucky to be part of a movie that has a bit of a message,” Cohen said. “We might have different beliefs, but the holidays are for all of us to celebrate each other.”
But what he isn’t saying explicitly is that the message of this movie is not that “the holidays” are for all of us — but that Christmas is. And therein lies the real problem with Holiday Date. Hallmark promised us a Hanukkah movie, but instead shoe-horned a Jew into what is fundamentally a Christmas film.
Header Image via Allister Foster/2019 Crown Media United States LLC