Christmas films are like a visual sugar rush for most of us.
“They feel so warm and comforting. You know what will happen in every film, but you still feel happy watching it,” says Esra Hurst, a Dubai-based American expat and entrepreneur. “It’s like a perfect escape,” she says.
“You don’t need to think much when watching them,” says Rachel Martin, a British entrepreneur based in Abu Dhabi.
While classics like The Holiday and Home Alone serve as a comforting balm for the soul, Martin enjoys the recent craze of formulaic holiday films that now sweep the networks. She illustrates the basic storyline for most of them: A busy protagonist moves from the big city to the small town during the festivities. They meet a person who teaches them the meaning of life. At the end, there’s snowfall, mistletoe, a Christmas tree, and everyone’s happy again.
If it’s so predictable, then why do we like watching these kind of films?
‘The predictability is the charm’
No one wants a Christopher Nolan plot-twist in Christmas films. Some of us just want the assurance of predictability.
“Far from being a detriment, the predictability is a key part of their charm, particularly during the holiday season,” explains Devika Mankani, a Dubai-based psychologist. “This period, steeped in traditions and memories, evokes a need for familiarity and comfort, which these films provide in abundance.”
In a world filled with uncertainties and constant changes, there’s psychological comfort in knowing exactly what to expect, she says. “These films follow familiar patterns: a protagonist overcoming adversity, the magic of the holiday season bringing joy, and a heartwarming resolution that reinforces traditional values,” adds Mankani.
This predictability offers a form of escapism, a respite from our daily complexities. “It allows viewers to enter a world where outcomes are assured and positive, providing a sense of security and control that can be particularly soothing during the hectic holiday season,” says Mankani.
It provides psychological comfort owing to their thematic focus on core values associated with the season, the nostalgia they evoke, and their role in communal and family traditions. “Far from being mundane, their predictability and familiarity are what make them so endearing and essential to the holiday experience,” she says.
“Sometimes, we just need that kind of film that doesn’t require us to use our brain so much,” adds Casey Lauren, a British Dubai-based wellness expert and mindset coach. “People want to see those happy endings. That’s why they like watching the character going on some adventure and then undergoing a transformation,” she says. This formulaic repetition provides us with some form of temporary stability. “It comforts our minds to escape from our reality and watch picture-perfect scenarios and people. It’s like a brief distraction,” she says.
‘Unbelievably cheesy but I am here for it’
“Some of them are so unbelievably cheesy, but I am filled with hope every time I watch it,” says Bhavana Asrar, a schoolteacher based in Ras Al Khaimah.
She tells me about the latest film she watched. After discovering a scene from the film on an Instagram reel, she was determined to track it down. In the final scene, the affronted protagonist stops her lover at the airport from leaving to look after homeless elephants in Thailand.
I was particularly struck by the homeless elephant’s part, and Asrar obliges by showing the video. In the scene, the girl walks in the middle of a festive airport and confronts her lover by saying, “You’re just going to take off for Thailand and build houses for all those homeless elephants without saying goodbye?”
“At this point, I really don’t care about the story or the dialogues. These kind of films, cheesy as they are, still fill me with hope because they’re also so simple and uncomplicated.”
These films are imbued with nostalgia, a powerful emotional state that connects us to our past. They often evoke memories of childhood Christmases, family traditions, or simpler times. This nostalgia is comforting; it's a reminder of continuity in our lives and a connection to our personal histories.
Holiday films do serve as a medium for emotional grounding, explains Mankani. “The holiday season is often associated with an array of emotions, from joy and excitement to stress and loneliness. These films with their themes of love, family, community, and the triumph of good, can act as emotional anchors, reminding us of the fundamental values associated with the season,” she says.
These kind of films often portray an idealised world where problems are easily solved and harmony prevails, which can be particularly appealing during a time when people are seeking to reconnect with these core values, elaborates Mankani further. For instance, Christmas films make the most pressing problem seem so easy, and that’s what people need. Your ancestral land is going to be sold off? Don’t worry, you can participate in the nearest bake-off. You will lose most probably, but everyone will be so impressed with your grit and determination that they won’t buy your land.
“How can you not feel good after watching a film like that,” laughs Asrar.
‘A sense of nostalgia’
Dubai-based Abigail Matthews an American expat, grew up watching films like The Holiday, Home Alone and It’s a Wonderful Life. For her, the entire genre of holiday films just mean good times, delicious food and the warmth of watching these flicks with family and friends. “I don’t think people watch holiday films for storylines and serious criticism. I think it’s about remembering good times,” she says.
Mankani agrees. There are certain kind of holiday films that take us back in time and allow us to relive special memories, associated with the festive season. It reminds people of the time that they could watch cheesy films with their families, or friends. “These films are imbued with nostalgia, a powerful emotional state that connects us to our past,” she says. “They often evoke memories of childhood Christmases, family traditions, or simpler times. This nostalgia is comforting; it's a reminder of continuity in our lives and a connection to our personal histories,” explains Mankani.
Moreover, there’s a shared joy in watching holiday films with your loved ones, explains Lauren, a wellness expert. It has somehow evolved into a tradition. “Holiday films aren’t just about the films, it’s about watching them with your family. So, it really doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen them, or how cringe-inducing some dialogues are. There’s just fun in being together,” she says.
Mankani adds to this and says there is a significance to watching holiday films together. “It’s often a part of family traditions, or social gatherings. It creates a close experience that strengthens bonds, and fosters a sense of comfort and belonging,” she says.