For those familiar with the Hallmark Channel, hearing that its 2020 annual Christmas movie lineup includes a film with a leading gay couple may seem like a Christmas miracle. The home and family channel is known for its corny Christmas movies that start airing each year in October. They all follow a similar plot that ends in a plain but polished straight couple falling in love during the warmth of the holiday season. Every family in these movies looks like they came right out of a milk commercial — usually white, always bland, practically the Google Image result for “family Christmas stock photo” — and every small town looks like it came right out of a snow globe. But this year, Hallmark’s new Christmas movies are a little less homogenous than viewers have come to expect.

The Hallmark Channel released its first Christmas movie where one of the central couples is made up of two men — The Christmas House, on November 22. Like most of the movies the channel releases, it stars long-forgotten actors Jonathan Bennett from Mean Girls and One Tree Hill’s Robert Buckley. And The Christmas House isn’t the only Hallmark movie anomaly this year.The channel is also releasing Love, Lights, Hanukkah! on December 12, which is centered around the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — another first for the channel.

Hallmark movies are usually not explicitly Christian despite being centered around a Christian holiday, with most films emphasizing themes of family, love and togetherness rather than the birth of Jesus. But the movies attract a Christian audience nonetheless. Considering this, airing a movie with a gay couple was somewhat of a risk for the channel. Some viewers have been especially vocal about their opposition to the film.

It seems the channel tried to ease its audience into seeing an on-screen gay couple by making the characters and plot as palatable as possible. The Christmas House tells the story of two brothers, Mike (Robert Buckley) and Brandon (Jonathan Bennett), who return home for Christmas to help their aging parents go all out in decorating their house for Christmas one last time before the house is sold. Brandon brings his husband Jake (Brad Harder) along with him, while Mike fulfills the typical role of a work-centric, big city main character who gets a second chance to be with his hometown sweetheart Andi (Ana Ayora), the charming girl next door.

Surprisingly, the Hallmark Channel handles gay representation in a refreshing, heartwarming way. Brandon and Jake’s subplot in the movie is about their efforts to adopt a baby boy and not the struggles of coming out to one’s family, unlike so many LGBTQ+ films today. Brandon and Jake are not forced to go through homophobic situations for the sake of drama, but the film does touch on how hard it can be to go through the adoption process.

Overall, Brandon and Jake are treated no differently than how any other heterosexual Hallmark movie couple would be treated. They are allowed to engage in near-constant PDA and even share an on-screen kiss. In fact, the couple is never referred to as a gay couple, and the word “gay” is never used throughout the movie. This doesn’t mean Hallmark is afraid of the word, though, considering that in another one of their new movies this year, A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado, a side character comes out to the protagonist by saying he’s gay.

Beyond the LGBTQ+ representation, the film also shows diversity in ethnicity. Mike’s love interest Andi is portrayed by Colombian-American actress Ana Ayora, and the movie recognizes Andi’s ethnicity and culture by subtly incorporating it into the plot. In the middle of the movie, all the main characters gather at Andi’s mother’s house for “tamale night,” where Andi’s mother and Mike speak to each other in Spanish. Hallmark movies have portrayed interracial and interethnic relationships before, but only rarely, and same-race relationships consisting of people of color are just slightly more common. This new interest in inclusivity could mean a large expansion in the channel’s audience — people who once avoided Hallmark because of its Christian overtones and lack of diversity might give its movies a second chance.

The theme of The Christmas House is maintaining tradition and relationships despite life changes. Mike and Brandon’s parents have to navigate how to stay together now that they’re both retired and have different interests, Mike has to figure out what to do with his life after he lost his job in Los Angeles, Brandon and Jake have to prepare for what future Christmases will look like when they have a kid, and the whole family has to deal with selling its old “Christmas house.” Much like the movie characters, the Hallmark Channel is adjusting to changes happening in its content and working out how to maintain that Hallmark feel in their movies. So far, it looks like they’re doing a good job.

The Christmas House feels like a natural progression in Hallmark’s adaptation to modern times and attitudes. The plot is still wonderfully predictable, the characters are still basic and homely. The end of the movie still fills the viewer’s heart with that signature Christmas warmth. All that’s changed is that kids and families watching Hallmark this holiday season may see themselves represented in a family Christmas movie for the first time.

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