The end of the year is near, which means my DVR is working overtime, choking on a veritable cornucopia of films like "A Very Merry Mix-Up," "Snow Bride" and "Fir Crazy." (Yes, those are all real movies.) It's the season when channels like Hallmark, Lifetime and ABC Family spruce up their joints and hang the tinsel for the annual deluge of made-for-TV Christmas movies. Sure, they're not big-budget features like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" or "The Santa Clause," but these films are instant classics in their own small way. Their titles may seem interchangeable ("Hitched for the Holidays" vs. "Holiday in Handcuffs") but they all have that special holiday secret sauce that will make you smile.
As you'll see from the list below, there are certain ingredients to a successful made-for-TV Christmas movie: It usually involves a little romance. One half of the couple gets stuck (car troubles, snowstorm) in a comically charming small town. That's where we meet the counterpart, who's quirkily obsessed with the holiday season and helps our protagonist shed his or her Scrooge-like ways. Toss in a once-famous actor and you're good to go.
I also need to confess I have a fondness for Christmas movies that take you behind the scenes of Christmas - i.e., films set at the North Pole, in Santa's Workshop, etc. So this movie doesn't disappoint. Nick Snowden (Cavanagh) is a new kind of Santa Claus: He's young, single and clueless about women. With the holiday only three days away, an escaped reindeer leads our hero on a rescue mission to Earth to save Christmas, and find his future Mrs. Claus.
Needless to say, he saves Christmas and meets his soulmate - and she just happens to be extremely charming. It was so good, ABC Family made a sequel (the aptly titled "Snow 2").
'Trading Christmas' 'Debbie Macomber's Trading Christmas' (2011): Not to be confused with the similarly titled "Switchmas," this made-for-TV movie is based on a popular novel, and stars - you guessed it - Tom Cavanagh. In this one, he plays a writer struggling to finish a novel. He decides to leave the mad rush of the city behind and spend the holidays in a charming (!) small town where he not only completes his novel, but finds love and the true meaning of Christmas.
Author Debbie Macomber has created a cottage industry for fictional small-town romance. She's also the brains behind the Hallmark Channel's popular Andi MacDowell show "Cedar Cove" (which itself has a special Christmas episode). Her novels are all best-sellers and have a rabid fan base. Indeed, the New York Times recently reported about a Macomber-themed cruise where the author gave knitting lessons to the attendees, among other things.
And a bonus nugget of trivia: This movie also stars Faith Ford ... who starred in a sitcom with Kelly Ripa ... who starred in the TV show "Ed" ... as the girlfriend of Tom Cavanagh.
'Santa Baby' 'Santa Baby' (2006) and 'Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe' (2009): This movie has a bunch of things going for it: Jenny McCarthy (yes, that Jenny McCarthy), and it introduces George Wendt (Norm from "Cheers") as Santa Claus. (He'll go on to be Santa, the role he was born to play, in at least two other movies.)
"Santa Baby" is about Mary Class, a highly successful business executive who just happens to be the daughter of Santa Claus, although none of her Big City colleagues are in the loop about her background. But when her father falls ill, Mary returns to the life she left behind at the North Pole to take over for her dad and implement her innovative ideas for running Christmas. It's a real lesson in logistics and efficiency. This film also does a great job of showing the inner working of Santa's Workshop (elf office politics included).
In the sequel, "Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe," the stakes are a little higher. An elf tries to steal Mary's boyfriend - not to mention her job overseeing Christmas. Sadly, there are two bizarre casting changes in this installment. Mary's boyfriend is mysteriously played by a different actor than in the original and - perhaps more quizzically - Wendt is no longer Santa Claus. That fatherly role is now played by Paul Sorvino (who's more used to playing mobsters in movies like "Goodfellas" and "The Gambler.")
But not to worry. Wendt returns as Santa in another movie ... (keep scrolling).
'Merry In-Laws' 'Merry In-Laws' (2012): Wendt reprises his role as Old St. Nick (yeah!), this time as a beardless Santa along with fellow "Cheers" alum Shelley Long as his doting wife. Yes, yes, it's a match made in Yuletide heaven.
"I love doing Christmas movies and I've easily done half a dozen - probably more," Long told a reporter when this film was released. "The minute they say it's a Christmas movie, it approaches my heart. So I read it and I thought it was very cute and fun - and then somebody mentioned that maybe George was going to do it. And I thought, 'Ohhhh, I've got to do it!'" This Lifetime Channel movie tells the story of Peter, a teacher who becomes engaged to an astronomer. When he introduces his fiancee to his parents, the truth is revealed: He's the son of North Pole celebrities Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.
The film is directed by actress Leslie Hope (known for playing Kiefer Sutherland's wife on the hit show "24"). Hope is expanding her Christmas repertoire - she directed "A Very Merry Daughter of the Bride" in 2008 and "Christmas on the Bayou" this year.
'Finding Mrs. Claus' 'Finding Mrs. Claus' (2012): Grab two elements from movies mentioned above - an acting Sorvino and a romantically challenged member of the Claus clan - and voila! You have "Finding Mrs. Claus." This movie should not, under any circumstances, be confused with 2004's "Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus" starring the great Steve Guttenberg (or that film's underrated 2005 sequel, "Meet the Santas.")
The plot is simple, yet circuitous: When Mrs. Claus (Mira Sorvino) feels neglected by her less-than-attentive husband, she travels to Las Vegas (of course) to help a little girl with her Christmas wish. But when Santa finds out and follows her to Sin City to make amends, he puts Christmas at risk when things don't go quite as he planned.
This is one of the few films where the ups, downs, feats and foibles of Santa's married life get the romantic-comedy treatment. Yet it somehow remains G-rated, even after a woman seduces Santa in his hotel suite.
'Holiday in Handcuffs' 'Holiday in Handcuffs' (2007): This movie hits the mother lode of 1990s sitcom stars because it features Melissa Joan-Hart and Mario Lopez, who play arguably the best roles of their lives.
Melissa Joan-Hart portrays a struggling artist who's working as a waitress to make ends meet. One holiday season, under intense parental pressure, she snaps. She kidnaps one of her restaurant's customers and drags him home to meet her parents at Christmas. The tagline? "She's bringing home the perfect boyfriend - even if it is a felony." Pure genius.
And you'll never guess where she lives: a scenic, charming, snow-covered town. Yes, it's formulaic, but that's the point of these films. You know what you're getting into when you sign up. It's comfort food. It's a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Expensive, theatrically released Christmas movies often aim too high (big stars, big budgets) and end up flopping at the box office. With "Holiday in Handcuffs," you know exactly what you'll get - which makes it hard to be disappointed.
'Hitched for the Holidays' 'Hitched for the Holidays' (2012): Here's the pitch: An attractive pair agrees to be each other's significant other throughout the holidays to keep their meddling, overbearing families at bay. It stars '90s TV icon Joey Lawrence (of "Blossom" fame) and Emily Hampshire (whose IMDB page seems to indicate she needs a better agent). After meeting through an online ad ("Humbug Harry seeks Holiday Angel"), a mutually beneficial deal is sealed.
But this is a Hallmark movie, so we're not surprised when the two fall in love and extend their relationship beyond the holiday season. (I hope I didn't just spoil the movie for anyone.)
What really sets this film apart is that the female lead is Jewish, which means the guy (yes, Joey Lawrence) has some funny scenes where he pretends to be a member of the tribe to fit in with her family. His Hebrew blessing while attempting to light the Hanukah candles is comedy gold. To quote the inimitable Lawrence himself: Whoa.