Skip to content

Spirit Week

For most of my life, I’ve been in school. The rhythms of the school year are twined in my DNA, thanks to decades of familiar rituals and rotating seasonal decorations, recurring music programs and quarterly milestones. In fall we open our classrooms and welcome each other and new students. Over the next weeks, we find our way into community. Those months give way to winter sniffles, indoor recess, and snow days… followed by the slog through February into March and the hopeful countdown to Spring Break that makes spirits lift. April testing leads to May rites of passage and June’s quiet days of packing up, as we close the door on the year and depart for the summer. For all of my adult life, I’ve lived to the steady beat of those rhythms. My heart is tuned to them still.

In every teacher’s closet a small section of extremely odd things exists. They’re grouped together at the back behind “regular clothes,” and they only make sense to fellow educators. The collection might include a poodle skirt, Hawaiian attire, crazy hats, an amazingly ugly shirt/skirt combo, flapper beads, a superhero shirt, an entire outfit in one color—like orange. You get the idea. This, friends, is the “Spirit Week” collection. The runways in Milan and Paris will never see an array of pieces quite this stunning and eclectic, but I guarantee most American educators could assemble something similar in five minutes. My own collection has a VERY cool silver hat with a huge drooping feather plume, a teal vest with black beading and the outline of a phoenix on it, a colorful muumuu/lei combo, plastic nerd glasses, a Superman logo sweater sharing a hanger with bright red tights, footie pajamas in grown-up size, an old prom dress, denim overalls, a black cape/witch hat, a headband with light-up reindeer antlers, and an extremely ugly Christmas sweater. (There’s more, but a girl can’t give away all her secrets.)

We keep these clothes for Spirit Week—a ritual which takes place annually in nearly every school in the country. In some places it lasts a day; in others, it is a full-blown weeklong extravaganza which makes every other profession’s “Dress-down Friday” look like a pathetic attempt at variety. In schools, we know change is the true spice of life and the essential ingredient in motivation. Most Spirit Weeks occur in late October or February—the deadly burnout zones of a school year that begins in August and runs through June. In those longer-than-most months, spirits flag and mischief rises in disproportion. Adolescents, left to their own devices, WILL create interesting diversion for themselves because they have a strong sense of self-preservation, and the innate knowledge that boredom simply isn’t good for us. Educators worth their salt foresee this, so we get out ahead of our students ensuring we, not they, control just what kind of hilarity ensues. And so we give them…Spirit Week.

Before Spirit Week, we pump up the energy with pomp and circumstance, herald it with daily announcements, challenges, and homemade signs in the halls. During the festivities, we post pictures in our newsletters and on scrolling video monitors in our hallways. We give prizes and shout-outs to the best “twins” look, the craziest hair, the wildest hats, the best zombie, the teacher who manages to teach on roller blades for a day (yes…seen it…wasn’t pretty). We do our work for a few days dressed in pajamas, Wild West wear, and head-to-toe orange or whatever our school color is. We do this for the kids…and we do it for ourselves. You cannot work surrounded by the lively minds of children without catching the need for some delight in the midst of routine, so when October comes, we roll our eyes JUST a little, and eagerly put together our Spirit Week apparel. We run around the house asking, “Does anyone have fuzzy slippers I can borrow? Or something that looks like leopard print?” “What would a pirate wear?” “Where’s that really ugly flannel shirt; please tell me you didn’t give it to Goodwill?” We spray paint old white tennies with some black to look like saddle shoes, or cross our fingers as we dye our hair pink. A decade’s worth of yearbooks will show that while each year is “tweaked” a bit, Spirit Week retains a familiar undertone of choices. We welcome some combination of cowboy/farmer duds, luau wear, flappers or 50’s outfits, twinning, ugly clothes, inside-outs, pajamas, crazy hair, and weird hats over and over. Also, you can count on at least one day of college/favorite team sportswear. No Spirit Week is complete without one because that’s the day you give a test; assessment demands a bit of solemnity. Or sometimes it’s Wednesday…because…sanity.

It should be obvious by now that I love Spirit Week with all my heart. One of my greatest joys in my chosen profession is the creativity inherent in teaching and learning. Every day is different. Every year is new all over again. But the rhythms that run through a school year provide a steady beat to it all with interesting variations, just familiar enough that the song is one we all know how to sing. And the sound of laughter restores our reservoir of joy and recharges us.

In the next weeks, as we continue our “social distancing protocol,” I find myself mischievously longing for a little of that familiar variation: a little craziness, a little humor, some simple change to the day that makes it all just a little more fun. I smile to think what my husband will say if I come downstairs one morning in my “fancy hat” or Superman tights and sweater. Sadly…a few weeks past my salon appointment, the crazy hair will probably take care of itself.

So here’s my ode to Spirit Week…its powerful sense of fun in the midst of things that may have gotten a little too routine, and here’s to the ingenuity to create the variety that keeps us all young…and strong.

Ripple Effect

My grandparents saved string. I can still picture the Maxwell House coffee can with small coils of twine in my grandfather’s basement workshop. They also saved twist ties from bread…and pennies…and a host of other things—long past what any of us today would consider an object’s “useful life.” They never Marie Kondo’ed anything. The idea of my grandmother pitching items that didn’t “bring her joy” (sorry, Marie) makes me laugh. She had boxes of old photos, dance invitations, pressed corsages, dress-up clothes, books, and family artifacts. Their attic held all sorts of treasures. A basement room my grandfather used for developing photographs became a storage space for stacks of old furniture, equipment parts, and all manner of “reusable” objects. We called it “the dark room” not because of its former use, but because it was pitch black in there, and my siblings dared each other to see who could last a minute alone inside with the door closed to prove our courage. The dark room—with its silent stacked items and rustles of mice—scared us silly.

But to my grandparents, I think the things they saved brought comfort. Born in 1914, they were in college during the Great Depression, began married life in its shadow, and dwelt from birth to their early 30’s in the space between two world wars and their aftermath. They had lived through scarcity and unexpected change, rations and life disrupted by events beyond control, and they had muscle memory of those experiences that kept them from getting rid of broken chairs and pieces of string. “Now this might come in handy someday,” Gramps would say about something approvingly as he showed us some item stashed in the workshop—an old stair spindle, reclaimed wood, cans of random nails, old cigar boxes. My grandmother washed the pimento cheese spread glass jars clean when they were empty and showed me what lovely juice glasses they made. Her freezer in the basement was full of food to last months. They wouldn’t bat an eye at the empty shelves we saw at Kroger this week. They were always stocked up.

In unusual times, things change in big ways, but I think it may be the small ones that have the greatest ripple effects. The 1930’s economy eventually rebounded, but my grandfather saved every spare penny in a wooden bowl on top of the refrigerator, rolled them in coin wrappers when it got full, then took them to the Teachers Credit Union to deposit. He always told us every little bit counted, even the pennies. Ripple effects from his past experiences impacted him forever.

I’ve been pondering small things this week, and a friend just sent a great piece by AP writer Ted Anthony (https://apnews.com/a82294fc0723630d850603dd7b016ad5) that noted how many impacts the momentous events of the last days have also had. He writes of change that took place because of things we didn’t do. “In first kisses that didn’t happen. In skies that weren’t as polluted. In trips of a lifetime that weren’t taken. In inspirations that didn’t strike, conversations that didn’t take place, photographs that weren’t snapped, videos that weren’t made.”

Two women I passed in the parking lot at the grocery store were commiserating over the fact that their children likely wouldn’t have college commencement this spring because “everything has changed now.” Being a storyteller, I found myself picturing a scene decades hence when those same children, now parents, are snapping at some lethargic college senior of theirs, “You’re RIGHT I’m making a big deal over this…because I never even HAD a graduation, so we ARE inviting everyone, and we ARE having a celebration because it’s important to me. So deal with it!” It made me laugh a little, but I suspect the echoes of this time will linger in lives and psyches long after it ends in small, nearly imperceptible, ways like that.

The question is this: what will those ripple effects be? Will we be closer to our families and friends after having spent time apart or in close quarters together? Will we have some new skills we learned in isolation? Healthier habits? Extra pounds? Will we finally take time to exercise every day even when we return to busy lives because we realize it kept us sane, or will our new best friend be ice cream? When we go back to work, will we have MORE meetings because we’re just so glad to sit in a room physically together even if the work could be done more efficiently via email? Will our muscles remember caring about each other and doing hard things together for the greater good? Or will we just have a basement full of paper towels, canned goods, and soap forever?

We don’t know the answers right now, and we may never. Still, I hope we will take less for granted on the other side of this crisis, be more aware that tomorrow is not promised, and know that people matter more than stuff, busy schedules, or the trivia that often distracts us. Perhaps that won’t happen. Then again, for their entire lives, my grandparents saved string.

My kid’s home from school…5 good “now what?”s for parents

Having spent most of my life with adolescents, I know two things you don’t want for them: a lot of time with nothing to do and a feeling of boredom. With schools out for possibly several weeks, whether you are a parent who is working remotely, always at home, or going to work as usual, here are five things to expect of your kids while they stay home to “e-learn” or “extend break.” Think about how you could put a little routine in place for each “school day” (with their input, of course). —You could even consider making this like the school day: 1st period, 2nd period, 3rd period…and write out what happens each hour of the morning and afternoon. They’re used to that structure. The familiar is calming. (Even griping to your friends about how weird your mom is about this is familiar…and therefore calming.)

1. Exercise/Movement: They need it. If they’ve been bad about getting it, great time to start. If they are used to PE/Wellness class and passing periods every 45 minutes and “recess” and walking to and from the bus and sports practices…they need it MORE now. Assign it. Ask them what they did. They can use exercise videos they stream from Youtube, a list of calisthenics you put on a chart and they check off, equipment you have at home, jump ropes, etc. Exercise experts recommend 30 minutes of cardio daily (steady-state or interval with warm-up and cool-down and stretches). Strength and core work with simple exercises like push-ups, squats, and crunches are good for everyone, and they can chart their progress over a few weeks.

2. Fresh Air: People need sunshine and air. If your kids can get outside safely for a walk/run/exercise/playtime with the dog/shooting baskets/etc., insist that they get out every day to do this. If it’s only safe with you, then consider making it happen before/after work so you can be with them. If it’s not safe in your neighborhood, can you drive someplace several times a week so they can? We get Vitamin D from sunshine. It builds our immune system. There’s a reason fewer of us get sick in the summer. Some interesting research has shown that being outside in nature increases endorphins. School unfortunately keeps kids inside for a lot of the day; this unusual break is an opportunity for something they don’t normally get to experience. A morning and an afternoon time in the air is a great stress relief…and really, no one will melt if it’s raining. Grab an umbrella and go for a walk.

3. Purpose: Adolescents need something meaningful to do. They thrive when they get a chance to be part of something that matters. Give them things to do to help the family daily, and THANK them, reminding them “I couldn’t get through this unusual time if you weren’t doing this to help.” This doesn’t sound like, “Watch your sister while I’m at work and there had better not be any problems” or “Clean your room; it’s a pit.” Instead, think of some projects you really need to have done, and put a list together that you discuss with them. Explain what you really need and how it would help you because things are stressful right now. Think of things like doing all the family laundry, making dinner every night so it’s ready when you get home, cleaning out the garage or storage closet, building a set of shelves for the basement or a bedroom, cataloging items for sale/donation and researching what they are worth, getting the yard ready for spring, planting pots for your home or balcony garden, cleaning off furniture, washing windows…watching a YouTube video to figure out what’s wrong with that blender or why the car is making that weird sound and reporting back to you. A teenager who is home from school is the PERFECT person to check in on an elderly relative by phone each day or teach Grandma how to use email. They can also make a scrapbook out of all that “stuff” you’ve been saving or the pictures from that vacation five years ago. They can organize recipes, mail, sock drawers, sports equipment, coat closets. You know your kid best. Find things you really need to have done and ASK, THANK, REPEAT. Kids used to help on the farm and have jobs at much earlier ages to help their families. They thrived. Use this time to give them a taste of being needed again.

4. People: Being away from the social excitement of a densely populated school day is going to be hard for many kids. Trying to stay connected could quickly spiral into too much time on social media which experts have said isn’t always good for kids’ emotional lives. Consider how to build time into each day (like “passing periods”) for kids to connect with friends virtually or in person (if you feel it is safe to do so). With kids home alone, it’s easy for working parents to give an edict “no one in the house” while we are gone, but without good strategies to ensure kids can see the people most important to them (their friends), teenagers will, like water, find a way through obstacles. And you may not like what they find to do. Plan for them to have daily social contact at a time and in a way you think makes the most sense. A teenager who is home cannot survive with his six-year-old sibling for long as his only social peer…but being glued to social media or a video game headset 24/7 isn’t the only option. Luckily many of our kids already have ways to connect when they aren’t in person. Remember, though, that at school, a lot of those interactions with peers are supervised by caring adults who pay attention to what’s happening. If the kids are home, this caring adult is now you full-time. Consider asking more questions about who they heard from today, how they connected, what they’re hearing from friends, what different kids are thinking/doing/saying. Also, consider building in some different ways for family members to visit, be in contact, drop by for lunch, etc. Variety IS the spice of life…especially life in “social distancing” land.

5. Interesting Stuff: Even though kids roll their eyes and complain bitterly about how boring school is, at LEAST once a day at school “interesting stuff” happens. Maybe it’s a project in that favorite class, a game/quiz/competition to review for a test, a teacher who really is a great storyteller, a fascinating weird fact, a science experiment, a fire drill, a strange substitute, a really tough math problem, a lively debate in a class discussion, someone throwing up at lunch, drama between friends, a great book a teacher started reading aloud, a new art lesson, a fun song to perform in band/choir/orchestra, a tryout for something, your favorite relays in PE today unexpectedly, someone falling off a chair in science lab…. The list is endless. School really is a cool place to be—trust me, I’ve spent my life in schools. E-learning, even when it’s well-designed is not the same as being there. (If you don’t believe me, think about your virtual work…fun?) It’s why schools matter so much to our democracy. Being together and learning interesting things about each other and the world is how we grow. I suspect if your kids are e-learning for the next few weeks, teachers will help provide some interesting things to do. Think about how to add to that. Is there a list of 10 favorite movies, you’d like your kids to see and talk about with you? Is there a topic you can get them to find out more about (BESIDES hand washing and virus stats)? What about a conversation about ten careers they are interested in and some research to find out which one has the most opportunities, pay, requirements, etc.? Does your kid love animals? Can they find the three funniest dog videos and a few fun facts to show you when you get home from work? Can they start a blog, an online store, an art studio, or learn a new skill from you or someone online? It doesn’t have to be 24/7 fun…just a few interesting things a day to keep their brains growing.

Finally…don’t forget laughter and don’t forget modeling. Laughter takes the edge off many disappointments, and adults in kids’ lives are FAR more important than they will ever let on. They are always watching us, and learning from what we do. This is a weird set of circumstances, and perhaps the most important thing our kids are learning from us is how we deal with unusual events and challenges. Model how we do the things we need to do without complaining and make the best of tough times. And remind them that we generate our own happiness and can choose our attitudes.

Living in the Asterisk

It is impossible to listen to the news this week and be unaffected. Impossible not to wonder what shoe will drop next when the floor around us is littered with footwear already. Ever seen one of those graphs or data tables where one data point is way out of whack with the rest? The line curve with that one precipitous spike or drop? The chart where one year has no data? The statistical table where one record is a huge outlier? That is the asterisk (*). Outliers in a data set, a timeline, or any body of information are often marked with asterisks so a footnote can explain that this wasn’t typical. And right now…well, without a doubt, we are living in an asterisk moment. How do we respond?

What does an asterisk moment require? Right now, I think we must be grateful for leaders in communities across the world who are making difficult decisions with the lives of others held carefully in the balance, for citizens of nations everywhere who are taking a deep breath and doing the best they can, for friends who come together to raise a glass and say “let’s ride this out together,” and for people who still find a way in the middle of a lot of scary news coverage to make us laugh here and there. My brother sent me a funny text this morning about working remotely: “I’m in a four-hour, $18 million meeting with people on three continents, and the cat keeps walking across my keyboard.” It made me smile. We need those moments of laughter even when we are living in the asterisk. Even as we cope with new work environments, canceled trips we had looked forward to, life milestones that must be postponed or different from what we planned, and critical health situations for people we know and love.

Years from now when stockbrokers discuss the market performance, 2020 will need an asterisk. So will medical texts and stat tables showing mortality rates from the flu and corona viruses. Employment charts. Investment returns. Crime statistics. Birth rates. Netflix subscriptions. Educational test scores. Hospital occupancy rates. Pharmaceutical sales. Toilet paper production. Antibacterial soap sales. Sports tournament winners. Olympic records. Tables of attendance at various entertainment venues. Commencement speaker lists. Airline passenger numbers. Hotel occupancy rates. Employment statistics. Tax revenue. Etc. etc. etc. We are living in the asterisk right now, and it’s both uncomfortable and unsettling.

To put it in perspective, I thought this morning about all the other asterisks and obelisks (that little dagger symbol that is used in footnotes when there’s already been an asterisk) that I remember—those in my lifetime and those before. People, like us, throughout history have confronted moments thrust upon them without warning or invitation: they sent people they loved off to war or went themselves, learned to feed their families with rationed supplies, packed up belongings and made the harrowing decision to leave their homelands and become refugees, rebuilt lives and homes when everything was washed away, or went back to work in a city with smoking rubble where two towers full of people used to stand. They, too, were living in what would become an asterisk somewhere later in time. And I’m reminded that I’ve already experienced an asterisk moment…in 2001. That asterisk altered the world my children grew up in although they were too young to realize it or remember how things were before.

It is hard to comprehend that I once stood behind a pilot in the cockpit watching him fly because a flight attendant saw how unhappy I was as we flew through a bad storm and thought it would be helpful, so she invited me up. I’ll never forget standing behind him as he explained that the lightning we were seeing was miles away and that the plane’s skin was designed to shed lightning if we got hit. My kids barely believe that story, but it was a different time. Before the asterisk, we kept our shoes on at the airport, didn’t get pulled aside if our shampoo was 6 oz instead of 3, and never went through a metal detector to enter a concert or football game or school. As a school leader, I also lived through Columbine—one of the first, but not the last, asterisk moments in the world of school safety. It changed our thinking and our practices in ways I can barely recall now because that new normal gave way to an even newer one after Sandy Hook and then again after Parkland. And while I can be sad that our kids have to endure active shooter drills (a topic for another day), I remember getting under my desk for nuclear attack drills as a child and wondering to myself how that desktop would protect us. Asterisk moments change our world, and we respond as best we can to them in the time that we have. But after each of them we regain momentum and continue our lives in the new reality, continuing to adapt to what the moment requires of us. It’s what people do. It’s what makes us human.

I am reminded that history will record how we handle the asterisk, and that in many ways, it will define us moving forward, but it will not defeat us. In the days ahead as we live with a new normal, we will all likely be tested, and what we do matters. We are at a time when steady leadership is crucial, when community could not matter more, when being thoughtful and reasoned and caring about each other and about fellow humans, even strangers, is essential so that we ensure the events around us become another footnote of explanation about a challenge from which, together, we recovered.

Are You Using This?

When we were kids, my dad was constantly griping at us to turn off the lights in rooms we were leaving, to take shorter showers, to leave the thermostat alone, and not to stand in front of the fridge with the door open perusing our options while we let out all the cold air. He thought the dishwasher was a wasteful luxury, insisted we close doors, and taught me never to run the garbage disposal with hot water washing down the drain (there was a time I actually believed the disposal would break if you used hot water). We all rolled our eyes at Dad’s fanatic insistence on this stuff, but when someone is constantly forcing you to return to a room you left and turn every light off while he watches disgustedly, you tend to develop automaticity even if the habit was not your choice. To this day, I reflexively switch the faucet to cold before I flip on the garbage disposal, turn off lights as I exit a room, and feel just a little guilty about standing under a hot shower daydreaming.

Sadly, however, I allowed conservation “drift” when raising my own children. I did not pull my dad’s trick of bellowing from an empty room, “Who left all these lights on in here? Are you using this?” I didn’t knock on their bathroom door and shout, “I’ve heard that shower running for 15 minutes! Turn off the water while you soap up. It’s wasteful to let it run like that.” I didn’t spend the winter saying, “Who turned up the heat? That thermostat is off-limits to kids. Put on a sweater! It’s good for your circulation to be a little chilly.” Nope. I didn’t. My dad’s efforts at conservation were framed around saving money on utility bills, and I don’t worry as much about funds as my parents did (two teachers with four growing kids who ate a lot and needed shoes). So I did a poor job of training my kids to save the planet. I grew complacent about these small personal efforts because I forgot they are about more than money.

With only decades left for our human family to stall climate change before irreversible damage to our earth, it seems crucial that every one of us can name the simple steps within our sphere of influence to reduce carbon emissions. We must also elect people who will make us do the hard things we are too lazy to do: climate change personal trainers who will make us fitter and able to live longer even as we groan at them that this is hard. I loved the warm glow of my old lightbulbs and would not have voluntarily replaced them with those weird LEDs…but I adapted thanks to legislation beyond my control. We bought those twisty bulbs that took a minute to come on. No one died. And the technology improved until now they look like the old ones I’d forgotten I missed…but with 70% less energy required.

I never wish to add one thing more to the plates of busy teachers and parents. Still, we get the joy and the responsibility of the world’s most important work–guiding the next generation who will live here after we are gone. No child should escape learning the list of simple measures to save the planet they will one day need to sustain them. In fact, none of us should be unaware of the urgency of doing these things:

1. Choose a utility company that gets power from renewable sources and certified by Green-e Energy. (IPL is one of those. I checked.)

2. Weatherize our homes, and use less AC and less heat. My dad was right about that.

3. Buy EnergyStar appliances. It’s not much, but it’s something. And if you’re replacing the fridge anyway, pay more attention to that little sticker and less to whether it displays family pictures from your phone on the water dispenser in the door via voice commands from Alexa. Seriously, it’s a fridge. People used to store stuff in a root cellar. We’ll live without the bells and whistles.

4. Turn off the water…hot, cold…doesn’t matter. It all takes energy to heat, purify, deliver–especially the hot. Conserving water reduces global warming. It just does. Every shower my dad cut short by knocking on the wall takes on new meaning in that context.

5. Eat less meat and dairy. Producing them puts a heavy burden on the planet. Plants are better for us anyway. In fact, we could eat less everything. Wasting food wastes the energy it took to produce, distribute, and prepare it.

6. Use the LED lightbulbs everywhere.

7. Unplug things when not in use. Plugged in cords cause something called an “idle load” of electricity use that is a complete waste of power. I’m so glad my dad didn’t know that. I can just picture being called into a room with him pointing at outlets where I’d left things plugged in as I ran around pulling cords from the sockets. We have to keep appliances plugged in, obviously, but we could start different habits of unplugging when we turn things off. Yeah. I know. Sounds ridiculous. So does the idea of Hawaii disappearing underwater and the slew of days with heat index of 110 we just endured! If things change and we don’t…

8. Buy an electric car next time (or a hybrid). Drive it less. Keep air in the tires, and get a tune-up now and then. Apparently the mysterious “tune-up” my mechanic does can improve gas mileage from 4-40%. Who knew? I’m the one looking at the light that signals an oil change wondering, “is this seriously necessary now or just a scam to get the car company more money in repairs?” And even if it is…that new air filter contraption that they always want to sell me apparently does help the planet. It’s not just a “look at your dirty one…wouldn’t you like this clean new one for $15?” thing.

9. Plant trees…as many as you can. Leave them standing when you build…as many as you can. Encourage HOAs, churches, and community groups to do the same. Young trees pull carbon from the air. A trillion trees would scrub the environment clean.

Finally, we really do need to elect serious people who think this stuff matters and are willing to make the hard decisions and economic trade-offs to save us from ourselves. Most of us do default to a short-term gain, “do what’s easiest for me” mindset rather than a long-term, “this is hard but worth it” worldview. Any one of us would save our kids from an oncoming car at risk of our own lives, but unplugging the coffeemaker and the lamp in the family room to save the planet for them feels like more of a pain than we want. That’s why we need legislators and leaders who will make us do the right thing. We need people who will call us into every empty room where we’ve left all the lights on and insist, like my dad did, that we turn them off.

Morning Reflection

Come 

let us see 

what the wide world has for us today.

Snow laid lightly upon each branch, 

Artistry beyond measure, beyond time, 

beyond our own poor ability to create.

Light refracting through crystal droplets 

left one at a time after hurtling miles through space, through air 

to land here in our acre of earth.

Come let us look

and know.

This table was set for us by a universe that wants us here

as audience for the miraculous, for wonder, for gratitude, 

for joy.

What I Learn from Hallmark Christmas Shows

Tom has a weakness for the Hallmark Channel at the holidays (which, by the way, begin in July for Hallmark with a run of movies called, quite accurately, “Christmas in July”). I have tried to forbid these uber-premature Christmas shows in our home, and suggest that the more appropriate time for the Hallmark movies is as soon as Thanksgiving ends (just as it is with Christmas decorations—I’m talking to you, people who put your lights on in October “when it’s warm” AND TURN THEM ON!) or, if you really have to start early, a few weeks before Thanksgiving—so long as the weather is a bit gray and cold outside and most of the leaves have fallen.
(What can I say? I’m a purist. We enforce unwritten rules about these things in our family.)

The Hallmark movies run in the background, despite my rationing, for several weeks or a month each year during weekends and evenings as Tom works and occasionally glances up to say “oh, this is a good one” or “she was the angel in the one about the town without Christmas, remember?” The actors and actresses recycle—sometimes the gruff, graying character actor plays the town doctor, mayor, innkeeper, police chief. Sometimes the bright-eyed, glossy-haired actress in the fuzzy red sweater and big mittens and earmuffs is an angel, elf, orphan, big city CEO who works too hard. Archetypes abound: innocent children who see far beyond their years or the adults’ limited perspectives, busy men who have an awakening to what really matters in their lives, bitter grieving widowers who learn to laugh again, old women who bake, single firemen who happen to love rescuing damsels in distress and who are universally loved by everyone in their small town where there are never any fires… The plots are simple, reminding me of the deck of cards with settings/characters/conflicts I used to give student writers who said, “I’m stuck for ideas.”  

A classic trope goes something like this: we see a woman working busily at her desk on the night of the office holiday party (thank you, Charles Dickens). Her friend and colleague cruises in with a glass of wine and tries to persuade her to come play. The woman insists she has work to do and will be there through the holidays. Later, something will require her to drive a long distance on icy roads into the remote countryside—a boss’s urgent call, a client needing something delivered, amnesia…Her car will break down only days before Christmas outside a small town where the holiday spirit oozes warmth over this disbeliever whose past experiences caused a loss of faith in Christmas, family, love, and spirituality. The town mechanic may collude with the handsome sheriff saying the one part he needs for her car won’t be in on time in order to keep the lonely advertising genius there with them for the holidays (staying, chastely, of course, in a beautifully-appointed guest house owned by some chatty, lonely woman or a large family of children and their available father whose wife died of a tragic disease years ago). Eventually she will find love, and realize it, but not before some giant promotion she has been dreaming of is offered to tempt her away from Angel Falls or Reindeer Point, or River Crossing. Luckily, the local innkeeper is in need of a marketing assistant, and the job is hers if she will only marry the handsome widower and raise the children she has grown to adore (who also love her because she reminds them of their mother whom they do not remember well). They will bake cookies, trim a tree and look at the lights and talk about their childhoods. They will attend the town Christmas pageant or parade or singalong at the gazebo in the park. They will tell stories of how this has always been the tradition here in this little town where no one ever leaves except that one lonely woman’s son who calls at the last minute to say something made him decide to come home this year for Christmas to delight her and make us all a bit weepy.  

The people in this town do not watch or speak of the news or things outside this place. Their whole hearts are focused on each other and Christmas approaching. They don’t seem to know about poverty or tragedy or other scars on the world. They are relatively homogenous other than the different formative experiences that have made them into the archetypes they are, and they fiercely love Christmas and its magical transformative qualities. Cue the music. Oh…and it always snows beautifully in these places—light, fluffy flakes drifting through the air and piling in puffy mounds attractively on corners and shop windows. (Somehow it disappears before it gets gray and slushy, and no one ever has to shovel very much or salt the sidewalks.) Also…dogs. Dogs in Hallmark land lie gracefully on the rug by the fire or frolic in the snow and smile with tongues hanging out. They never eat decorations, poop in the snow, or ask to go out at inconvenient times. And I have never seen anyone feed one. They are magical, these dogs.

While it’s more fun for me than it should be to poke fun at this entire genre designed for grandmothers and shut-ins…and my husband, apparently…I do think we can learn something from the appeal of the Hallmark channel (which has expanded this year to TWO channels—one called “Movies and Mysteries”…ooooh!— and seems to have no shortage of advertisers of all types of polysyllabic pharmaceuticals and house cleaning products). The scary thing we could learn is the appeal of what they are selling: homogenous, non-diverse, small-town, old-fashioned perfection. Certainly, there’s something scary about that being ideal to people who may so deeply want that to be the truth that they cannot accept the reality of our messy, diverse, wonderful actual world or, worse, support trying to bring that world to pass in harmful ways.  I could travel down that dark alley with this line of thinking, but there are also some other more positive things to learn from studying the allure of these shows:

1. People love happy endings, no matter how predictable. Even cynics have to root for the angel-on-assignment-to-restore-Christmas-joy, hoping she will somehow be allowed by her heavenly boss to stay permanently in Reindeer Falls with the handsome fireman to raise a family and direct the Christmas pageant every year. (Not even the fact that most of the leading men are played by attractive gay actors interferes with my desire to see them “get their girl” at the end—although it has made me appreciate their acting skills as they play men swept up by the new woman in town and have to act all bro-y with the attractive mechanic guy at the gas station who would be perfect for them.) It’s impossible not to want to see that inevitable admission of love between our main girl and guy as well as the chaste kiss they will share while the whole town looks on and cheers or the kids spying on the stairs snicker and grin at each other because they’re getting a mooooother! So…what can I say? We’re sentimental saps who’ll believe anything. But that makes me smile. There’s hope for a human race of beings who yearn for happy endings. Perhaps someday we’ll work harder toward making them. 

2. People accept the possibility of magic and wonder all around us—even the very conservative audiences these channels gear toward. Many of the films have a magical component—an angel, an elf, a ghost, a wishing well, an enchanted Christmas statue, time travel, mysterious coincidence, a lucky talisman that’s an old locket or a key…or just some spiritual intervention that causes good things to happen to good people. The fact that these tropes repeat across movies tells me that somewhere we all long for things we cannot know are possible. Again, that makes me smile. Nothing wrong with people hoping the impossible is actually still possible in this world of ours. I especially like the belief in human redemption and the opportunity to change which have their own kind of special magic. Dickens nailed it long ago in his own Christmas classic, but I never tire of it, and apparently, neither do the Hallmark viewers.
It means there’s hope for all of us.

3. No matter how crazy we make the holiday season, people long for the simplicity of traditions and community—pulling out beloved decorations and putting them up together bya quiet fire, a town where people know each other and all fit in the church hall for a pageant year after year, a neighbor who bakes for you, people who notice you’re lonely and do something about it. The same things happen in all these movies because we want them to. People like watching people caring for one another and repeating rituals that represent home and continuity. We live in a busy, changing world where too many of us drive in and out on our busy journeys here and there without even waving to the neighbors, let alone baking for them. We often don’t take time for others or really feel known or seen or listened to deeply. On these shows, people live in small quiet places (where other than the shopkeepers and the waitress who runs the diner, they don’t really have to worry about going to work on a daily basis), so they take the imaginary time they are given by their writers to really know and care for one another…as we wish they would. As for the holidays, the fact that their fictional celebrations don’t ever change plays to our wish that the way they live and care for each other won’t change either. It’s a reassuring message in a rapidly-moving time. The idea that people can be stuck in a perpetual Christmas holiday as life carries a strange appeal.

4. In nearly every one of these shows I’ve seen, no tv/computer/ringing or buzzing phone or video games seem to exist. There’s no Alexa, no Siri, no Roomba, no smart home fridge with digital pictures on it beeping that it’s time to change the filter, no Amazon delivery parade of people dropping cardboard at the door. People do plenty of relaxing by the fire or hanging in the kitchen talking or getting things down from the attic. They do some occasional work outside, help with a community-wide town project, or stand with everyone in the city watching the lights go on in the park and singing carols. They spend time making a special gift to surprise someone (often in a barn workshop which everyone seems to have). They get outside and walk in the snow and cold, enjoying nature or watching the stars. They are never on a device or watching one, unless it’s a scene of someone in an office looking unhappy. Technology is not compatible with things that matter most…even on tv…ironically.

I could go on. The main theme of all these shows is, of course, love. Finding, reuniting, forgiving, falling deeply. The theme never grows old, and for some reason, it is especially potent at the holidays. Seeing people find one another under a sparkling tree or under the stars on a snowy night makes hearts swell and eyes grow moist. And while I often grouse that the people are too perfect, the communities too homogenous, the hair never mussed, the free time unrushed, the women slim and fit without saying no to cookies, and the clothes seemingly self-cleaning…I cannot deny that sometimes, just once in a while, and ONLY once December has come, I like to watch a happy ending or two and ponder all these things.