After the 50th person I see wearing a “This is my watching Hallmark Christmas movies shirt” shirt, I stop trying to keep count. A sip per shirt would have made for a good drinking game for somebody with a death wish. By hour six roaming the floors of a convention center in New Jersey for Hallmark’s first ever ChristmasCon, that somebody is me.
The three-day event promises all things merry and bright. Specifically, all things merry and bright brought to you by the television network with a cult following, where attractive people in places like Evergreen, Vermont, and Santa Claus, Indiana, always get a white Christmas and a kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The convention is the brainchild of Thats4Entertainment, a friend group of four women who decided a year ago to channel their love of the holidays into a weekend of festivities, centered around Hallmark’s Christmas programming. Their big break was booking Lacey Chabert, the Mean Girls actress who has since starred in almost as many Hallmark programs as there are letters in her name. She was the linchpin, organizer Christina Figliolia tells me: “We knew if we could get her, we could do this.” Hallmark came on later as the official sponsor. All in, they booked over a dozen current and former Hallmark celebs, including Chad Michael Murray, Melissa Joan Hart, Rachel Boston, Paul Greene, Alicia Witt, and Jackée Harry.
At the center of the convention is a small, branded-Christmas wonderland. It’s composed of several staged living rooms, complete with couches tucked beside a crackling fake fireplace, circling a Christmas tree. In lieu of an angel, it’s topped with a golden crown, Hallmark’s logo. There’s a line one hundred people deep to take pictures inside of a red-glittered box with a cutout in the shape of an ornament. All around, volunteers in “Santa’s Helper” shirts grab iPhones from attendees and snap their pictures. Some took the gig just to get into the event.
A single-day, general admission ticket for Saturday cost about $50. The initial run of tickets sold out fast and the second wave, one attendee tells me, was gone in four minutes. Her husband bought her two tickets for $500 on eBay as a combination Christmas-birthday gift. General admission got you into the venue, which included two days of panels featuring actors, podcasters, and Christmas movie writers. (VIP ticket-holders got to cut the line for better seats.) Wandering around, I see a dozen or so vendors. A face-painting booth next to one for Fios. People selling Matryoshka dolls, dish towels, ornaments, and insulated coffee mugs emblazoned with things like “Lipstick and Lattes” and “Pretty Sure My Soulmate Is Coffee.” A podcast host selling T-shirts tells me they were not prepared for the crowds and have sold out nearly all their merchandise midway through day two.
I meet a woman who is hoping to win the day’s ugly sweater competition. She’s dressed as a human Christmas tree, covered in translucent ornaments stuffed with pictures of Hallmark actors. Further back, people queue in corrals wrapped in tinsel, waiting to take selfies with the celebrities of their choice. This is not included in the entry fee. Prices vary by actor, but a selfie and an autograph will set you back around $60. If you want a professional photo, that’ll be another $50. An additional $10 if you want a digital copy. Sales at the event are cash only. I find myself repeatedly thinking about the first syllable in the word “convention.”
There are vendors selling food, I’m told, though the lines snake so far back I never get close enough to assess. A coffee cart offers hot cocoa and $6 lattes, but no drip. A woman walks by clutching a silver stein full of craft soda, $17 with all-day free refills. “We just wait in lines today, it’s what it’s all about,” I hear a woman tell a child. Screens in the venue display Instagram posts using the event’s hashtag, #ChristmasCon2019, in real-time. On Sunday, a friend attending sends me a picture of a caption she spotted shaming the event organizers for creating a “total mess” and “horrible experience.”
Not everyone is unhappy, though. As with most fan-centered events, the joy derived depends on what value a given attendee ascribes to meeting a Hallmark star. For Wade, a twenty-something in a custom “I’m only here for Lacey” tee, the price point to take a picture with his crush was more than worth it. Some people are excited to get the chance to step up to a microphone and ask their favorite Hallmark actors to describe their favorite Christmas traditions. Chad Michael Murray explains he’s very “traditional,” an adjective he uses repeatedly while providing minimal concrete examples.
The crowd is predominantly women, who are predominantly white. There is no line for the men’s room. (Later in the day, I notice someone has taped a makeshift “WOMEN” sign over the men’s bathroom door.) I take a picture of a man wearing a homemade shirt, “ChristmasCon 2019 … BECAUSE MY WIFE MADE ME.” He turns around to make sure I see the back, “#HappyWifeHappyLife.” I talk to plenty of intergenerational groups, moms and daughters and granddaughters who all love, love, love Hallmark movies. They love the countdown to Christmas that starts in November. They love Christmas in July, when Hallmark screens movies during the summer. Over and over, people tell me Christmas movies are their preferred form of escapism in a fraught world. One woman tells me she considers them “happy white noise.” Another says her husband makes fun of her for watching them because, “the people who watch those movies voted for Trump.”
Cheer at ChristmasCon is brand agnostic, at least as far as apparel is concerned. It’s a Hallmark-centric event but many are also here for the general merriment. A “Winter Is Coming” sweater sidles up next to a person with an A Christmas Story leg lamp knit next to a “Carly Sleigh Jepsen” sweatshirt. “Straight Outta Compton” becomes “Straight Outta North Pole.” Someone with Elf’s “Santa I Know Him” screen printed on their chest stands beside someone wearing a top depicting Santa doing yoga (“Namasleigh”). The Friends holiday armadillo makes an appearance. I see a number of shirts I’m pretty sure were generated by a neural network trained on Christmas keywords to sell via Facebook ads. “Reindeer and candy canes and magic and wine and seasonal affective disorder.” “This girl loves Hallmark Christmas movies and lockets.” (I only made up one of those.)
There’s one Hallmark anchor who is noticeably absent. The company severed all ties earlier this year with Lori Loughlin following Operation Varsity Blues, which busted Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, for paying half a million dollars to have their daughters falsely recruited to the University of Southern California crew team. (The couple pleaded not guilty.) Loughlin, along with starring in a handful of holiday movies, was a lead in When Calls the Heart, Hallmark’s longest-running and most-watched series. Hallmark released the rest of the 2019 season with Louhglin’s scenes edited out. When Calls the Heart’s Christmas special is the crown jewel of Hallmark’s Christmas countdown, airing on December 25.
“I don’t look at it as a post-Lori economy. Those are words that don’t even relate to me at all,” Paul Greene, one of Loughlin’s former castmates tells me when I asked about the vibe at Hallmark in the post–Lori Loughlin economy. (My words, not his, as Greene would like to make it clear, Hallmark, if you’re reading this.) “It’s not an economy, and it’s not post-Lori. It might be an environment where one of my dear friends is going through a struggle,” Greene says, describing Loughlin as a “lovely human being.” “If you were my friend I wouldn’t stop supporting you if you were in trouble or if you were accused,” he adds. “Whatever she needs all of us are here for her.” I make a mental note in case I ever find myself rich enough to spend a cool $500,000 committing fraud and need a pal. Jonathan Bennett, a Hallmark regular you probably know as Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls, echoes Greene. He’s known Loughlin for “decades.” “It’s a hard thing for everyone involved, including everyone at Hallmark,” Bennett says. “There are no winners in this situation.”
On the convention floor, feelings are mixed, but mostly sympathetic. Even Hallmark’s fans are true to it’s all-positive brand voice. “Poor Lori,” one When Calls the Heart fan tells me. She thinks Hallmark was right to cut ties but is hopeful for a Loughlin comeback. “I know it was wrong,” says Dina, a mother whose daughter is wearing a skirt completely covered in wrapping bows. “But honestly, I used to work on Wall Street. What’s the difference between what she did for her children … and one of the partners I used to work for who donated a library.”
Later in the day, Bennett and Chabert answer questions on a Mean Girls–themed panel hosted by Jacks and Shawl, two women who run the Hallmark Channel’s official podcast. “Ho Ho Ho,” a mystery voice booms over the speakers toward the end of the hour. It’s Daniel Franzese, the actor who played Damian in Mean Girls, making a surprise appearance. He’s handing out candy cane grams and, naturally, there are “none for Gretchen Wieners.” The crowd screams. Franzese talks about what it meant to play an openly queer character in 2004. Earlier in the day, I asked Melissa Joan Hart if she thought we’d ever see a Christmas movie center on an LGBTQ+ story line. Made-for-TV holiday films have made strides toward better racial diversity in recent years, but the yuletide has yet to be made actually gay. “Well … Love, Actually,” she said tentatively. (All the plotlines in the 16-year-old movie are about straight couples.) Hart realized I meant a queer movie on Lifetime and pivoted to telling me about her scripts for next year. “The one I’m working on right now is more centered around bringing a mom and dad back together,” she says.
At the end of the panel, Bennett urges everyone to take out their cell phones. “Jingle Bell Rock” starts playing, and he performs the risque talent-show version à la Lindsay Lohan. A PR person for the event reminds me and another reporter the panels have a strict no video policy and she’ll be coming after us if we post anything. The person on playlist duty clearly has a sense of humor: “The Hanukkah Song” by Adam Sandler plays overhead.
Next up, a mixed bag of Hallmark stars, including Holly Robinson Peete, Alicia Witt, Nikki DeLoach, and Murray, take the stage. During the Q&A portion, a fan steps up to the microphone and thanks Murray profusely for being so kind and genuine to her and her friends while taking the photos they paid extra to take. Another attendee takes the mic and asks the actors to name their favorite non-Hallmark Christmas movies. It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Love, Actually. My stomach growls and, armed with the knowledge that when it comes to Christmas movies, stars really are just like us, I head for the exit. On my way out, I spot a kid in a Grinch tee. How the grift stole Christmas is more like it, I think to myself.