Cozy Tales for Hard Times: Holiday Romance Novels

It’s beginning to look a lot like holiday romance novels and film season! I know the films, in particular, are fodder for many jokes and memes, given their ubiquitous tropes and their market saturation—failing Christmas tree farm? Corporate workaholic? Someone who doesn’t appreciate the spirit of the season? Or, my favorite—snowed in with someone you’re desperately trying not to fall in love with. Like other media that are targeted toward a primarily female audience, they’re easy to make fun of. And yet, their wide popularity suggests they meet various needs viewers have for comfort, tradition, nostalgia, and fantasy of a less-troubled world, something many of us might crave this year more than ever.

As I sought to diversify my Hallmark holiday viewing last year by turning to the written word, I discovered the world of holiday romance novels and novellas, and read several notable offerings:

How the Dukes Saved Christmas anthology

Mangoes and Mistletoe, Adriana Herrera (previously reviewed here)

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant

Christmas is Coming, Katie Porter

This year, I’m finding extra comfort in two recent holiday novels: Alexis Stanton’s A Timeless Christmas (2018) and Stacey Agdern’s Miracles and Menorahs (2020).

A Timeless Christmas, published in 2018 by Hallmark, was optioned for a film adaptation which debuted on November 15, 2020. I was especially eager for this novel and film, because the author, Alexis Stanton, also writes under the pen names Eva Leigh and Zoe Archer. I adore Leigh’s historical romance series the Wicked Quills of London, which features bold women writers. A Timeless Christmas blends contemporary and historical romance into a powerful and sweet tale of love that transcends time.

The novel relies on a familiar Christmas-time trope of time travel. Charles Whitley, a talented industrialist who worked his way up from orphaned poverty, travels from 1902 to present day through the combination of a special moon cycle and a magical clock in his upstairs office. Charles stumbles downstairs thinking it’s the turn of the century only to find a tour group making its way through his home, now a historical attraction. Megan Turner, a Ph. D. in history who is besotted with the past, works at the Whitley mansion. Megan’s love of the past and Charles’ love of the future draw them together in the 21st century. With an adacemic sub-plot, well-developed side characters, and a warm family dynamic, A Timeless Christmas feels like a fluffy blanket—cozy and lightweight.

The film streamlines the story, making a few changes to enhance the holiday timeliness—the time travel clock is transformed into a Christmas clock with “Wind once at Christmas Moon; true love will find you soon” painted on it, which helps explain how and why Charles travels into Megan’s timeline. The acting in this film is better than most, with ample smoldering glances that show the chemistry between the two protagonists. The film also preserves the racial diversity of the secondary characters from the novel.

This year, I wanted to read a Hanukkah novel written by a Jewish author to see how the genre takes shape with an #OwnVoices author. While Hallmark started integrating Hanukkah into its films last year, the representation has been problematic. I was hopeful that a Hanukkah novel would center the Jewish holiday with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Stacey Agdern’s novel Miracles and Menorahs, published in 2020, delivers a sweet story of finding love and preserving culture and community during this holiday season. Agdern creates a quintessentially quaint east coast small town, “Hollowville” that is all too familiar to those of us who love holiday movies (and the Gilmore Girls). Hollowville differs from most small towns by hosting an annual Hanukkah festival. However, a scheming hipster city councilman works to overtake the festival, turning it into a generic holiday celebration that would ultimately center Christmas. Sarah Goldman, our bookish, latte-quaffing heroine, fights to keep the festival decidedly Hanukkah. In this conflict, Agdern neatly shows the ways that shifting Christmas to “holiday” often still centers Christmas, as is the case in the Hallmark holiday movies that were released last year. She shows the ways that a community rallies around this festival that provides a unique identity for the town, as well as helps educate those who are not Jewish about the significance of the holiday and its symbols and foods. Artists, small business owners, and families work together to save the festival, demonstrating the power of community.  

Romance blossoms between Sarah and Isaac Lieberman; the grandson of a beloved town elder, Isaac happens to be a highly sought-after sculptor. He initially refuses to commercialize Hanukkah by creating a large menorah, so Sarah finds other ways to develop the festival and raise funds through commemorative artist items. Their different understanding of art, commerce, and community create conflict in the story, mostly because of a lack of communication. This barrier to romantic happiness is a little flimsy, and easily resolved. With this quibble aside, the novel delivers a heartwarming tale of Hanukkah romance, flavored with sufganiyot and latkes.

While both novels (and the film adaptation) lack the complexity in romance novels I usually read and review, they deliver that cozy warmth and brightness that defines this sub-genre of romance. Both are also “sweet” novels—there are plenty of meaningful glances, hand-holding, and a smattering of kisses. These novels keep the heat level to a minimum, much like the Christmas and holiday movies you’ll find streaming on cable channels, or that mug of warm hot cocoa that you might sip while reading.

By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten

Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of EnglishWriting, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.

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