It’s December, which means ‘tis the season for drinking giant mugs of hot cocoa, making piles of gingerbread cookies, and lots and lots of ice-skating – at least, it does if you’re a character in one of this season’s many holiday rom-coms. Even in 2020, the end of the year still brings a deluge of festive romances, complete with totally believable plot lines (in The Princess Switch 2: Switched Again, Vanessa Hudgens plays not two but three (!) identical women romping through a fictional European country) and final-act kisses under the mistletoe.
Oh, and snow. Piles and piles of snow.
Despite our overheating planet, the weather forecast in most holiday-themed movies remains largely unchanged. Couples meet cute while wrapped in layers of flannel and cashmere. Nevermind the fact that the world has already warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times and 2020 is on track to be the third-hottest year on record: In the world of Christmas Town, Holidate, and Christmas Ever After, romance – and snowy winters – are alive and well.
Granted, Christmas rom-coms provide escapism in more ways than one. Hallmark, Lifetime, and Netflix are already selling a fantasy in which small-town America is thriving, most women work as novelists or bloggers, and the worst personality trait possible is to be a Christmas “grinch.” Climate change adds yet another dimension: While these movies’ fanciful, snowy backdrops might have once faded into the, well, backdrop, they’re increasingly hard to ignore in a time when so much of our lives are defined by extreme weather events.
Take a few of this year’s seasonal offerings, for example: Christmas Unwrapped is a new Lifetime original movie which follows budding journalist Charity as she goes on assignment to figure out the truth about a mysterious and handsome nonprofit director – who, it turns out, is also the accomplice-slash-friend of Santa Claus. Pro tip: You can tell Charity is serious and career-focused because she says things like “I’d rather be out covering the next Watergate, like a real journalist!” when invited to a gala. Same, girl, same.
As Charity bops around New York City, writes viral blog posts, and gets offered a job at “the Times” (yes, ladies, true love can involve career advancement!), New York City is steadily blanketed in a layer of highly unrealistic snow. Charity and hot nonprofit dude take a romantic stroll in the park? Snow. Charity runs to the newsstand to find a copy of her latest article? Closed due to blizzard. Yes, I know the East Coast has seen a few snow flurries this month, and there’s a nor-easter due to hit midweek. But by all meteorological accounts, Winter Storm Gail will be no matchmaker, with cities in its path bracing for strong winds, power outages, and tree damage. In other words, not exactly romantic conditions.
Then there’s Netflix’s Midnight at the Magnolia, where childhood-friends-turned-Chicago-radio-hosts Jack and Maggie pretend to be in a relationship to … get their show on satellite radio? Duh. Surprise, surprise, they fall in love, and Maggie’s father encourages Jack to propose after approximately 5 seconds of dating. Cue an L.L. Bean-inspired snowy sledding montage! Nevermind the fact that Chicago was a balmy 57 degrees F last December 25 — the second warmest Christmas on record.
Of course, the right weather can make for a great romantic backdrop. Who can forget the scene in The Notebook when Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling kiss in the pouring rain? Or the end of Bridget Jones’s Diary, when Renée Zellweger charges out onto a snowy London street in her underwear to catch Colin Firth? But under climate change, the flurry-obsession of Hallmark Channel’s greatest directors starts to feel — if not hackneyed — at least a little nostalgic.
According to an analysis by the nonprofit research group Climate Central earlier this year, rising temperatures are shrinking snowfall in many areas of the country, particularly during fall and spring; Chicago, a snowy bastion of the Christmas genre, now sees around 4 fewer inches of winter snow than in the 1970s. Sledding, skiing, and outdoor ice-skating — the best activities to do with a romantic partner who looks like a J. Crew model! — may all be in jeopardy as temperatures rise.
That doesn’t mean that everywhere is getting less snow. Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central, said that winter snow has slightly increased in the Northeast and upper Midwest, where it’s so cold in January and February that a couple of degrees of warming haven’t made much of a dent. New York City, for example, has seen increasing snowfalls over the past several decades (although still not nearly as much as commonly depicted in this season’s Lifetime movies!). But in the long run, those gains are likely to disappear.
“The colder climates are still going to have snow for a while,” Sublette said. “But as we get close to mid-century, those opportunities for snowy winters are really going to start to dwindle.”
The lack of snow in several classic Christmas locales has already required filmmakers to get creative. Many Christmas rom-coms are filmed in Canada (Christmas Unwrapped and Midnight at the Magnolia were both shot in Ottawa) with the help of industrial snow-blowers and the country’s slightly colder temperatures. Visual-effects experts also use fire-retardant foam, soap bubbles, crushed limestone, or snow blankets to simulate that “White Christmas” ambiance.
As the climate warms, these fake snow-making techniques will be on the rise — and so will the chasm between our treasured festive romances and reality. Granted, it can feel kind of good to travel into a winter wonderland that’s as devoid of climate change as it is of the restrictions (and masks!) of COVID-19. (Amid today’s lockdowns, just a quick scene of an indoor, poinsettia-filled holiday party filled me with aching wistfulness.) But will we still be watching these blizzard-filled flicks in 2030? Or 2050? Or will they start to feel too much like fantasy — a nostalgic imprint of the world that came before?
“They’re nice movies, they’re fun movies to watch,” Sublette said. “But just always remember it’s escapism. You can romanticize your relationships, and you can romanticize the weather just as easily.”