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Cat Modlin-Jackson | Longreads | December 13, 2023 | 12 minutes (3,364 words)

The first Christmas my sister-in-law was dead, I watched The Holiday. Early in the movie, Cameron Diaz freaks out when she thinks her love interest, Jude Law, is a cheater. She rushes to his house to demand an explanation, and while his two young daughters frolic in the background next to a Christmas tree, he mouths the word “widower.” She responds with a blend of sympathy and solace. In lightning fashion, her reply whips from essentially, Oh god, that’s horrible, to Anyway, moving on! What happens next?! His grief is her relief. Look, I get it: I’d also be relieved to find out my new bonk buddy wasn’t a philanderer. I’m not mad at Cameron; I’m mad that the dead wife-mom is a plot device in more Christmas movies than I can stuff in a stocking. 

This dead wife-mom lurking in the background is rarely relevant to the plot. More often than not, her inclusion only serves as sympathy porn, a cheap move for even the most ostentatiously bad films. She uses our fascination with the morbid for entertainment. For many, a dead-too-soon character is intriguing in the same way as aliens or Santa—something beyond the realms of their reality. Sure, half the season is dedicated to the mysticism of transcendental things: joy, togetherness, and the other stuff that disappears when the Christmas trees go in the trash. But this trope goes a step further in a Christmas movie. It escalates tragic death into magic.

The subtext is that the holiday season is a great backdrop for closure—there’s something in the air and some fluke meeting or supernatural encounter will heal thy spirit. Like in The Knight Before Christmas, when a romance springs up and the love of Vanessa Hudgens’ chainmail bae motivates her to finally bust out her dead mom’s treasured decorations. After years of finding them too painful to look at, all it takes is a few hours with a knockoff King Arthur, and the grief spell is broken. Or again in The Holiday, when a widower can at last open his heart to someone who’s basically a stranger, and the whole family then lives happily ever after (because of course the kids will be equally psyched about New Mommy). Filmmakers use a character’s grief to evoke viewers’ sympathy and cravings for a quick fix. The Christmas widower trope exploits these very human tendencies, triggering sadness for the sake of sadness and making the cheap promise of a neat resolution tied up in a pretty bow. 

*Some names have been changed for privacy.

My sister-in-law Rachel* died at 37. That first December without her, I watched Jude drop the widower bomb on Cameron and absolutely lost my shit. Rachel and I weren’t as close as we used to be by the time she died, but that didn’t make our relationship any less impactful. Nine years older, she babysat me as a kid and played Barbies, lent me jewelry and makeup for hot dates when I was in college, and later, when I decided to marry a guy my brother and mom low-key hated, played diplomat and big-sister advocate. Years more, she named me the godmother of her baby girl—just months before her first cancer diagnosis. 

Sobbing on the couch as I watched The Holiday, I cried for my brother. For my nephews and niece. For her best friend of 30+ years. For me.

Rachel had withered over three years. Then on a muggy Tuesday in July, I watched her die. Worse than that, I watched her husband, her children, her parents, and her friends watch her die. She couldn’t speak because of all the tubes, so her only way to communicate was with a small dry-erase board. We “talked” briefly about my goddaughter, the baby girl she’d waited so long to have, and her eyes lit up. “Isn’t she fun?!” she scrawled with a marker while grinning from ear to ear, even though she knew her fun was about to end. That evening, I took my nephew to Burger King in an attempt to distract him from what we all knew would be The Bad Day. An elementary schooler at the time, he told me he could deal with her never again being conscious for the rest of her life, so long as she was still breathing. My heart broke all over again, this time just for him. Then there was the morning after, when my brother buckled on the stairs, choking out “Oh, god” as he went down. I’ll never unsee it. And that is why I shake my fist when Netflix whacks a woman we never see. 

Grief is not linear. There is no expiration date. It’s a way of life; an existence marked by absence. For a lot of us, this absence is weightier during days of celebration that can’t be erased from the calendar. This time of year it’s omnipresent, touching all the senses. The bright Christmas lights my dead sister-in-law isn’t here to string up. The cheesy songs she’s not singing. The bacon and Bisquick pancakes she’s not eating with us. The gawdawful Christmas movies she’s not watching. All of it’s here. Except her. 

For a lot of us, this absence is weightier during days of celebration that can’t be erased from the calendar. This time of year it’s omnipresent, touching all the senses.

Christmas and death have a weird bond. To act like the latter doesn’t exist amidst the former would be ridiculous. Between Charles Dickens’ merry band of ghosts and a month full of birthday parties for a guy who dies twice after a miraculous birth, Christmastime is one big existential crisis. And sure, a movie can portray loss and grief in a way that the left-behind can actually connect with, and maybe—just maybe—derive a little lightness from. But for that to work, the plot would have to focus on what already exists. To get really corny about it, the magic would have to come from within. That kind of magic is a slow burn; it’s moving forward rather than moving on, whether that’s a daughter who gets by with a little help from her friends or a widower who gets closer to his sister as they help the kids navigate the world without their mom. It’s learning how to live a new life that’s always going to be laced with death.

Magic is in many ways similar to a too-soon death. Profound, ineffable, inexplicable—even when a cause is clearly identified. Humans will never know what death is like. (Well, most of us, though a lot of Evangelicals seem to have a pretty good grip on who’s going to which afterlife party and when.) 

When I was in sixth grade, I first met a kid whose mom had died young. The news whisper-circuited to me: that my classmate, Sam, no longer had a living mother. She’d died of cancer. My internal reaction was the same kind of confused sympathy that I—and many other adults—would still have today: Oh, god. That’s horrible. 

I felt that way for Sam’s dad, too. Solo parenting isn’t easy. Just ask Jake Russell, the leading widower in Falling for Christmas. Not only did his wife die, but she managed to die on Christmas! Without the dead wife, he and his daughter, Avy, don’t know what to do with themselves. Fortunately for them, a concussed heiress named Sierra (Lindsay Lohan), reignites Jake’s loins. Sierra bonds with Avy over the fact that they had both survived their mothers’ deaths at a young age. All family wounds healed, the three go on to live happily ever after at a lodge in the boonies.

When I was in sixth grade Lindsay Lohan wasn’t even a Mean Girl yet, so I had to rely on personal experience to draw my conclusions about what life was like for Sam and his dad. My mom was a single parent. While her divorce from my “sperm donor,” as we affectionately call him, was ultimately a blessing, her attempt to bring home the bacon and still have the energy to function as two parents drained her. Watching her power through exhaustion day after day, I figured life wasn’t easy for Sam and his dad. At the same time, I had absolutely zero idea what they were going through.

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Whether in real life or on-screen, the more intangible someone else’s circumstances, the more compelled we are to understand the whys and hows of their life. People watch The Holiday or somehow manage to sit through Falling For Christmas because movies like these distill foreign circumstances into familiar narratives. For a lot of lucky people, and probably the majority of those watching these movies, the untimely demise of a parent—or partner, or sibling, or close friend—will always be someone else’s story. Fortunately for filmmakers, it’s an easy story to sell. Viewers for whom this experience is unknown are taken to a false low, only to be proffered a hollow high. Using one of the saddest circumstances imaginable, the dead-mom Christmas trope kicks the audience’s emotions into overdrive, leaving viewers desperate for a happy ending. But for anyone familiar with this particular brand of grief, we know that’s not how it works. Instead of rubbernecking, we’re reeling over the reminder that we’ll never celebrate with her again.

We hardly ever see the dead-mom or dead-wife or dead-mom-wife in these movies. Just the sullen expressions of people who describe her with whispers. Then cut to the next scene where the main characters are slinging snowballs and sipping cocoa like nothing ever happened. 

When this woman is mentioned, she’s there as a mechanism to evoke cloying emotional monologues or swoony exchanges. She’s a ghost. An afterthought. Rarely do we even hear her name. We just know her as an absence, a tool to shore up sympathy for the main character. Once that transaction’s accomplished, the ghost is erased—resurrected only to inject superfluous pathos for the sake of an emotional garnish.

After several years of poring over trash Christmas movies, I can reliably say it’s almost always a woman who gets the ax, leaving behind a cisgender widower and at least one shiny half-orphaned child. The implication is that it’s sadder when a woman dies; there’s more emotional currency. A kid has it harder without a mom. And a man having to parent without a woman? Well, obviously, such a triumphant feat can only be achieved by DILFs like Jude Law in The Holiday.  

DILFS aside, this is one way the dead-mom trope doesn’t completely miss the mark. Feminist strides and 21st century be damned, women still do the majority of the physical and emotional labor that goes into raising children, making a marriage work, and keeping everyone happy at Christmas. Filmmakers are simply capitalizing on that narrative to crank out a Best-of-[Insert Holiday Movie Theme Here]-List production.

So far I’ve found very few exceptions to the only-dead-women-in-the-movie rule, including The Christmas Chronicles. I stumbled upon the Netflix hit the second Christmas my sister-in-law was dead. Before you get on my chestnuts, let me reassure you that I started this movie well aware it would be garbage. (I was cross-stitching a gift and I wanted a seasonal background movie.) I came for Kurt Russell and stayed for Goldie Hawn, having no idea what the movie was about. It took all of two seconds to get the gist: Two kids, traumatized by the death of their father, are left home alone while their also-grieving mom, played by Kimberly Williams-Paisley, is working the night shift on Christmas Eve. Santa Kurt shows up, shenanigans ensue, and the teenage boy with an attitude problem has his love of Christmas and nice-boy behavior restored.

And a man having to parent without a woman? Well, obviously, such a triumphant feat can only be achieved by DILFs like Jude Law in The Holiday.  

Unlike the widower-dads who get to be a hero simply for managing to do baseline parenting, Kimberly’s character is out here bustin’ it but her family is still falling apart. Even though the dad in Falling For Christmas is kind of a mess, he’s given grace and sympathy by everyone around him. In Chronicles, however, the teenager’s shitty attitude is cast as a byproduct of the loss of a big strong man who can raise him “the right way.” Kimberly sure can’t do it. She’s out there trying to make rent instead of trimming the tree with tinsel. Suddenly ol’ Kurt Russell shows up in a beard and a sleigh and bim-bam-boom, problem solved.

While men generally have the neat luxury of being able to compartmentalize love, child-rearing, and career, the modern mother is demanded to juggle it all, with or without support. Anything less is a failure on her part. In some ways, my dead sister-in-law was the embodiment of the merry homemaker that Hallmark and Netflix love to torment us with. 

Rachel grew up in Martha Stewart’s House of Christmas. Like the dead moms of our favorite streaming platforms, she carried the weight of the holidays on her back, striving to execute picture-perfect performativity in a commercialist world. She spent time and money she didn’t have shopping for the latest and greatest crap, whatever garland and trimmings Better Homes & Gardens magazine deemed trendy that year. Because that’s what was expected of her.

She adored her children, so I can see why—given that she lived in a world where Hallmark Christmas movies demand nothing but excellence from women—she’d want to give them the inventories of every Target in our tri-state area. But for as much as her labor was one of love, that pull toward performance, toward posting about everything on Facebook and Instagram, toward making sure the tree was surrounded by show-stopping gifts she and the kids could flaunt to the Joneses—all piled up into an impossible to-do list. The toll it took on her was obvious to the women in her innermost circle.

My dead sister-in-law was a human being. She could not emulate a Hallmark movie mom. Nor can her humanity be flattened into a corny hologram smiling over the people who miss her. She isn’t some straightforward Saint Mary watching over all of us. Rachel was complicated and messy and so was her life and her relationships. She gave with her whole heart and, even as her body failed, strived to carry the crushing weight of trying to do it all. It’s exactly this nuance and pressure that dies with these wife-mom characters.  

I don’t know if my nephews and niece have ever seen these movies, but I imagine it would hurt to watch someone gush about how their mom’s not there to decorate the tree. Perhaps worse, a flick like The Christmas Chronicles could give the younger ones the impression that grief can be resolved during the holidays, setting the kids up for disappointment when an angel fails to cross the threshold. I’m not sure how my brother would take it, either. After watching him quiet-cry during a 2020 Super Bowl commercial with an old man telling a Google device about how much he misses his dead wife, my guess is my widower brother probably wouldn’t feel a warm and fuzzy connection with the widowed dad in the Christmas Prince series.

For years now, I’ve wondered if the people who resurrect these zombie wife-moms consider how their creation lands for people like my niece, nephews, and brother . . . not to mention my sister-in-law’s parents and ginormous circle of close friends. What story do writers and producers tell themselves so they can plow forward with the knowledge they could be robbing people of Christmas joy to feed a bunch of unscathed, fascinated folks with the on-screen equivalent of toxin-addled Pillsbury Rudolph cookies? 

Maybe these filmmakers reason it doesn’t matter because we’re all dead inside anyway. Maybe they think that going out of their way to make viewers sad is fine. Or maybe these people genuinely believe they’re doing my sister-in-law’s family a favor by giving us the chance to escape into a world where an angelic woman will appear and melt all our pain away.

After watching him quiet-cry during a 2020 Super Bowl commercial with an old man telling a Google device about how much he misses his dead wife, my guess is my widower brother probably wouldn’t feel a warm and fuzzy connection with the widowed dad in the Christmas Prince series.

Sure, there’s a lot of value to on-screen personalities you can relate to—when those characters are actually relatable. Personally, I appreciate a character who’s estranged from their shitty father and, instead of having some neat and tidy reunion with their deadbeat sperm donor, the character goes on living their life without him—and maybe even develops new coping mechanisms along the way. Snuggly redemption arcs, like the dad and kid reconnecting or making peace (often at the instigation of another character), are not helpful. I know the audience is supposed to go, Oh, god! That’s wonderful! But I’m sitting there thinking Dear, god. Make it stop. For a lot of folks with deep family trauma, teddy-bear endings are nothing more than lies that promise to erase the facts of our circumstances. 

Relationships, whether with a living or dead person, are complicated. It’s hard to stuff that mess into a 90-minute movie. We shouldn’t expect oodles of nuance from a blatantly superficial romcom, but there is a case to be made for uplifting flicks that show how people positively cope with the way things are. That honesty, that realistically achievable hope, is what makes it feel good. And that’s exactly what there could be more of in a movie or show that insists on deploying the dead wife-mom.

An almost good example of this is the development of a stepfather-stepson relationship after the loss of their respective wife and mother in Love Actually. I say almost because there are plenty of places where the plotline and the film overall venture into grit-teeth-and-cringe territory. (In fact, one writer at The Atlantic has apparently made it his life’s work to slam Love Actually.) What does work, however, and makes this left-behind storyline different, is that her death is pretty much the only catalyst that would make sense for launching the story arc between her child and husband. In this case, the widower doesn’t know his stepson well, he’s flummoxed when the kid brings up a problem that only the dead mom would know how to fix, the two figure it out anyway, and they become besties in the process. Their story is about how survivors rely on each other to keep moving forward . . . and that beacon of true hope—hope for a life where pain and possibility can exist concurrently—is the kind of holiday magic that could make those who’ve been left behind feel a teeny bit better. 

Trash Christmas movies are popular for a reason. For those of us who indulge, they’re part of a season that can soften the blow of winter’s darkness. For a few precious weeks, SAD (aka seasonal affective disorder) gives way to GLAD (aka happiness) in the form of bright lights, window displays, tacky houses, catchy tunes, and hot cuppas. It’s a unique, sensory-filling (or overloading, depending on how you look at it) kind of joy in a bleak time in an oft-bleak world. 

This time of year, the mundane feels exciting. I stop to revel in silly things we’ve collectively decided are special. I love the thrill of getting a glittery garland from Dollar Tree and I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having a safe home to decorate, for the Christmas cards from old friends who remind me I’m not alone, and for the husband whose permanent childlike joy makes even Will Ferrell’s Elf bearable. (Except that shower scene. Gross.) Just ask the Grinch: It’s not about packages, boxes, or bags. It’s about what we already have. What is still here. 

Yet, as Steve Martin’s character says in Mixed Nuts, a cheesy holiday movie in which no mothers were sacrificed, “Christmas is a time when you look at your life through a magnifying glass, and whatever you don’t have feels overwhelming.” That includes everything from family estrangement to financial pressure, to the absence of the ones who are gone. This will be my fifth Christmas without Rachel. Half a decade gone and I still catch myself wanting to pull out my phone to text her when I bake her favorite cookies, and I still get a punch to the gut when it hits me I can’t. 

So I can come home to my apartment, littered with kitsch decor, cuddle up with my husband and a garbage holiday movie, and feel the happiness of this time of year . . . until someone mouths the word “widower.”

A forever storyteller and former journalist, Cat Modlin-Jackson spends her days working as a communications specialist and her nights writing essays about gender, culture, and chronic illness.

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copyeditor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands