This year my daughters have caught the holiday movie bug. As a longtime fan of Hallmark movies (and the like), I first felt like I had finally arrived. I was living the dream! The watch-cheesy-movies-with-my-daughters dream!

Until my youngest started reminding me that “the real reason for Christmas is family.”

One time she even told me that Christmas was really about being nice and being happy.


I mean. Christmas isn’t NOT about those things. Spreading kindness and choosing joy and pursuing deeper relationships are all great goals, and the generally jolly spirit of Christmas goes a long way toward motivating us in those areas. And as someone who adores giving gifts, I love the way our holiday traditions truly do move us closer to being kinder, closer, and more joyful people.

But that’s a pretty complex view of gifts and the holidays, so to my kids I usually just say, “Remember that Christmas isn’t really about presents!” And then we talk about Jesus and I assume that we’re all on the same page. We’re good. Let’s watch a Hallmark movie.

Except then those Hallmark (or Lifetime or Netflix or UPtv or whatever channel is capitalizing on our apparently endless appetite for small-town spirit and holiday romance) movies proclaim the same reminder with a slightly different ending. “Remember that Christmas isn’t really about presents,” they shout at us. But then they finish with the half-truths that my kids have started internalizing, “It’s about family and being kind and doing what makes you happy!”

For the last two years my friend Anna and I have partnered together on a campaign called Hooked on Holiday Movies. Just for fun we’ve spent the holiday season writing and talking with each other and with you about the new holiday movies we’ve watched. And we’ve tried to watch them all! That means that, as of the writing of this post, I have watched 37 new holiday movies (plus a handful of old ones because I can’t stop, won’t stop) in the span of about six weeks. It’s true. And a little outrageous.

Also true as of the writing of this post? I’m pretty burned out on holiday movies! And that’s why I took a break last night to watch something that had nothing to do with snowball fights, sleigh bells, or stockings.

And it turns out that’s what it took to remember the real meaning of Christmas.

To cleanse my pop culture palate last night, I watched two police procedurals with my husband, then turned on Netflix. I had heard great things about a brand-new movie called, “Dumplin’,” and even though I hadn’t read the popular young adult book it’s based on yet, I decided to give the movie a try. Dumplin’ stars Jennifer Aniston as a former beauty pageant winner who now hosts a small-town Texas pageant. Aniston is great in the role, giving the character layers that I didn’t expect — but she’s not the main character. No, that title goes to her teenage daughter, Willowdean.

Willowdean has been largely raised by her aunt Lucy because, we’re told, her mom was too busy with all her pageant work to parent. And Lucy has raised her to be a bright, Dolly Parton-obsessed, confident young woman despite, or maybe because, she is overweight. None of this impresses her driven, still-pageant-pretty mom, and her relationship with Willowdean is even more strained after Lucy passes away.

As my friend Erika says, to make a long story a tiny bit shorter, the book by Julie Murphy and now the movie on Netflix is about Willowdean entering the beauty pageant her mom hosts, initially to make a statement in protest but eventually to learn a lot about herself and her family. It’s a strong, sweet coming-of-age story (with a healthy splash of romance) with complex characters who make relateable mistakes before growing in mostly believable ways.

And it reminded me that Christmas is absolutely about presents.

Whoa! I bet you didn’t see that coming!

Okay, don’t panic. I haven’t lost my mind or my religion. The holiday movie machine hasn’t replaced my heart with a cash register. Nothing like that. What I am trying to tell you is that watching Dumplin’ reminded me that the reason we celebrate Christmas is because Jesus was God’s gift to us and that grace is the greatest gift of all.

Willowdean works with a cute boy at the local diner. She calls him “Prep School Bo,” because he attends a private school instead of her public school. He’s an adorable, laidback guy who just happens to grin when he sees her and leave little gifts in her locker at work. Of course he doesn’t LIKE HER LIKE HER, she assures her best friend. Because right. Guys like THAT don’t date girls like HER. Right?

If you’ve ever read or watched a teen romance, you will not be terribly surprised by how this story develops. But just in case you don’t want to know any more details before watching Dumplin’, consider this your spoiler alert.


Throughout the movie, as Willowdean is figuring out who she is and how she feels about that and what she’s going to do about that, Bo pursues her. And after every interaction with him, she is just flabbergasted. She is flustered and confused, certain she’s misinterpreted his moves but desperately wishing she could believe him, desperately wishing she could hope for something more or different or real. Even when he makes his feelings crystal clear for her, leaving no room for doubt, she doubts anyway.

After all, he just doesn’t understand.
He doesn’t know what it would be like to be in a relationship with her. He can’t possibly like her, not that way. Has he even looked at her? Doesn’t he see her? Is he just fooling himself? Or, worse, even after all the kind words he said, is he just making a fool of her? Convincing her to let go of her fear and to fall for his kindness, for his affection, for his appreciation of who she really is?
No, he doesn’t know who she really is. This can’t be real.


The actress who plays Willowdean does a fantastic job of portraying all of that and more not just with her scripted lines but with her facial expressions and tone of voice and body language. I physically felt her confusion when I watched those scenes. I felt her fear and her frustration and her deep, gnawing desire that what she’s seeing and hearing is real and true. My stomach and my heart ached as I watched her shoulders and her eyes, as I heard her gasp and her sigh.

Because I know how that feels.

I know how it feels to be offered unconditional, all-encompassing love with no strings attached.

I know how it feels to be given forgiveness and freedom from all the things that weigh me down, to be handed a clean slate and a new start for what must be the millionth time.

I know how it feels to long for someone to see me — the real me, the awful me, the sad or scared or insecure me — and find me beautiful and lovely and lovable.

I know how it feels to hear the words and wish so hard not just that they would be true, but that I could be brave enough to believe them.

I know how it feels to receive the gift of Jesus.

I see you. I know you. (Remember? I made you!)
You are so beautiful. Yes, yes, I know all about your flaws and faults — and I forgive you. Yes, I do. For free. YOU’RE free! Yes, you. You are so lovely, so lovable, so loved.
I love you. All of you. For always. Yes, for real. This is real. Believe me.

Do not get me wrong here. Bo Larson of Dumplin’ is not Jesus (although according to the internet and my opinion, he may be an even better movie boyfriend than Peter Kavinsky of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before). But the way Willowdean reacts to him in this story reminded me that Christmas is about gifts because it’s about the overwhelming, unbelievable gift of Jesus and the grace and mercy He offers us.

We may not be overweight. We may not be judgmental. We may not be bitter or grieving or plain or weird or the biggest Dolly Parton fans the world has ever known. But when we come face to face with the love of Jesus, the real Gift of Christmas, we are all Willowdean.

Fellow fans of holiday movies, do not fear. I’m still hooked and will undoubtedly tune into a dozen (or two) more before the big day. But I’m thinking I might just add Dumplin’ to my rotation of holiday classics to watch every year!

Does any movie help you remember the real meaning of Christmas?


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