December 1996 was an important month in Yuletide television history. It wasn’t just another December in television; it was the first-ever 25 Days of Christmas celebration on The Family Channel (now known as Freeform). As noted by the Times Herald in ’96, “Christmas is a time for enjoying traditions — whether that means singing carols, decking the halls or gathering around the TV to watch holiday programming.” The outlet noted that The Family Channel would air Christmas fare from four to twelve hours daily, including original films.
Many of us have been watching holiday programming our entire lives, and I can’t imagine a television schedule without Christmas movies. For me, there’s no holiday block more iconic than the 25 Days. In fact, one of my favorite Christmas TV movies came out of that first year on The Family Channel: Christmas Every Day starring Erik von Detten. It’s a classic time loop movie portraying a young man’s journey of reliving Christmas for several days while learning to help others and appreciate his family. Another gem followed in 1997: The Christmas List starring Mimi Rogers as Melody Parris, a perfume saleswoman whose wishes are mysteriously granted after she writes them down and drops them in Santa’s mailbox. Melody has a gift for scent whereby she can sniff any perfume and tell you what it is — while blindfolded.
I was only two years old when the 25 Days of Christmas began on The Family Channel, so I more clearly remember the block airing after The Family Channel officially rebranded to Fox Family Channel in 1998.
As a toddler, I watched three Rankin/Bass films on VHS over and over again: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. These programs were utterly captivating to me, so imagine my delight when I discovered that I could enjoy even more of their ilk on cable.
The 25 Days of Christmas continued after Fox Family became ABC Family in Disney’s 2001 purchase of the network. I’m pleased that the 2000s didn’t signal an end to Rankin/Bass on TV. I still love watching The Year Without a Santa Claus, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, The Story of the First Christmas Snow, and even the terrifying Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. I consider myself rather fortunate to have seen this collection of animated and “animagic” programs as a child.
Throughout the 2000s, the 25 Days soldiered on and gathered up other beloved acquisitions. The channel famously added Harry Potter films to the holiday schedule. John Rood, former SVP of Marketing at ABC Family, spoke with me about the legacy of the 25 Days of Christmas. He explained that the Potter acquisitions were related to other Warner Bros. dealings that resulted in all those Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven, and Smallville reruns. “Kind of like a Diehard, [Harry Potter] could have a Christmas angle to it. But that was another brief, wonderful window somewhere between on-demand and DVD sales, and there was no Amazon or Netflix to outbid them.”
ABC Family developed more of their own original holiday films, as well. They picked up the pace in the mid-late 2000s with hits like Santa Baby, Snowglobe, and Melissa Joan Hart’s classic with Mario Lopez, Holiday in Handcuffs. The early part of the 2010s welcomed fresh originals such as 12 Dates of Christmas (yet another excellent time loop movie) and The Mistle-Tones, a Tia Mowry-Hardrict-led feature full of music and romance.
With a blend of old Christmas classics and new ones, ABC Family successfully kept audiences excited about the annual line-up. But in 2014 and 2015, the networked put the brakes on original holiday films — these were the final seasons of ABC Family before the Freeform rebrand took effect in 2016. Though a few new original holiday movies have since aired, the output is less than a longtime viewer might remember from Christmases past. In 2021, the schedule for all 25 Days is somewhat repetitive, highlighting the Home Alone suite (mostly the first two), The Santa Clause trilogy with Tim Allen, a few Rankin/Bass classics, and the 2000 and 2018 iterations of The Grinch. All great choices, but no new original Christmas films.
John Rood, former ABC Family Marketing SVP, noted that other networks — Lifetime and especially Hallmark — have become the centers of new original Christmas content. They’ve effectively “stolen the playbook” from ABC Family’s holiday heyday. Formulaic Christmas romances are tradition by this point, and the formula is clearly working. TV Guide reported that Crown Media had scheduled 41 new holiday movies for debut between its two Hallmark channels for 2021. Per Better Homes & Gardens, Lifetime was set to air 35 fresh Christmas films for “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime.”
I think there’s something magically childlike about finding one’s holiday spirit, even if only through television. Counting down to Christmas was a tangible concept for me as a kid. I’d make an annual construction paper chain of red and green, pulling off one paper ring with each passing December day. I would happily eat from a chocolate Advent calendar. My holiday observance was a sweet brew of sacred and secular, a curious mixture of Jesus and Santa. The 25 Days of Christmas lineup was my December destination year after year. It was a warm blanket over my holiday, adding an extra layer of coziness as I grew up… an early appreciation for nostalgia, now that I think of it.
As popular as some of ABC Family/Freeform’s new programming has been, there’s no denying that the Christmas season stirs up a fondness for tradition in many people. “There was a comforting quality to ABC Family, especially at the holidays. We have a better appetite for a rerun when It’s a Wonderful Life,” John Rood says. Or Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone, The Santa Clause, The Grinch, A Christmas Story, and all the other treasures that accompany your holiday as it hums along.