Christmas Romance Tropes and Tips
Learn how to channel the spirit of the season into romance stories readers will love.
As the saying goes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. As soon as Halloween is over, for many people, it’s all Christmas, all the time. Hallmark has made Christmas movies a genre until themselves. Believe it or not, there is a rabid demand for holiday themed stories, particularly romances, during the end of the year. Maybe it’s the shorter days and longer nights. Maybe it’s the cooling weather that encourages curling up with a book. Maybe it’s the hope of new beginnings. Whatever the reason, seasonal stories are popular, and if you’re feeling some holiday cheer, you might consider writing one of your own.
Why write a Holiday Romance?
First and foremost, November and December are most retailers’ dream sales months. Many businesses cross into the black during this period and book sales are no different. There are no guarantees and cycles are not etched in stone, but with the gift-giving season in full force, this time of the year is ripe for sales.
Economics aside, the holiday season is synonymous with emotions. With possibly the exception of Valentine’s Day, Christmas is considered a romance writer’s sweet spot. With weeks of festivities to use as plot points, decorations literally writing themselves into set design, and a general feeling of happiness in the air, this time of the year makes the perfect backdrop for a love story. It’s not necessarily that the story is about the holidays that fall around this time, but more about the extra layer that these holidays add to a romance. With three books published, Jenny Bayliss has made a writing career by focusing on holiday romances.
Another bonus of writing a holiday romance is repeat customers. If readers enjoy your story, they may return to it year after year to get into the Christmas spirit, as it becomes part of their holiday traditions. Re-reading a classic story becomes part of the road to Christmas, like watching the Macy’s parade, lighting the Menorah or listening to Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, bookstagrammers and TikTok content creators start posting videos of their favorite holiday reads and that exposure can do wonders for your story.
What makes a Christmas Story?
Readers who pick up a Christmas story have certain expectations in mind. Typically, it has to fall into one of the following categories:
- Set at Christmas time–The month of December for those following the Christian calendar and typically ends no later than New Year’s Eve.
- Contains Christmas settings - Think snowy locations, holiday parties, or Macey’s
- Has a Christmas theme–i.e. Kissing under the Mistletoe, Christmas tree lightings in New York
- Features a Christmas character–Santa Claus, elves, or reindeer
Although not required, a perennial favorite is the rom-com in this genre. Spend a little time on Netflix and you’ll find that this mix of cuteness, comedy and cuddles is extremely popular.
Short Story, Novella or Novel
Who doesn’t like a quick hit of serotonin? Like Christmas carols, holiday themed short stories sell really well. At this time of year, readers might not have the time to sit and read a full-length novel between wrapping gifts, holiday parties and preparing festive meals. But, they still want all the feels. Enter short stories that can be read in one sitting, in line while waiting to pay for all that Christmas shopping, or when readers need to sneak away from family for a few hours.
Aside from a lucrative point of view, dipping your toes into the Christmas story pond by writing a short story is a great way to try the genre and see if it is for you. From a short story concept, you might be able to expand upon the story and turn the idea into a novella or full-length romance novel.
Another great option is to take an existing story or series you have, add a holiday theme and write a short story or day in the life of these people at Christmas. This gives you a built-in audience who are maybe hungry for more from your established couple, but you don’t have enough to create a whole novel. Or maybe the story can be a nice appetizer to keep your readers interested between books in a series.
You may not feel like Christmas in July, but this is in fact a good time to start writing your holiday-themed story. If you take into consideration the steps necessary to complete your book, including writing, editing and formatting, the summer starts to look better and better as the time to sit down and plan your seasonal story if you want to hit the Christmas market.
You don’t want to leave the release of your holiday romance to the last minute. While appetite for the stories is ravenous in the fall, interest in Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve themed stories drop quickly after December 31s. Perhaps readers are saturated with cheer, goodwill and sweets by then or maybe it’s due to new years’ resolutions and the start of new reading challenges.
While Christmas is celebrated around the world, there are certain key markers that scream holiday romance. Think snowed in chalets with roaring fires, office parties decked out with streamers and mistletoe, Christmas markets chocked full of baubles, candy canes and other treasures, or tree lighting ceremonies, complete with ice skates and hot chocolate. Even reading these few examples and iconic images have probably already sprung to mind.
In general, most holiday stories are contemporary romances, but it’s not limited to a modern setting. Historical romances have their time and place and have the same advantages as current storytelling. The key is to be authentic with the backdrop of your story. If your tale takes place in Hawaii, fake snow is the only kind that will work for you and Santa might not be dressed in head-to-toe velvet. Unless you want him to pass out.
Conflict may not be your first thought when it comes to heartwarming tales of the season, but holiday romances open the door to possibilities that readers are willing to explore. The magic of Christmas allows you to play a little outside the regular bounds of reality, letting the wonder of the season sprinkle elements into the story. These plot twists and turns can pull on the heartstrings and amp up the tension between the main characters.
A word of caution. Every story should elicit an emotional response and like The Fir-Tree by Hans Christian Andersen, can end in sadness and heartbreak, but a vast majority of readers are expecting the story to be like a present and literally be wrapped up in a tidy, happy bow. Happy endings are a staple of Christmas romances and one of the reasons for their popularity.
The Little Details
Beyond the iconic images, a Christmas romance comes with built in sounds, tastes and scents. Creating a soundtrack complete with traditional Christmas carols and classic holiday songs centers your readers in the world you are creating. Gingerbread cookies, cranberry sauce and mulled cider evoke memories of Christmases past, present, and future with their time-honored traditions. Lastly, seasonal scents like fresh pine, orange zest and roasted chestnuts bring layers of reality to a holiday tale and readers will experience the holiday along with your characters.
Tropes with a Twist
In Popular Romance Tropes And Examples to Inspire Your Love Stories, we explored common romance themes, but just like shortbread cookies, one is often not enough. Pairing tropes together with a seasonal theme takes an ordinary story and amps it up with the feelings that come with the holiday.
For example, enemies-to-lovers and workplace romance can go hand in hand. Add in a mandatory office Christmas party and you have a scene ripe with emotions. If the co-workers are assigned to work together to plan said celebration, even better. Arguments over refreshments, decorations, location etc. can lead to delicious scenes full of humor, banter or tension depending on your story.
Small town and sweet romances are a match made in heaven, but throw in a Christmas pageant with a single father in need of some help sewing his daughter’s costume and you have a meet cute many readers can’t resist. The wonder of the season seen through a child’s eyes can add an additional layer of sweetness to your tale.
Of course, Santa’s list includes boys and girls who are nice and naughty and spicy stories are also on some readers' gift list. Santa himself makes a trip one night a year, why not incorporate a steamy one-night-stand by the fireplace of that snowed in chalet? Throw in the Only One Bed trope and the evening can go from warm and tingly to hot and heavy.
Some classic Christmas tropes include:
Nowhere to go for Christmas: A broken-hearted character has no place to spend Christmas Eve, or is too busy working the holidays. Perhaps a former lover takes this character in, and it leads to the kindling of a second chance romance.
Stranded at Christmas: A snowstorm, airplane delay, car breakdown etc. forces two people to spend time together and/or work together.
Fake Date for Christmas: Holidays can be difficult for single people, especially those who only see their families at this time of year. Enter a pretend relationship. This could be a great setup for romantic comedies if the deception fails spectacularly, or the couple have to invent new lies on the spot to keep the ruse alive.
Christmas in denial: Think a modern day Scrooge where the grumpy character lacking any holiday spirit has to trudge through Christmas classics side by side with the sunshine character.
Home for Christmas: Opposites attract as big city meets small town as families gather for the yearly festivities. Perhaps the one that got away is now single and in need of a date. Perhaps the story is about a pair of young adults returning home for the first time since graduating high school, who deepen their connection after a semester apart.
New in town for Christmas: Neighbors introduce the new person in town to the holiday traditions and a potential Mr. Right.
Christmas Competition: A bake off of some sorts is the go to for this trope, where two rivals butt heads over a challenge and someone has to sacrifice so the other can win.
Saving Christmas: The town’s favorite tradition/place/person is in trouble and needs saving. Sometimes this is paired with the CEO coming into town and wanting to take over.
A Match for Christmas: Family, friends or even kids put together the single mom or dad with a romantic partner, whether they want a relationship or not.
Royal Holiday: Princes, princesses, dukes and ladies. It’s a big secret until someone lets the cat out of the bag and the pageantry begins.
Christmas Miracle: That which could never be suddenly is. An impossible Christmas wish gets granted.
Away in a manger: Babies, pregnant couples or those trying to get pregnant and need the magic of Christmas to help make their dreams come true.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A character learns what the world would be like if he or she was never born or made a different choice, particularly related to their love interest.
Under the Mistletoe: Nothing like the classic Christmas foliage to give two people who secretly like each other a chance to kiss.
A great place to pick up a little creative inspiration is in the classics themselves. Update a classic like The Night Before Christmas. Take a side character in a holiday story like Mia, Harry’s assistant, or Rufus the department store clerk in the movie Love Actually and show what Christmas is like from their perspective. Listen to a Christmas carol or holiday theme song, find a lyric you like and craft a story around those circumstances. For example, who did Mariah Carey write All I Want For Christmas is You about? Of course, it’s important to make your stories distinct enough that you’re not committing copyright infringement against any titles that inspire you.
Talk to your family and friends. What Christmas traditions or memories do they cherish at this time of year? Is there a story to tell there?
If all else fails, use an online holiday romance generator like this one from Enews. Or try this formula from Sword and Silk Books:
'Single successful woman who is a *plug in your go-getting profession* who lives and works in *insert major metropolitan city* just before the holiday season experiences *insert tumultuous event* and through series of events and or mishaps ends up in *insert small town America* where she meets and spends the holiday with *insert winsome male hero* who is a *insert masculine profession* who turns out to be *insert male hero being the fix to the tumultuous event* and they live happily ever after.
A few Holiday Romances to add to your TBR (To Be Read) book list.
If you’re considering a trip to your local bookshop to pick up some holiday themed books for yourself, family, or a book club, there are plenty to choose from. While it’s always a matter of taste, here are some of the best Christmas romance books, according to Goodreads:
Window Shopping by Tessa Bailey
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren
Dear Santa by Debbie Macomber
The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox
The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
One Day in December by Josie Silver
Let it Snow by John Green
Duke, Actually by Jenny Holiday
The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Jenny Bayliss
So, This Is Christmas by Tracy Andreen
The Holiday Switch, by Tif Marcelo
A Princess for Christmas by Jenny Holiday
The most magical time of the year can be a source of inspiration for your romance, infusing your story of true love with iconic elements that connect with readers looking for happily ever afters to fuel their lust for serotonin. Whether it’s a feel-good short story that’s high on sweet spots or a full-length novel pulling out all the holiday classics, writing Christmas romance novels or short stories will have readers coming back again and again.