Last year Hallmark gave us CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING, about a military widow who finds love with a wounded soldier. It was one of the highlights of the season, presenting a more serious story that addressed real-life issues faced by the members of the armed forces and those who love them. They make a welcome return to that theme this year with A VETERAN’S CHRISTMAS, although this time around the tone is much lighter and there’s a lot more of the usual holiday hijinks that we expect from these movies.
The heroine of our story is Captain Grace Garland, played by previous Hallmark leading lady Eloise Mumford. Mumford hasn’t been in a Christmas movie for a couple of years, and it’s nice to see her back, as she’s one of those actresses you like on sight. Grace is a Marine returning to civilian life after two tours in Afghanistan, where she was part of a canine search and rescue team.
When we first meet Grace, she is coming off of a plane along with a lot of other soldiers, all of whom are being met by family and loved ones. But Grace has no one waiting for her, which is really sad because that should not happen. Things get worse for Grace when she buys a used car and, while driving it along a snowy road to an unknown location, has a blowout that causes her to crash. As she’s surveying the damage to her car, a dog happens by, a white boxer-type dog with brown spots. This dog lives at a nearby cabin, where Grace goes for help.
Living at the cabin with the dog is a handsome man, who opens the door when Grace knocks and says “Hold on, you’re bleeding, come in and I hope you like Earl Grey” and takes Grace into the neatest kitchen you have ever seen, complete with beans and spices in rows of mason jars. He asks Grace how many fingers he’s holding up, which she answers correctly, then tells her that the boxer dog’s name is Justice. Grace says that this is a really great name, but it really isn’t because dogs ought to have actual names like Andrew and Greta and Roger. (My favorite dog name of all time belonged to a friend’s dog who was named Dough, pronounced Doug.) Then Grace tells the man, whose name is Joe and who is played by Sean Faris, that she’s sad because she has a dog named Christmas but he is no longer hers because the Marines have kept him in Afghanistan. Christmas is also a terrible name for a dog, but because this is a Christmas movie I am letting that go.
Because she no longer has Christmas in her life, Grace isn’t crazy about the other kind of Christmas at all, because about a million times a day someone is wishing her a merry Christmas and that is just too many reminders of what she has lost and she only has so many tears to cry. She is also sad because her car is now no longer running and has to be towed to Uncle Roy’s garage, where she learns that it will be about 3 weeks before it can be fixed and we learn that she has a brother who is a commercial fisherman in Alaska. Because all of this is happening in the little town of Rivers Crossing, Illinois, that is too far away for her to stay with her brother and hotels are expensive and so now she has a big problem.
Except that she doesn’t, because Joe has a smaller cottage behind his larger one and Grace can totally stay there as long as she needs to. And since she doesn’t have to be at her new job in Cincinnati until the first week of February, this is great news for everybody.
Joe shows Grace the cottage, and we learn that he is a municipal judge, which is supposed to explain Justice’s name but I still think it’s a terrible name and I would have named her Ruth Barker Ginsburg. Grace is surprised to find out that Joe is a judge, as she thought he was a farmer, and Joe says “Well, I do sow the seeds of justice” and this is the kind of thing he will say a lot of during the movie and whether or not you find it charming will probably determine how you feel about him. Then he invites Grace to come to church with him in the morning, but she has nothing to wear because she only got off a plane from Afghanistan about 15 minutes earlier and has not had time to get to a Kohl’s. Also, there is a Santa suit hanging in the cottage and when Grace asks why, Joe just says “ho ho ho” in a way that is kind of unsettling and makes you wonder about the other 17 young women who have had “accidents” in front of Joe’s cabin and have not been heard from since.
Grace encounters her second stroke of good luck the next morning when Joe informs her that his sister, Katie, has solved her church clothes problem as they are exactly the same size and Katie has brought a bunch of things for her to wear. Again, I wondered if maybe “Katie” was possibly buried somewhere in the backyard and therefore unaware that her best dress was about to be worn by Joe’s next victim. But then she appears and is a real live person, and this was a great relief. Katie is played by Amanda Lisman, and her hair is so gorgeous that you will probably faint when you see it because it is SPECTACULAR. Actually, everything about Lisman is spectacular, and if Hallmark does not make her a leading lady next season they should be ashamed of themselves. In fact, I am writing a script for her myself, as soon as I can figure out how to work her hair into the plot IT IS THAT BEAUTIFUL.
Katie is maybe a little too bubbly for so early in the morning, but her hair is so stunning that it doesn’t matter. She helps Grace get dressed, and then they all go off to church. On the way, they run into Joe and Katie’s Aunt Nellie, who is one of those fabulous older women who are always very busy doing something of a community service nature. On this particular day, Aunt Nellie is worrying about decorating the streets of Rivers Crossing, as she is on the Christmas committee and she’s worried that the ornaments she’s ordered might be the wrong size. She would happily talk about this all day, but Joe is anxious to get to church and show off Grace to the community, and so they move on.
At church, everyone is wearing dubonnet clothing. Joe’s entire family is there, and they seem very happy as they sing “Joy to the World” and then gather for coffee and cookies afterward. Grace finds herself in high demand at the social hour, as there are no single women in Rivers Crossing, and so Joe has to rescue her she says “Are you aware of the deep concern in this parish over your marital status?” and he is indeed very aware of it because he is not getting any younger.
Joe gives Grace the keys to his truck so that she can go home while he spends more time praying or whatever. Grace is relieved to go, but she makes herself sad by looking at photos of Christmas on her phone, and that is how we learn that Christmas is a white Labrador Retriever and therefore absolutely adorable. She is now so upset that she does not monitor her speed while driving through town, and finds herself pulled over by sheriff Ambrose who says “Mind telling me why you’re racing the judge’s car through town?” Before this can turn ugly, Joe shows up and the sheriff lets Grace go, and when Grace gets back to the house Joe has changed out of his church clothes and into a plaid shirt.
Joe asks Grace if she wants to join him and his buddy Coop at the nearby Army base, handing out trees to veterans. Of course Grace does, because this is an excellent thing to do for veterans and anyone with a heart would want to do it. So off to the base they go, where in an unbelievable turn of events Joe’s friend Coop turns out to be sheriff Cooper Ambrose and Grace is astonished and maybe a little bit irritated by this news. Coop’s wife, Sheri, is the one organizing the tree thing, and she is also wearing a plaid shirt. As they hand out tress, Grace tells Sheri about the time she was wounded in Afghanistan and Christmas pulled her to safety, and then how a week later Christmas was assigned a different handler and Grace was shipped home and here we are.
Then we are somewhere else, and this was a little confusing. It’s clearly a military base, but I’m not sure if it’s the same one where Sheri was giving out trees or a different one, because Grace is asking someone to find out where Christmas is now. Anyway, this is where we learn the story of his name, which is that he was delivered to Grace’s barracks on Christmas day six years ago and was supposed to be a full-grown dog but was a puppy because of a clerical error. Then, much to everyone’s relief, we find out that Christmas has been shipped out with some Marines and is fine, although personally I was still concerned for his safety.
The next morning Joe comes downstairs wearing a light blue bathrobe with snowmen on it to indicate that he is REALLY into the holidays and Grace is talking to Justice and we learn that Joe’s dish towels are the same plaid as the shirt he wore the day before. Also, Joe has a French press, which was surprising. Joe invites Grace to have lunch with him, and reveals that he has a grown-up car in the barn, which we never see and this was disappointing because I really wanted to know what he considered a grown-up car. Then Grace offers to feed Justice while Joe showers and Joe has very elaborate instructions for feeding her. Grace makes a face that suggests that maybe what with his snowman bathrobe and French press and fussy dog-feeding rules Joe is a little bit ridiculous, but I am on his side because my dog Lillie has a feeding routine that is practically a 32nd-degree Masonic rite and I never go anywhere without her because showing people how to do it takes longer than the actual trip I would take.
Having successfully fed Justice, Grace goes to the courthouse, where Joe is overseeing some cases and makes a teenager volunteer at a food bank and promise that he’ll go to college. Grace listens to him dispense justice in a unique and heartfelt way and starts to fall in love. Then they have lunch at the local restaurant, where Joe tells her that he doesn’t plan on being in Rivers Crossing much longer because he’s applied for a position in Chicago and should be hearing about that any day. At lunch they run into someone Joe calls the Colonel, and the Colonel says “Marnie is coming home and she’s single now and you should stop by.” Joe introduces Grace to him and the Colonel frowns and says “Joe was supposed to be my son-in-law so back off.” After this confrontation Joe feels he should explain about Marnie and does, and the explanation is that Marnie is the Colonel’s daughter and she and Joe were a thing but then she broke up with him and ran off with the town prosecutor the previous Christmas. And then Joe has to go back to court because the bells are ringing.
That night, Joe and Grace have dinner at home and Grace explains that she became a Marine because she needed a scholarship, and that she studied engineering but after two years of a desk job remembered that she loves dogs and transferred to search and rescue. Later, Grace teaches Justice a trick involving cups and a ball and it is revealed that Joe’s barn is filled with Christmas decorations and he invites Grace to come help him and Aunt Nellie decorate for the Winter Wonderland Festival, which he informs Grace culminates right there in his barn with the Christmas Eve party.
In town, Aunt Nellie is still fretting about decorations and assigns Joe and Grace to work on the trees on Main Street. While they are doing this, Joe tells Grace a rambling story about Santa showing up in his courtroom, then asks her what she’s going to do now that she isn’t a solider and she says that she’s taken an engineering job and isn’t thrilled about it. Then Sheri and Coop come by and Sheri tells Grace that she can always hang out at the base handing out trees and Cooper mentions that the sheriff department used to have a very active search and rescue department but that the guy who ran it retired and Grace says “DON’T LOOK AT ME I DON’T DO THAT ANYMORE” in a strained way that makes everyone uncomfortable. Cooper tries to get Grace and Joe to have dinner with him and Sheri to talk about it in a more reasonable tone of voice, but Joe says sorry we have plans and asks Grace what her shoe size is.
This can mean only one thing, and it does. Ice skating! Grace is bad at this activity because there are no ice rinks in Afghanistan. She feels even worse about her uncoordinated attempts when they see a girl twirling like she’s in the really showoffy portion of her long program at the Olympics and Joe says “That’s Marnie” and we immediately hate her on general principle. Aunt Nellie tries to make Grace feel better by saying “She won the junior Olympics figure skating in high school but you could play hockey with her Christmas cookies,” but Grace knows that making good cookies is mostly about being able to follow a recipe, while executing a flawless Hamill camel requires superior athletic ability and serious dedication, and so this does not have the desired effect, especially when Marnie shows off some more and makes us wish she would drop dead.
While Joe is in line getting hot chocolate, Marnie comes up to him and says “I miss you and want you back.” Joe reminds her that she left him for another man and Marnie says “BUT I WAS CONFUSED AND THOUGHT ABOUT YOU THE WHOLE TIME,” which honestly isn’t helping her case any because it makes her seem like both a cheater and a user and maybe a little bit of a something else that isn’t very nice. Grace sees them talking and is sad, and I didn’t think it was possible to hate Marnie any more than I already did, but I did. Then Grace and Joe go home and Grace tests the waters by asking Joe how it felt seeing his fiancée and Joe says “EX-FIANCE” in a loud voice and they stare at each other. Then Grace reveals that she was in a relationship once too, but that the guy was transferred somewhere else and trying to keep something together long distance is hard, and Joe asks her if she wants to stay for tea but Grace would rather go back to the cottage and look at photos of Christmas and be sad.
The next day, Joe says “You can never, ever have too much Christmas” and tells Grace that he’s going to prove it by going to his mom’s house to decorate. Because she wants to test the veracity of his theory and maybe show him that he is wrong, Grace goes with him, and Joe proves that he really IS good at Christmassing and we learn that Joe’s dad is dead. Then, while they have tuna melts and tomato soup, Joe’s mom tells Grace that Joe gave up a lot of job offers in Chicago to come help her when his dad died. Then Katie’s kids show up and their names are Tyler and Addison (although everyone calls her Addie) and there is even more decorating.
Next up is the inevitable Christmas tree-lighting ceremony that launches the Winter Wonderland Festival. Aunt Nellie is in charge of this, of course, and she announces that they have a guest participant this year and that guest is Grace, who is going to be Santa’s Special Helper. This is news to Grace, who takes the surprise pretty well, even when Aunt Nellie makes her take the Rivers Crossing Christmas Pledge promising to light the town Christmas tree and fill every single heart in Rivers Crossing with Christmas spirit, which is lot to throw at someone without any advance notice. But as a trained solider Grace has faced daunting assignments before, and she says she’s up for this one, so after swearing her allegiance to Christmas she gets to wear a Santa hat and light the tree by pressing a giant peppermint.
Trees continue to be a theme as Joe and Grace go to get one for Joe’s cabin and Grace asks Joe if he’s a blue spruce or a Fraser fir kind of guy and he says it depends. Then he tells her that he wants to be a district court judge and maybe someday even more than that but he doesn’t say what THAT is but I assume he means he wants to be on the Supreme Court and good luck with that because not many people get that distinction unless a president owes them a favor. Grace tries to prepare him for this disappointment by saying that small-town life is pretty good, but Joe says he wants to get cappuccinos and sushi and go to the opera and can’t do any of those things in Rivers Crossing. Then they find the perfect tree and Joe says “It reminds me of someone who is beautiful, complex, and GRACEful,” and this is just the worst.
The tree needs decorating, of course, so now that happens. When it’s all over with, Joe says “This is our tree and I think we make a pretty good team,” a moment that Grace ruins by immediately having a meltdown and blurting out that she can barely remember her parents but that Gramps took care of her and her brother and made Christmas special by making snowman pancakes with chocolate butts. Only now she has no one, so Joe hugs her.
The hug apparently makes Grace feel better, because when we next see her she is happily brushing Justice and Joe says “Katie is on the phone and wants to talk to you.” What Katie wants to talk to her about is Christmas shopping. This is always exciting, and it gets even more exciting when Grace meets Katie and Katie is wearing a beautiful dubonnet coat that goes so well with her hair that I started to hyperventilate and had to take a moment to calm down.
While they are shopping, they run into Coop, who reminds Grace that his job offer is still on the table, and for someone who just minutes ago was trying to convince Joe that small-town life is a daily hayride laugh riot, Grace is suddenly being very stubborn about accepting that fact herself. Her mood does not improve when a minute later she and Katie look outside and see Joe talking with Marnie, even though Katie says “HE DOES NOT LOVE HER” in an emphatic way that is meant to be reassuring but is not in the face of Joe and Marnie’s obvious elation. In a further attempt at distraction, Katie takes Grace to have her nails done and tell her about how her husband left her, which explains why we have never met him. While having her top coat buffed out, Grace admits that she misses being in the Marines and doesn’t know who she is and wishes she could stop having dreams about the war. This is a very serious moment, especially when contrasted with the frivolous nature of a manicure, and Katie is at a loss for how to help apart from once again telling Grace that Rivers Crossing is a nice place to live.
When Grace returns to Joe’s cabin, she interrupts him in the middle of putting the finishing touches on a wrapped gift that is so professional-looking that it would make Martha Stewart seethe with jealousy. I think both Grace and I paused here to think about the neatly-organized kitchen jars, French press, plaid shirt collection, snowman bathrobe, yearning for opera and sushi and cappuccino, and a couple of other things and wonder if maybe Marnie hadn’t been aware of some things that even Joe possibly isn’t. Then, because she is a very direct kind of person and wants to know what’s what, Grace says “I saw you with Marnie” and Joe says that they just happened to run into each other and hey, does Grace want to help him cook dinner and not talk about this particular thing anymore, but Grace says no, she wants to see if Uncle Roy is done with her car because things are getting weird and she needs to get away from her feelings.
Uncle Roy has good news, which is that the car is almost done. But while he’s delivering this good news, Joe is standing behind Grace and shaking his head in an exaggerated manner suggesting that this news is not good at all, and so Uncle Roy says “But there’s bad news too” and makes up a gigantic lie about how the car won’t be ready until after the big Christmas party in the barn, and so something is obviously up.
Joe is playing Santa at the Winter Wonderland Festival, because of course he is. Also lurking around the festival like some kind of pink-clad Krampus is Marnie. Grace sees her and tells Joe he should go talk to her, because she is pretty convinced that Joe is still into her, but Joe says “I’m fine where I am” and stays right where he is, so now Grace is confused again. Then Katie and Addie show up and Addie is dressed like an angel for the play. She says “I want some caramel corn,” only she says it CARE-a-mel, and then everyone keeps saying CARE-a-mel and not CAR-mel, which is how pretty much everyone I know says it and maybe this is a regional thing like PEE-cans and pe-CAHNS, which is something that was a Very Big Deal when I lived in Texas and our housing community was called Pecan Grove and I was informed every single day for four years that I was saying it wrong, until I couldn’t remember which was the right way to say it and so had to move. Then Joe and Grace go on a carousel and Joe basically tells Grace how enchanted he is with her and they start to kiss but are once again interrupted by a bell.
Because it is a Winter Wonderland Festival and they are all parched from eating so much CARE-a-mel popcorn, Joe and Grace go to get hot cider. Aunt Nellie is the server, because she has to be in charge of everything, and she take this opportunity to tell Joe not to screw it up. But Joe is late for his gig at Santa’s Village and he has to run off. This is unfortunate timing, because it turns out Addie is having a wicked bad case of stage fright and Katie wants Joe to talk her down. Grace, who has seen some things, says that maybe she can help, and she goes and tells Addie that everyone is afraid sometimes, even soldiers, and that bravery is doing what you are afraid to do and how about we both try being brave? Abby says that, okay, she’ll try, and then Katie and Grace watch Joe playing Santa and Katie says “I bet they don’t have Santas like that in Cincinnati” and Grace agrees that they don’t.
Grace’s little pep talk did the trick, because Addie delivers her one line without incident and everyone acts as if she’s just brought the house down with the Act 2 soliloquy from the Scottish Play. While this is happening, Joe gets a call on his cell and finds out that he’s landed the job in Chicago and has to start on January 5. Instead of keeping this to himself, which would have been the smart thing to do, he announces it to everyone. Grace pretends to be happy for him, but Addie proves that she is not as great an actress as they are all telling her she is because she cannot hide her obvious disappointment, and in fact says “Chicago is so far away and you cannot go or I will die.” Joe reminds her that she can visit him, and maybe even have some cappuccino and sushi and opera, but Addie is having none of it and her halo droops.
In the lobby, Addie is still upset but everyone else has accepted Joe’s news with more or less genuine happiness for him. Addie needs a moment to pull herself together, so she asks if Grace will help her change out of her costume and Grace does. Then Addie lays the truth on Grace and says “We have to get Joe to stay here.” Grace tries to talk sense into her and says that you have to be happy for people even if it hurts you on the inside and Addie says “THAT IS A BUNCH OF BULLSHIT AND I KNOW YOU LOVE HIM EVEN THOUGH I AM ONLY 12 AND ISN’T LOVE MORE IMPORTANT THAN A JOB IN CHICAGO?” And it IS more important, so Grace has no counterargument to this logic and just looks miserable.
Joe realizes that he has plopped a big old reindeer dookie in the Winter Wonderland Festival cocoa pot, and so he does a lot of talking about how he will miss everyone when he leaves, and this just makes things worse and everyone looks like they’re going to cry. Then Joe and Grace drive home and Grace tells him he makes a sexy Santa. They don’t mention the part where they almost kissed on the carousel, and instead Joe says “What do you think I should do?” and Grace says that he has to figure that out on his own and he says “I should let you get some sleep” and they don’t kiss.
The next morning, Grace walks into Joe’s house and overhears him on the phone talking to Marnie and saying he loves her. Naturally, she misunderstands what’s happening and runs back to the cottage to pack up her stuff and cry. Joe, oblivious to her misery, brings her coffee and is understandably confused when she says she doesn’t feel well and want to be alone, although maybe he chalks it up to all the CARE-a-mel popcorn she ate the night before, because he basically shrugs and leaves her alone instead of pressing her for more information. Then again, he has other things to worry about, as it’s Christmas Eve and the big party is that night. Also, he is maybe wondering if he can still get tickets to the Lyric Opera production of LA BOHEME, which is what is playing there in January and he will arrive just in time for opening night.
Grace decides that she cannot possibly wait for Uncle Roy to finish fixing her car, and she decides to take the next bus out to Cincinnati. First, she writes a goodbye note and gives Justice the new collar she got her for Christmas, which is sweet of her and also very sad. Then she finds Coop and gives him the keys to Joe’s car. Coop says “NO, YOU CAN’T LEAVE” in a panicked way, but because he cannot then give Grace any good reason why NOT, Grace says “I don’t belong here” and Coop says “You totally do” but once again fails to provide supporting evidence, and so Grace leaves. Coop calls Joe to let him know that this is happening and Joe says “DO SOMETHING.” So Coop does something, which is to say he stops the bus that Grace is leaving on and says “Grace, you need to get off the bus.” This was not the most thrilling way that this could have played out, and I was hoping Coop would do something like announce that the bus was loaded with explosives or, I don’t know, that Grace was retroactively under arrest for the little speeding incident in town a few days earlier. But Grace seems to think just being asked to get off the bus is enough, because she does.
She’s not happy about it, though, and when Coop drives her to Joe’s barn she is even less happy about it. They go inside, and literally everyone from Rivers Crossing is there. Then the crowd parts and Joe is standing there and he and Grace walk towards each other and Joe says “I’m not going to Chicago because I don’t like sushi THAT much and LA BOHEME is only worth sitting through if Anna Netrebko is playing Mimi and she isn’t.” This is pretty great news for Grace, but it gets even better because then CHRISTMAS comes running in. Remember Marnie’s father the Colonel? Well, he has managed to pull some strings and then Marnie used her contacts at a rescue organization to get Christmas flown home in time for Christmas, and that is why Joe kept meeting with her and said he loved her, and this was an enormous relief because I had been feeling bad about hating Marnie and now I didn’t have to.
Now that Christmas is back and Joe is not going to Chicago, the only thing left is for Grace to take that job with the sheriff’s office and for her and Joe to kiss. Christmas and Justice are also now friends, although I hope that’s all they remain because I don’t trust Joe and Grace to name their puppies and I can’t bear the thought of little Christice and Justmas having to go through life like that.