When writer Nina Weinman heard Hallmark wanted to include Hanukkah in their annual “Countdown to Christmas” original movie slate for the 2019 holiday season, she was thrilled. Weinman was raised Jewish but now celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas with her own family after marrying a man who is Christian. Weinman’s producing partner, Joel Rice, is also Jewish, and she notes they “enthusiastically threw our hats in the ring” to get the gig.
Their original movie, “Double Holiday,” which premieres Dec. 21, stars Carly Pope as a woman named Rebecca who joins her coworker rival Chris (Kristoffer Polaha) to plan a holiday party at their office. Rebecca is Jewish and is already steeped in celebrating Hanukkah with her family when the party planning begins, causing Chris to spend ample time at her house and learn about her traditions.
“We said everything that I wanted to say about how people celebrate Hanukkah,” Weinman tells Variety of the movie.
Admittedly, though, some of Weinman’s excitement over the project turned to upset when, weeks ahead of the movie’s release, articles criticizing and calling the project anti-Semitic began to circulate. Weinman and representatives from Hallmark say no one in the press had actually screened the movie before writing the op-eds, but that the Anti-Defamation League did. They “said there’s absolutely nothing to these accusations; there’s no anti-Semitic tropes in the movie,” Weinman says.
Weinman is a veteran writer of Hallmark movies with more than 20 of them under her belt and says she knows she’s never going to please everybody. But, she is concerned about these “opinion pieces being stated as fact because I feel as if it diminishes the real anti-Semitic attacks that Jews are being faced with on a regular basis to come out and make these accusations.”
Here, Weinman talks with Variety about the genesis of “Double Holiday,” how she balanced the religious and commercial aspects of the season and how she reflected her own holiday traditions within the movie.
“Double Holiday” is touted as one of Hallmark’s first Hanukkah movies, but it’s not just about Hanukkah; there is still a lot of Christmas elements in the project. Was it your initial idea to combine both holidays, or did Hallmark feel their audience was so used to Christmas movies, they wanted to give them a little bit of what they’re used to and a little bit of something new?
They really gave us a lot of free rein to come up with the story. We, all along, in our minds knew that this is “Countdown to Christmas” so we’re going to incorporate both things and show how people celebrate in all walks of life. For me, being in an interfaith marriage, we celebrate both, so it was very easy for me to pull from my own life and come up with a story that I felt would be relatable to everyone and would still fit into “Countdown to Christmas” but would be an entertaining and informative introduction to Hanukkah and what it is and how we celebrate.
What went into balancing the movie so that even with Christmas elements, you were able to say all you wanted to about Hanukkah?
We wanted to tell the story of this family celebrating Hanukkah against the backdrop of Christmas, as opposed to the Jewish person who has to assimilate to Christmas. We have this man who celebrates Christmas but he doesn’t get the big celebration — he’s the son of a single mom who had to make ends meet so they didn’t have these big celebrations — and he assimilates into Hanukkah with this family. They give him, through their Hanukkah celebrations, what he’s always craved, and he falls in love with this world and this family.
What about those who want a project that doesn’t have the backdrop of Christmas, as you put it?
For me, as a Jewish person who’s always wanted this, I’m so happy we get to do it. It never occurred to me that people would say, “Well, it’s not enough” — especially without having seen it. We get to do it, and for me, that’s what I was very thankful for. I think there is a faction out there that I’ve seen that just want a straight Hanukkah story, and I think there is a market for that, too, but for us right now, the story that we’re telling is under the “Countdown to Christmas” banner but has a beautiful Hanukkah element, and I think everybody can enjoy it.
How would a full Hanukkah story be different?
I think it would be the same exact movie, just with them planning something else [besides a Christmas party] for their office. It just happens to be that they’re planning this party, but I think it could potentially be the same movie.
What pieces in “Double Holiday” were pulled from your own life and family celebrations?
What I started with my kids a few years ago was explaining to them what Hanukkah is. And Hanukkah is the season of miracles; we’re celebrating miracles. They get a lot of gifts throughout the year, and what we decided to do with them was instead of giving them Christmas gifts and birthday gifts and Hanukkah gifts, they would get a present on the first night of Hanukkah and then every other night, they each choose a charity and we donate to [it] and we talk about it. Our feeling was: Let’s give somebody else a miracle, whether it’s food on the table or donating to cure a disease or for shelter for someone in need. They really embraced it, and it helped them to understand the spirit of the season. Hanukkah is not necessarily about just getting gifts. So when we were coming up with this story, I spoke to Joel Rice, my producer, about that, and I said, “This is something I’d love to incorporate.”
Kris Polaha’s character comes over and they’re preparing for the first night of Hanukkah, the family is very much like my more-the-merrier family who are like, “He has to stay; you can’t send him away without feeding him.” He says he doesn’t know that much about Hanukkah, and then they’re like, “Ah, stick with us, pal, we’re going to show you everything we know.” And in the process of celebrating with them, we learn he also has this very charitable aspect to his life and, even though they’re co-workers at odds and up for the same promotion, they’re not as different as they may think. And when he spends time with her family, he not only falls in love with her, but he also falls in love with her loud, boisterous family and the way that they celebrate. A lot of that comes from my own personal experience in my family.
In adding the educational element to the movie in teaching Kris’ character, and the audience by extension, about what Hanukkah is, what went into how much of the religious aspect you included?
I didn’t ever want to be preachy. I didn’t ever want to be expository. I tried to make it organic in the way that they explained to him a little bit more through their actions and less through a speech of, “This is what it is.” Nobody wants to be talked at. But it was important to me to get certain things out, like that it is about the oil. This was a miracle: As the Jews were rebuilding their temple, they lit the menorah, and they thought they only had enough oil to last for one day, and it lasted for eight, and so they’re celebrating the season of miracles. But there’s a lot of historical explanation of the Maccabees, and we just wanted to keep it very clear and concise and try and tell it through their actions. While they’re making latkes, they’re telling a story about the oil. At the end of the day, we’re telling a love story, and we want to watch them bonding and connecting with each other.
Did this approach come out of the desire to right the wrongs of previous movies that depicted Hanukkah?
It’s hard for me to say because there’s not a lot of comparison. So I wouldn’t say that other movies got it wrong. I will say that we were really given a lot of freedom to tell this story. Our network executives were not Jewish, and they really embraced our traditions and the things that we were incorporating as we explained what we wanted to do.
Often when there is not much representation, what is out there is assumed to reflect all, but everyone’s traditions are different.
This was something that I did not take lightly, and I was very honored that Hallmark entrusted me with it, and I knew that we had a responsibility to handle it with care. I have a friend whose father is a rabbi, and I was like, “I’m texting your dad again.” There’s conservative Judaism, there’s reformed Judaism, and we were telling the reformed story, which is also how I celebrate, but we also wanted to make sure our portrayal was accurate as far as them wearing yarmulkes when they’re saying the prayer. We knew we did have a responsibility to tell this story and to tell it well because there aren’t many out there. I understand that everybody wants to see themselves represented on television, and I did too, and we’re not going to be able to show the individual ways that every single person celebrates, and so I think that we accomplished showing Hanukkah in a really fun and interesting way.
Going back to the love story aspect for a second, how do you keep those beats fresh for yourself as a writer and your audience after doing so many of these projects?
It always comes down to who are these people, and what do they want, and what is their point of view? I always try and make it different, but of course there is a formula that you follow in the Hallmark movies that is across the board on every single one. But Carly’s character in this one, she is somebody who wanted to reach her goals so badly that every time she opened her mouth the wrong thing came out, and she just couldn’t be herself, but through this guy who is so unapologetically himself, he helps to inspire her to believe she is enough, “so just be you.” That was something I hadn’t done in one of these movies yet.
Did you have strong feelings about whether the actors cast were Jewish so they would inherently understand the prayers and traditions they were asked to perform?
I watch casting tapes, but I don’t have a ton of say in who gets cast, but it’s always about the best performance because these actors are pros and if they don’t know the prayers, they’ll learn it. But incidentally the whole family is all Jewish and they did know the prayers already and they all had stories about how they celebrate. So it was a fun bonding experience for us the night before [production] talking about playing dreidel. And Kris Polaha’s manager recorded herself singing the prayer, and he just listened to it through headphones and practiced it over and over, and his character also does that in the course of the movie.
What do you hope the audience who watches “Double Holiday” takes away from the project?
I think you watch these and you go, “We’re not so different after all.” That’s what I tell my children, too, because I grew up Jewish and my husband grew up Christian, but we’re all saying the same thing, we just call it by a different name. There’s nothing that differentiates us; we may celebrate differently, but we’re all the same and we are all in this together.