Every December, when the Portland sun disappears, my mental health depends on a steady stream of sugary-sweet holiday rom-coms. While I love the low-budget movies (unlicensed new pop songs with auto-tuned jingle bells! Every scene obviously filmed in the same McMansion, even the ones that take place at "work"! Chemistry between romantic leads that lands anywhere between "wooden strangers" and "sizzling Christmas miracle"!), and while I love the high-budget movies (better music and settings, but chemistry can still be a struggle!), there's no replacing a holiday romance book. Nothing warms my heart more than an incredibly goofy series of mild misadventures that end with people learning about themselves and finding love!
This year's list is stacked, and there are some trends worth calling out! Many of these titles are written by duos (friends who love romance, and actual romantic couples), many of these titles are explicitly set in or near holiday rom-coms being filmed (people should find love in the gazebos where people pretend to find love), and all of these titles will pair perfectly with sitting next to a fire with a cup of hot cocoa (or will make you feel this cozy, even if you don't have a fireplace handy).
There's more romance! This is not my first Christmas-themed rodeo, where no one can tame the bull except the sensitive, burly newcomer whose last name is suspiciously close to "Kringle." Explore: Let It Swoon: 11 Books to Make Your Heart Go Pa-Rum-Pa-Pa-Pum, Holiday Ever After: 12 Holiday Romances for the 12 Days of Kiss-mas, and the Best Romance Books of 2023. And do yourself a favor and start following the brand-new, Portland-based, romance-specific bookstore, Grand Gesture Books!
The premise of this one is amazing — one of the biggest rock bands in the world, the Steel Birds, disbanded years ago after a high-profile feud, and the adult children of the band have been offered a ton of money to get their moms back together for a glitzy Christmas Eve reunion. But it's not just their moms that are fiery opposites that might also love each other deeply!! My favorite detail: these adult children are named Melody and Beat; I'm betting extra-big on getting a heartfelt moment where someone talks about the power of music to bring people together. I'm also betting on a lot of completely wild plot twists thanks to the rock-and-roll of it all — the publisher copy mentions both "brawling santas" and "potential cult leader."
The Wake-Up Call has everything: one of the best settings for a holiday romance (an overly festive, financially struggling hotel; this one is somewhere in England); work nemeses (they get stuck on the same front desk shift!); and an incredibly convoluted scheme for saving their struggling business (they get a big reward for returning a wedding ring, so they try to return all of the wedding rings in lost and found — the obvious bonus is that it enables our main characters to glance into other people's love stories). Get ready for Izzy and Lucas to find more than the original owners of some lost wedding rings and the future of the Forest Manor Hotel (it's love, they're going to find love)!
While You Were Sleeping is being revisited a lot, and I think I know why: the plot is 125% bonkers (A secret crush! A coma! A misunderstanding that leads to a fake engagement with a coma-bound man that Sandra Bullock has barely met! A cynical but very cute Bill Pullman!), but the chemistry and holiday vibes are so charming that it overcomes the wackiness to be a stone-cold classic. The Holiday Mix-Up promises to be a sparkling new entry into the "fake-dating-sudden-coma-perfect-family-the-brother???" canon! Katie is a waitress at a diner, has a crush on Juan, and Juan needs to bring a girlfriend back to his family holiday celebrations (again, an unbelievable trope that I will love forever). Juan and Katie agree (a crucial update to this story!!) to fake a relationship, and then Juan falls into a coma right after this plan is set into motion. Now Katie is at the family winery, with the very supportive and loving family of her fake boyfriend — and specifically Mateo, Juan's cute brother. Absolutely yes, I will be spending the holidays with the Martinez family.
Fake dating alert! Margot is reeling from a break-up, and Ben needs to bring home a girlfriend (I'm so excited to find out what goofy reason he has for needing to trick his family into thinking he has a girlfriend). Ben and Margot strike a deal for two whole weeks at his family's home for the holidays, but Ben's sister Ellie doesn't buy it... and Margot and Ellie might be the perfect match. The Christmas Swap is already drawing comparisons to Kiss Her Once For Me, which is incredibly high praise. Also, this takes place in Cheshire, England — I don't want to be too annoying and American, but I do think there's something extra festive about anything that takes place in England. (Blame The Holiday and Love, Actually and one million adaptations of A Christmas Carol, I'm easily won over by imagining everyone with a different accent than I have and using slightly different slang.)
One of the big themes of this list is the holiday rom-com industrial complex being folded back into these books as plot points and (literal) set pieces. A Holly Jolly Ever After really excels at this — it builds on last year's A Merry Little Meet Cute, but kicks things up a spicy notch. We've got Winnie Baker, former teen actress who wore a genuine purity ring and recently divorced the only man she'd ever slept with, co-starring in the first explicitly sexy Christmas-themed rom-com for a squeaky-clean, Hallmark-clone channel as a young Mrs. Claus. Her leading man is Kallum Lieberman, a former boy band idol (the funny one) who's returning to the public eye after starting a successful pizza chain (and partially got the role of sexy young Santa Claus because of a recent sex tape scandal). Co-authors Murphy and Simone have put together a tale that’s both spicy and sweet, touching on the horrors of teen stardom, invisible disabilities, leaving abusive environments, and so much more — and set a scene in a strip club called the North Pole. 10/10.
I love, love, love a rom-com that takes place around a wedding, especially when the main characters are not the ones getting married and are working through complicated wedding feelings. And Starr Lewis is definitely going to work through complicated feelings — she's stuck taking part in all the extravagant wedding extras leading up to her sister's Christmas Eve nuptials to (get ready to be shocked!) Starr's ex. And Starr is single and unemployed, to add insult to cosmically unpleasant injury. But her brother has a (wait for it!) best friend, and that best friend has a mission to fix up his late mother's (get ready!) Christmas shop. I highly doubt Starr is going to leave behind this charming scene to return to single life in New York City.
Teeeeeeeens! Eight Dates and Nights promises to be an incredibly charming YA romance about a big city gal (Hannah) who gets snowed in at her grandma's house in small-town Texas, and meets the only other Jewish teen in town (Noah) at the local deli. And then Noah warms her heart by making her see how much fun it can be to fully give in to goofy, joyful holiday traditions (and create new ones, like truth-or-dare dreidel). Also, the author described the grumpy/sunshine dynamic as "sour cream vs. apple sauce" — obviously we're all going to love this one.
Not to be too "I'm from Minnesota," but there's nothing more romantic than hockey. A shy backup goalie (Landon Stackhouse! Hall of Fame name!) is called up from the farm team, the charismatic superstar (Casey Hicks! A perfect pair!) tries to bring Landon out of his shell and into Casey's too-big house as a roommate. And then... sparks cozily fly, much like chips of ice on a really cool stop (or much like ducks fly together). I'm pretty sure they spend the holidays together, but I'm guessing this book will focus more on penalty boxes than gift boxes.
Plane turbulence serves two very important roles in this holiday wedding romance. Number one, it scares two seatmates into confessing their secrets (like that scene in Almost Famous, I'm assuming). And number two, the weather is so bad that it strands the whole plane in an idyllic snowy little town that is currently filming a holiday rom-com (the town is called Snow Falls, incredible). I love when a plot kicks off with a bang, and I love that Maryam's true love heard her confession, and I love that Anna's rich boyfriend is probably not going to stand a chance when she starts hanging out with the charming actor from the rom-com... and I love the general chaos of wedding preparations, and I am so excited to meet everyone in this bridal party. (And I am enamored with so many titles playing with the idea of filming holiday rom-coms on location in towns that are unbelievably festive, and this one is 100% based on the real rom-com town in Canada.)
The easy sell for this book is "It's a Wonderful Life, but gay." But (and this will sound wild, because that is more than enough!) it's so much more than that! Bailey George (that name!!) is trying to get to New York City, but is too responsible and cares too much — an emergency hits, and now Bailey is running the Langford Falls Winter Wonderfest (again). She cheers up about her thwarted plans when she runs into old flame Maria Hatcher — their backstory involves kissing in the town's mistletoe grove, I repeat, mistletoe grove — and the two start working together. And Clarence the Angel is replaced by Clara Angel, a drag queen who helps Bailey learn about herself (and the holiday spirit). Get ready to be incredibly heart-warmed.
Take one cup "woman moving to New York City to change her whole life," two tablespoons "stumbling across a gelato shop she recognizes from her mom's old photos," and add a dash of "holiday romance magic," and... unfortunately I don't know how to write a gelato recipe, but you're going to get a smooth, sweet, delightfully surprising romance in one of the most romantic holiday cities in the world. Iris accidentally stumbles across her own family's secret gelato recipe, finds some way to subtly help this gelato restaurant (and the charming Gio, the young man taking over for his uncle), accidentally unearths some (probably romantic!) family secrets, and (I'm almost certain) falls in love in the process. Also, Josie Silver is a holiday romance hero! Did you read One Day in December??
Picture this: you've just had your whole life shaken up by leaving your fancy job and long-term relationship. You stop by your friend's holiday party to put off seeing your parents (and explaining all these changes) and run into... your ex, serving drinks, fully nude. And then you take your old job as a ski instructor and, surprise, your ex also works there (and your old stomping grounds are the Scottish Highlands). I'm so excited to dig into the elaborate secret-keeping and flame re-igniting between Maya and Sam! Because at Christmas, you tell the truth accidentally realize that the catastrophic breakup years ago was a misunderstanding, and fall back in love after one wacky, unbelievable misadventure after another.
This one has explicit magic! Diana Merriman (Merriman) is dreading Christmas. Her fiancé Linus (who owns and operates a toy store!) was hit by a car on his bike and has been in a serious coma for weeks. But then she finds a snow globe (featuring Snow Haven, the incredibly cute town they live in) Linus had hidden to give to her, and it transports her back to the day of the accident. And keeps transporting her back to the day of the accident. That's right: this is a time loop Christmas miracle romance. I do expect to cry while reading this one, and also have my heart grow three sizes while getting very hopeful about miracles and true love and how to grow in grief.
The story of a former screenwriting duo and former couple who have to reunite when an old script is picked up, and have to be fake-engaged and offer real advice to keep their star happy — but twist, this book is written by a current screenwriting duo and couple! Movie sets are the new Christmas tree farms, and I am excited to read about this fake romance to becoming a real romance (again) while these lovers-turned-enemies work to bring their script to life (and I'm spiraling a little bit thinking about the layers of reality and artifice in reading fiction about people creating movies). Also, and this is a stretch, but my personal, specific mood-board for this title is the scene in Independence Day when Jeff Goldblum and Margaret Colin exchange meaningful looks at their wedding rings while Will Smith and Vivica A. Fox are getting married. Movie magic, second-chance romance, and LA for the holidays!
With Love, From Cold World is about two coworkers at a failing, beloved, non-trademarked, winter-themed amusement park in Orlando. Lauren is all business while Asa is all fun (or is there more than meets the eye?), and they have to overcome their ongoing rivalry to come up with a wacky-yet-grounded solution to save their beloved anomaly of a workplace. And maybe... sparks fly, even in artificially cold conditions?? Alicia Thompson has created such a swoon-worthy, fun romance about two people growing together — while featuring Secret Santa shenanigans, genuine emotional vulnerability, and one of the best housemate found families of all time.
Laurel runs social media for an Ohio tourism company (I'm already all in), but her boss Gilbert thinks she also runs a farm just outside of town through some kind of misunderstanding (her twin sister, Holly, runs the farm). Gilbert — newly dumped — invites himself to the farm's Christmas Eve Eve dinner, Laurel panics about saving her job, and somehow Laurel is pretending to own the farm and pretending her sexy nemesis Max is her husband. AND THEN: a snowstorm strands everyone in this wacky pressure cooker of snowballing misunderstandings at the idyllic farm. This is a perfect storm of sitcom moments! I am so excited for this farce, I am so excited for fake kisses under the mistletoe to turn into real kisses, I am so excited to find out why Laurel's job would be connected to her running this farm at all.
New York City is one of the best settings for holiday romance magic, and The Christmas Orphans Club really highlights why it's so perfect (it's the people!). Hannah, Finn, Priya, and Theo spend every Christmas together, but this will be their last one in the city — Finn's moving to LA, Hannah's boyfriend wants a deeper commitment, and their lives are changing. Told over eleven Christmases, this rom-com is as much about the love in friendship (and how those ties change and strengthen as you grow) as it is about people kissing with snowflakes in their eyelashes. (But I do expect there to be snow-kissin', and romantic and magical New York City moments.)
I have said it before and I'll say it again: your promotion should not be dependent on how good you are at Christmas activities! But I will suspend my disbelief to read Mackenzie and Graham, who work for a company with unbelievable benefits, compete to show the most holiday spirit at their workplace in order to win the annual promotion. I want to watch these two fight in absurd Christmas-y activities, and I want to watch them fall in love while fencing with wrapping paper tubes, and I want to learn more about the families they're trying to support with this extra money — and yes, I want to read this to find out how this company dynamic can exist. (I think they're graphic designers, they are not literal elves in Santa's Workshop, how would this benefit the business?)
One of my favorite tropes is forced proximity — I want people to bond while being stuck with nothing better to do than have very deep conversations and sort out that they're both a little bit in love with each other and overcome whatever silly misunderstanding is keeping them apart. Emergency Contact (written by real-life couple and high school sweethearts Lauren Layne and Anthony LeDonne) combines being stuck with someone with so much more — Katherine gets a concussion and has to be monitored 48 hours, but neglected to update her emergency contact from her ex-husband Tom. She agrees to travel with him to Chicago (where he's planning to propose to his girlfriend on Christmas Eve) so he can keep an eye on her brain, but there's a snowstorm that turns this already wacky series of misadventures into overdrive (stuck in an airport? Unnecessary connecting flights? Maybe the last rental car? So many choices!). I want them to share a Hudson News dinner, I want them to get to the root of why they didn't work before, and I am excited to find out the exact shape of this happily ever after.