Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Miss Shields. Scut Farkas. The Bumpass hounds. FRA-GEE-LAY! The bunny suit. It’s a major award. You’ll shoot your eye out, kid! I would doubt that less than one in ten–maybe one in a hundred–people who read this blog won’t know what each and every one of these phrases mean, or have heard them countless times this holiday season. Even someone like me (I’m Jewish and celebrate Hanukkah) can’t escape the awesome, black-hole-like cultural ubiquity of A Christmas Story, the strange little movie from the 80s that has now come to define Christmas for an entire generation.
Now, 31 years after its initial release, the story of A Christmas Story is almost as well-known as the story within the movie itself. A low-budget sleeper film made by Canadian director Bob Clark, fresh off his box office success with the raunchy Porky’s movies, A Christmas Story was a light-hearted adaptation of memoirs by Jean Shepherd (In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash) and filmed largely in Cleveland, where today the “Christmas Story House” is a major tourist attraction. The film, set in the 1930s or 1940s–its time frame is deliberately ambiguous–celebrates suburban white middle-class Christmas and centers around the passion of its kid protagonist Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) for that air rifle he desperately wants but no one will let him have. The movie forever defined the careers of its main stars, not just Billingsley, but character actor Darren McGavin (Dad) and Melinda Dillon (Mom), and down to the minor roles of Zack Ward (Scut Farkas) and the teacher (Tedde Moore).
The question remains, though: how and why did A Christmas Story become such a cultural icon? It’s not as if its ultimate victory in the decades-long battle for America’s all-time favorite Christmas movie was preordained. It was only a modest success upon its initial release in theaters in November 1983, and most of the initial reviews were bad. I remember when it came out; my dad vetoed mine and my sister’s suggestion to go see it one day because he said it “looked stupid” and “got terrible reviews.” Even a decade ago, anyone who could have suggested A Christmas Story would challenge, much less dethrone, the Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life as the quintessential Christmas movie would be regarded as pretty much delusional.
One possible answer can be given by employing a radio term: A Christmas Story has gotten very heavy rotation. Although shown on TV often beginning in 1985, the Turner-owned cable stations–WTBS, TNT, TCM, etc.–began rebroadcasting the film heavily during the holiday season beginning in the 1990s. If you’re 30 or under today, chances are you probably first saw A Christmas Story on TNT’s “24 Hours of A Christmas Story” marathon, repeating the film over and over again on Christmas itself, beginning in 1997 and continuing to the present day. It’s a cinch that A Christmas Story is the most broadcast holiday film of all time.
Broadcast traditions can make a difference as to whether a movie is positively associated with Christmas. When I was growing up I distinctly remember The Sound of Music being broadcast on network TV, usually NBC, during Christmas week, to the point where I began to consider it a Christmas film even though its subject matter (unlike A Christmas Story) has nothing to do with Christmas. This is probably why the song “My Favorite Things” often comes up on Christmas music rotations. Many people of my generation do associate it with Christmas. That’s fortuitous marketing for 20th Century Fox, the makers of the picture. But this is much less so today. Nobody really thinks of The Sound of Music being about Christmas.
Before the 1990s, It’s A Wonderful Life was considered the most “classic” Christmas movie of all time. This trailer for it was made not by the studio but by a film student in 2012, in an interesting juxtaposition of eras.
If we’re talking strictly about economics, A Christmas Story is not the most “popular” Christmas film after all. That honor belongs to the 1990 Chris Columbus comedy Home Alone, which has grossed $476 million since its release nearly 25 years ago–much more if you count the sequels and spinoffs. Home Alone is unabashedly a Christmas film, but, while enjoyable, something about it seems crass and cynical. It somehow doesn’t seem right to laud it as a true “holiday classic,” no matter what broadcast announcers or DVD-box tag lines say. It’s noteworthy that A Christmas Story has landed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry list of the most culturally significant films in American history. Home Alone hasn’t.
I posit that the cultural gestalt of beloved Christmas films is generational, and situational. It’s A Wonderful Life, made in 1946 (and, to a lesser extent, Miracle on 34th Street, which came out the next year) were, until the 1990s, considered the most “classic” Christmas films ever made. Both films were made in the aftermath of World War II and both depict middle-class white nuclear-family life as the idyllic perfection in American society. It’s A Wonderful Life was made specifically to dramatize the value of young men, particularly those who had served in combat, to their families and communities in the new postwar order. We loved the movie because it showed us what a middle-class “small town” Christmas was supposed to be like. That vision held primacy until the end of the Cold War.
Though made much later, A Christmas Story comes from much the same place and speaks to the same values. Where It’s A Wonderful Life emphasizes heroism, A Christmas Story fetishizes nostalgia. Its initial fan base consisted of families whose fathers and mothers actually grew up in the era depicted in the film and who remember the cultural tropes of that era. It’s a well-made enough film that it speaks to people who didn’t grow up in the 1940s: it makes us nostalgic for a time we never experienced.
Is this the next “all time classic Christmas movie”? Don’t laugh. It’s no more improbable than A Christmas Story claiming that title.
That nostalgia, however, won’t work forever–and its day in the sun is probably over. It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are still wonderfully entertaining movies, but these days they seem culturally obsolete. Emphasizing the nuclear family or middle-class suburban values is pretty passé in an era when the nuclear family is no longer the norm and the middle class pretty much doesn’t exist in America. Similarly, A Christmas Story‘s romantic-hued nostalgia is going to resonate far less in a coming future now nearly 80 years detached from the world it depicts. Home Alone is too cynical and craven to really pluck our heartstrings, but note that it traffics in white middle-class suburban idyllism too. If this is the “definition” of a classic Christmas movie, it’s an increasingly outdated definition.
So what happens when A Christmas Story begins to decline, as it must, in ubiquity and popularity? What other movie takes its place? The thing about Christmas films is that the ones that survive in public memory have very long shelf lives. It’s perhaps unthinkable now to imagine something like Love Actually, now 11 years old, becoming our most all-time beloved Christmas movie, but the same was true of A Christmas Story when it was 11 years old in 1994 (and just on the verge of its big break). You can never predict how these things will go. Love Actually, which depicts a more realistic world of family life in the 21st century, might be poised for an eleventh-hour win. You never know.
A Christmas Story is a fun and charming movie, and will likely remain so for a long time. But its hold on public adoration, at least as the exemplar of the “ultimate” holiday film, is probably pretty fragile. Nothing fades like success. After 31 years, Ralphie and his BB gun might be headed off into the sunset sooner than you think.