no. 16: The unparalled staying power of A Christmas Story

in which three writers offer different perspectives on everyone's favorite holiday film: A Christmas Story

no. 16: The unparalled staying power of A Christmas Story
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Every year on Christmas, my family plays A Christmas Story on TBS—the 24 hour loop has always been a source of comfort and nostalgia. Admittedly, I have never sat down to watch the film from beginning to end, but I know the story anyway.

Today's issue is all about this Christmas classic. Three writers are sharing memories, opinions, and history of A Christmas Story.

A brief history of A Christmas Story

by Vince Guerrieri

It’s become a touchstone for a generation: The annual viewing (or viewings, if you’re an addict like I am) of A Christmas Story.

The tale of a boy and his BB gun has really become as much a part of the holiday season as Christmas lights and cookies. The love for the movie is particularly pronounced in Northeast Ohio, where part of it was filmed. It’s even become part of the tourism landscape.

In 1983, Bob Clark, fresh off the success of Porky’s (seriously) wanted to make a movie based on the musings of Jean Shepherd. A Christmas Story was greenlit, and the production crew looked for a city that had a major downtown department store and wouldn’t require much set dressing to look like the 1940s.

They got Cleveland. Higbee’s was actually a real store (but the snow was fake, with machines brought in from a local ski resort), and the house used for some scenes – most memorably when the Old Man receives his Major Award – was in a nearby West Side neighborhood called Tremont. (Fun fact: From the house’s backyard, you can see the onion domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, where the wedding from The Deer Hunter was filmed.)

Fast forward two decades. The house is up for sale, attracting the attention of Brian Jones, a Naval Academy graduate who’d been making models of the notorious leg lamp. He pays $150,000 for it when NO houses are going for that much in that neighborhood, and spends just as much to renovate it to make it look like the Parkers’ house.

The house opened 15 years ago – on Thanksgiving weekend 2006 – and has become not just a mainstay for visitors, but its own complex. Across the street is a museum, with props and costumes, including one of the Red Ryder rifles custom-made for the movie. There’s also a gift shop, and in 2018, the adjoining house was purchased, to serve as the Bumpus house for overnight rentals (you can also rent the upstairs of the Christmas Story house too.)

But the region’s devotion to the yuletide tale doesn’t end there. Like most downtown department stores, Higbee’s ended up closing. Today, it’s the Jack Casino, and its windows facing Public Square are decorated for the holidays to hearken back to the former store. And Santa’s perch found its way down the road to Medina, a small town about 20 miles from Cleveland. You can slide down the same slide Ralphie did at Castle Noel, a former church that’s become a repository for all kinds of Christmas memorabilia, from old store displays to movie props (they also have Cousin Eddie’s RV from Christmas Vacation).

Like Christmas itself, A Christmas Story is a state of mind. A local doughnut shop does themed pastries. Microbreweries use the movie for holiday ale names. And the item that started it all – the leg lamp – still sells like nickel hotcakes, and can be found in front windows throughout Northeast Ohio, not a testament to “mind power,” like the Old Man told Swede (a cameo by Clark himself – wearing his Miami Dolphins stocking cap), but to the staying power of the film.

A Christmas Story: then, now, and possibly forever

by Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan

Over Christmas break in 1983, my mother took my sister and I to see A Christmas Story. We loved it, but the film was not a box office success. Back at school, none of my classmates recognized the immortal catchphrase: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

This went on for years. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began to meet people who likewise remembered Ralphie’s almost romantic yearning for a Red Ryder BB gun. Encountering a fellow fan was like discovering that your lonely club had other members.

Eventually, TBS’s annual A Christmas Story marathon turned a cult favorite into the ultimate holiday movie. But its status as a classic can be attributed to several factors:

It’s quotable.

As a temp, I once walked into an office dominated by a leg lamp, identical to the one Ralphie’s Old Man wins. Such is the ubiquity and charm of A Christmas Story that I immediately greeted the stranger standing beside the lamp with a hearty, “Fra-gee-lay!”

“It’s a major award,” he replied.

Over the years, lines like “I can’t put my arms down!”, “I triple dog dare ya!”, and “Only I didn’t say ‘fudge’…” have become part of our pop culture vocabulary. The phrases function like Esperanto, allowing us to find fellowship with strangers. Social media amplifies this phenomenon by turning shared memories into memes. These mutate and reproduce, making A Christmas Story a potentially endless source of both amusement and unexpected camaraderie.

It describes universal experiences.

Such as feeling completely immobilized by layers of puffy cold-weather gear. Or the urge to stick your tongue to something icy. A friend once confessed that A Christmas Story inspired him to tap his tongue against the frost-covered coil that you used to find in refrigerators; it stuck. He later wrote about this experience in his application to a very competitive college, which accepted him.

And we’ve all been disappointed with a much-anticipated product. The gap between consumer fantasy and reality is often pitiful, but it’s never funnier than the scene where Ralphie realizes the message he’s deciphered with his brand-new Little Orphan Annie secret decoder is actually an ad: Be sure to … drink … your … Ovaltine!

It’s heartwarming, but not at all sentimental.

In most holiday movies, a supportive and loving family is the source of the Christmas miracle. This can lead to the depressing conclusion that other peoples’ families are simply nicer than ours. But in A Christmas Story the Old Man is a hot-tempered mess, and Ralphie’s mother dismisses his deepest desire. The movie is uplifting because Ralphie persists, despite others’ disapproval. His triumph produces a comic and satisfying happy ending—holiday magic at its finest.

If the spirit of the season eludes you, it’s a relief to be reminded that you’re not the only person who’s found comfort and cheer in a little crass commercialism. A Christmas Story insists that sometimes, merchandise makes the holiday—as long as you don’t shoot your eye out.

A Christmas Story: My Manual for Punishment

by Linda Freund

It was winter 1992 and what did this 10-year-old latchkey kid want for Christmas? To be properly punished like in the good ol’ days.

My little sisters were off in their bedroom brushing their pink plastic pony’s hair, my parents were likely working, and I was glued to the 19-inch living room television watching the classic film A Christmas Story.

On came the scene where Ralphie’s mom inserts a delicious hunk of red Lifebuoy soap into his mouth. I was bewitched. The act was cruel but equally earnest—a motherly mission to exorcise the F-word her son had let slip while fretting over a flat tire.

My fingers gripped the frayed living room carpet as I watched the close-up of the mom’s face. I had never seen an expression like that—this curious blend of stern affection. As the daughter of Buddhist hippie parents in San Francisco, my world was all free-range exploration, poetry, and cosmic energy. How refreshing it was to witness 1940s Americana⁠—a golden era when manners mattered and metaphors were concretized.

I was transfixed by the concept: to literally wash bad words out with soap. So much so, I barely noticed the inevitable ad-break starting. Naturally, I had to try it myself.

In my home, profanity functioned like any other noun—with little fanfare. It might as well have been another letter in your tomato alphabet soup. Still, I committed to my role play and pretended the word had weight.

“Fuck,” I said to the empty room. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I said a few more times to make sure the walls, pillows, and carpet heard. Then I marched to the bathroom to face my self-imposed punishment. I wanted to feel what it was to face consequences. To believe in soap the way normal kids believe in Santa.

Actually finding the soap was my first task. Ralphie was a connoisseur of the stuff.  “My personal preference was for Lux, I found that Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor - heavy, but with a touch of mellow smoothness,” he said. By comparison, my family was pretty basic. All we had was a sliver of Ivory loose beside the bathtub drain.

Without so much as a breath, I plunged the soap sliver right between my lips and sucked.

The verdict: it was foul as fudge! I spent the next five minutes running tap water over my outstretched tongue and withholding vomit. Still puckering my lips, I returned to my patch of carpet by the television and watched the rest of the film.

There was no pause button in those days and limited replays (the annual 24-hour TBS marathons didn’t start until 1997). It’s a good thing, too, because immersed in my suds pilgrimage I had missed the critical next scene: Ralphie fantasizing about going blind from soap poisoning.

no. 16: Celebrate Christmas with some feminism

This week we're having a Christmas extravaganza. Read yesterday's issue of your favorite film & TV newsletter for some feminist magic this holiday season.

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