The Work of Christmas in the Age of “TBS’s Twenty-Four Hours of A Christmas Story”

by zunguzungu

If you’re like me, and A Christmas Story is its own kind of Christmas morning tradition, it’s become a unique cinematic experience. I’m not exactly sure when TBS started playing it back to back for the entire 24 hours of Christmas, but when they did, it was transformed from the movie that originally flopped in the theatres into something much more interesting. It was already somewhat formless; originally pieced together from a collection of Jean Shepherd stories (from In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash), the film gets unified as a narrative only by the looming end-times of Christmas, the child’s version of the rapture. Yet piling one screening after the other takes this formlessness to the next level: if you missed Flick putting his tongue on the flagpole the first time around, wait two hours and it’ll come around again. More to the point, the Christmas morning where Ralphie gets the gun is no longer a climax or a telos but simply the still center around which the entire thing turns, always present, always coming or going and coming again. If you know every line, the whole script will play over and over and over again, but thanks to TBS, it will even if you don’t. You can go outside and walk off that turkey if you want, and catch the flag-pole scene on the next viewing.   

This kind of long view is inconceivable for the boys in the movie. This year’s Christmas is the only Christmas there will ever be and if they fail to acquire the object of their desire, they will never have another opportunity, ever. Everything is life and death for them, and every twist in turn in their personal narratives is a cliffhanger, a game-changer, and a matter of the highest stakes imaginable. The film tries to show us these boys as just pulsating, grasping ids, perhaps endowed with enough animal cunning to acquire the objects of their desire, but totally incapable of self-denial in any form (or remorse). So what the TBS 24-hours of A Christmas Story makes evident is exactly the thing they are least capable of observing: that life is banal, that Christmas is an elaborate charade ending in Simoniz, and that the object of their desire will — metaphorically — shoot their eye out.

Ralphie and company are also apparently unable to tell fantasy from reality; going to school is like deep-sea diving, Flick saw some grizzly bears near Pulaski’s candy store, Little Orphan Annie really exists, and the prospect of being murdered by one’s father is a daily problem. The cartoonish violence of the radio shows and movies is the key through which they interpret the world at large, a fantasy life as real — more real, in fact — than the dull grown up world of Warren G. Harding elementary school. Christmas is the logical culmination of this confusion, but, after all, who can blame them for confusing the fantasy of Santa Claus with the reality of Christmas avarice? The whole world seems to be in on the conspiracy. 

We, of course, know better, and as Jean Shepherd’s own voice-over narration both peers into their innocent minds and laughingly disavows what it sees, we are drawn in both to feeling the un-selfconscious desire of childhood and doing against the backdrop of the cynical self-consciousness of adulthood. His is the voice of an adult still able to vicariously enjoy remembering what it was like to be young and innocent, yet still adult, still distanced. This is a big part of what makes the movie so funny, I think, the dissonance between our knowing what they feel and their inability to feel what we know: after all, while we might laugh at fetishes like the “honors and benefits” which Ralphie anticipates receiving from Little Orphan Annie, part of the humor comes from our secular ability to share in the rapture of that possession. If the callowness of Ralphie’s mind is the attraction by its foreignness, in other words, we also find the logic which drives it legible.

This is more interesting than it might initially seem, I think. These fears and desires are comprehensible precisely because they’ve been displaced onto a kind of mind we can laughingly disavow, the mind of a child, and because we view him from exactly the perspective whose lack defines him as a character. Because we know that TBS will keep showing this same movie over and over again, because we know the ending, because we know he will get the rifle and shoot his eye out, and because we know it will happen again next Christmas (and because, apparently, he knows none of these things), we can laugh. In this sense, just as the subject of a bildungsroman is always legible by reference to the process of maturity which the genre articulates, “Ralphie” is legible only by reference to the knowing and ironic gaze whose knowing irony he is unable to share. This, in fact, is what makes him the audience’s object of desire: by watching him, we get to share in his joy at the thing of which he is innocent, even as we laugh at his innocence to remind ourselves that we do, actually, know better.    

I’m struggling to articulate a dynamic that the movie manages to portray much more eloquently. In the movie’s climactic scene, for example, when Ralphie actually gets the BB gun, the triangle of desire which forms between Ralphie, his father, and the rifle is telling: while Ralphie’s face is pretty blank — some combination of stunned and guarded — contrast his masked expression with the almost totally unselfconscious lust and hunger on his father’s face. Ralphie has some difficulty processing the fulfillment of his ultimate desire, while his father’s face is the screen onto which the emotions the boy should be feeling are projected. The most banal explanation, of course, is that Darren McGavin is a fine actor, while Peter Billingsley had less range, and this is probably true. But it is also exactly right that the innocent be completely unable to make sense of his acquisition of the Red Ryder BB gun — he is, after all, innocent — just as only the father can truly desire the BB gun, because only experience can tell him what it is, and how to take pleasure from it. Yet he can only do so vicariously through his son: only the experienced can appreciate innocence, in a paradox that a theologian would find familiar, because experience of the thing is what locks you out of the garden. 

In miniature, this is the economy of Christmas spectacle, the manner in which the children barter a commodified innocence to their parents in exchange for the vicious prizes of eros, toy zeppelins and toy rifles whose symbolic meaning the film makes as transparent as possible. In other words, A Christmas Story celebrates a fictional innocence which its principles adopt strategically, the way they put on a pink bunny suit to placate their crazy Aunt Clara who still labors under the delusion that they are perpetually four years old. Ralphie and his friends understand the instrumental value of innocence as a spectacle: it’s one of the few currencies children have that adults are willing to pay for. When Ralphie’s comically foul-mouthed father expresses shock at Ralphie’s knowledge of the f-word — a wide-eyed horror his mother shares — Ralphie understands instantly that he cannot at all costs tell the truth to his parents. To puncture their illusion would shake the very foundations of his relationship with his parents, just as he will have to wear the bunny suit when Aunt Clara is around.

They might believe in Santa or they might not, but when Ralphie and company blur the line between Hollywood fantasy and reality, “innocence” isn’t exactly the right word for what they are doing. After all, just as we go to movies to suspend our disbelief, so, too, do they, and why not? The mind-numbing dullness of Warren G. Harding elementary school is not a reality anyone should have to face head on. Perhaps more importantly, to demonstrate maturity would end the charade of Christmas, and Ralphie knows the cash value of a belief (as he puts it, “…most of us are scoffers. But moments before zero hour, it did not pay to take chances”). This is the pragmatic essence of Christmas’ economy of spectacle: when weighed against the concrete benefits of playing the game by its rules, the question of what is really real is not even vaguely important. As they trek across the landscape of American consumerism, they have ample opportunity to see through its illusions (“it’s the same old dumb parade as last year”), and Ralphie’s disgust with his Ovaltine commercial illustrates that they are well aware of what Christmas really is. But its also irrelevant: they are rational actors, and if paying lip-service to innocence is the price of admission to Christmas, they are only too glad to pay.

To put it another way, Ralphie’s inability to tell fantasy from reality is far more apparent than real, a spectacle in its own right, and a performance which — counter-intuitively — he is the master artificer, and his parents the unwitting consumers. After all, for all extents and purposes, Santa Claus is real. Doesn’t he get the BB gun in the end? The movie is thus a very particular kind of post-modern text, which the TBS 24-hour marathon fittingly takes to its logical conclusion, and an economy of spectacle in which we, too, are implicated. We, too, purchase the illusion of innocence which Jean Shepherd is peddling, even while we laugh at our own naivete in doing so. Once a year, Christmas becomes a timeless constant, and we are “overcome by art,” as Ralphie puts it, allowing ourselves to suspend our disbelief and forget that it’s a thing both banal and illusionary, as unreal as a “Chinese turkey” for Christmas, and just as satisfying.

Addendum: The author of Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd sent me the following links, which are both totally worth your time if you’ve read this far down. The first is an excellent over-reading of the movie at Buttermilk Sky and the second is a great semi-autobiographical piece at Slate, written by Donald Fagen (yes, that Donald Fagen).  Thanks!