Around Christmas, television networks trot out the tried-and-true. In a culture obsessed with novelty (which is to say, innovation), the quaint charm of products like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story reassures viewers about the continued relevance of old times and values that (seem to) know no time or place. Networks have taken to airing the same film over and over in a 24 hour block, so the story can be seen any time and becomes part of the soft background for family chatter and potato peeling and last minute gift wrapping, punctuated by the occasional eruption of laughter at a notably funny scene.
For the less conventional, there is a Star Wars marathon; some years ago TNT did its solid weeklong block of James Bond films around Christmas vacation; and The Blues Brothers has been on a loop at my family’s house. But nothing compares to A Christmas Story as a perfect televisual wallpaper for the holidays. The film makes no explicit reference to religion that I can recall, and instead celebrates Christmas as a “cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” The film is above all about desire, and the immortal struggles between adults and children, women and men over material rewards – Dad’s lust for turkey and indecent lamps, little brother’s yearning for a zeppelin, and of course Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. In the shorthand by which so many famous and perennial texts become known, one family member remarked upon arriving at our house, “Is that the one about the BB gun?” Christmas is known by consumerist clues.
The film becomes part of an endless cycle during which people drop in and out at various points, knowing each of the scenes but forgetting the order they go in. Sequence is irrelevant. The films are a series of setpieces that could be arranged in almost any order. At times, attention coalesces around the end of the story, as viewers focus in on Ralphie finally getting his BB gun and the family losing their turkey to the Bumpuses’ dogs in a torrent of classic mishaps. This nonlinear, open-ended quality of the text suggests an eternal flow – Ralphie will always want a BB gun, misunderstanding adults will always attempt to dissuade, and the story will always reset – not unlike the pageant of family life that recreates itself year after year, about which people are keen to reflect at Christmas time.
In the case of A Christmas Story, the humor transcends time and place by locating Ralphie’s adventures in a vague but instantly recognizable Midwest – ostensibly of the early 1940s, though people who grew up in the Thirties, Fifties or Sixties can all see part of their childhood experience on the screen. There is a world-conquering desire for simple gifts like footballs and bowling balls, the pairing of an irascible but gentle working dad and nurturing stay-at-home mom, and the (for some viewers) reassuring homogeneity of an old white Indiana. The odd inclusion of electronic, motorized toys in a shop window suggests a post-WWII setting, while the kids’ enthusiasm for radio shows makes it clear that this is the pre-TV era. “Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window,” the narrator recalls, speaking both of his father’s fishnet mannequin leg lamp and the Little Orphan Annie radio serial.
A Christmas Story takes place in a universalized, imagined past in which the machinations of mothers, fathers, teachers, students, bullies, toadies and victims can play out. The struggles between these characters exist outside of time and, for this reason, can be taken by viewers as small tableaux of human folly over the ages, with no need to be constrained by the discrete confines of a film with a beginning or end or the demands of a tightly plotted narrative.
Cable networks have made this festival of recurring imagery possible; in some way, the endless loop of the Griswolds or the Parkers is not too different from the channel that just plays the image of a burning fireplace twenty-four hours a day. The TV can furnish a fireside just as well as it can supply interchangeable scenes of boyhood scheming in Hohman, Indiana. Whereas the broadcast networks began the practice of annually airing The Wizard of Oz and other chestnuts back in the 1950s, TBS and the like have gone further. They use their programming schedule to create a new kind of viewing that treats a narrative as incidental to the viewers’ attention. We all start watching when Ralphie loses it and unloads on the local bully, in a triumph of vicarious revenge that all can relish – and then the film fades again into the background. At various times during the day, one person or another says, “This is my favorite part!”
Scholars such as Raymond Williams have discussed how new media have introduced new ways of organizing information, as when newspapers began to provide a fragmented arrangement of stories, advertisements, and headlines that a reader could move through at their leisure, quite unlike the linear organization of a novel or epic poem. TV provides a similar sort of disjointed experience, since viewers tune in and out depending on the topic of a news segment or the coming and going of commercials. The holiday marathon turns a simple, 90-minute family film into an indeterminate, endless text like television itself, which serves as a moving backdrop for family life, randomly accessible by viewers as clips on YouTube or quotes on imbd.com are. One can even see A Christmas Story as akin to internet radio stations that specialize entirely in Prince or Phish or any other artist, proposing that if X is what you want, you can have X all the time. Any text can become a nonstop product, ready to be noticed or unnoticed at will. Cable and the internet offer a relative lack of limitation that makes a film potentially infinite – part of the ambiance of a holiday gathering and occasionally consciously watched, in whatever order suits the moment, much like music.