My essay in this week’s print TIME is not literally about TV, but it’s about a holiday movie that’s become a cultural phenomenon through reruns on TV. A Christmas Story has supplanted It’s a Wonderful Life (and Miracle on 34th Street) as the favorite holiday movie of Americans of Gen X and later (as defined by a 2006 Harris poll, 41 years old and younger). What’s the difference between the two, besides black-and-white vs. color? It’s the movies’ (and thus the audiences’) views of the community and the individual:
In a traditional Christmas story, the larger holiday is a social good. It uplifts the suicidal, raises every voice in Whoville, renders peace between Macy and Gimbel. Those who reject it–Scrooge, the Grinch–must be forced into its tinseled embrace. Community is all, as in Wonderful Life’s blend of World War II patriotism and New Deal populism: your money’s in the Kennedy house and Mrs. Macklin’s house and a hundred others!
A Christmas Story–and the snarky holiday comedies that have followed it–inverts this moral. Here, the Christmas celebrated by the greater society is crass, stressful and risible. The movie opens with a crowd of kids staring slack-jawed at the pagan temple of a store-window display. (No, George–that’s where my money is!)
When you do pop-culture criticism for a living, one of the most common complaints you get is, “Come on! It’s just a [movie/TV show/videogame/etc.]! Lighten up! How can you read so much into it?” There’s not much to say to that: reading too much into things is in my job description, and either you think that pop culture has larger meanings beyond the work itself or you don’t. But I do think that if you’re going to read larger meaning into anything, it’s Christmas stories: from the get-go, Christmas stories are almost nothing but social message. Well, that and Misfit Toys.
One fact I had to cut for space reasons: last year, the 8 p.m. first showing of the 24-hour TBS Christmas Story marathon drew more viewers aged 18 to 49 than It’s a Wonderful Life did on NBC. But A Christmas Story shouldn’t get too complacent. What was the close second-favorite movie among “Echo Boomers” (age 18 to 29)? National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I weep for America.