This article originally ran on Nov. 29, 2007.
In the holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) sees what life would have been like had he never been born. His brother would be dead, his wife a spinster, Bedford Falls a hellhole, albeit one with more interesting nightlife.
So Bedford Falls needs George Bailey. But the rest of us? Not so into him anymore. Don’t get me wrong: I like Wonderful Life — the dance contest, the romance, the seductive mystery of Violet Bick. But isn’t there something a little oppressive about it? To me, a former small-town kid, it’s a tragedy, about a man whose dreams are beaten down by his needy, parochial, busybody neighbors. I want to yell at the screen, “You go on that honeymoon, George Bailey! Tell that cabdriver to floor it and never look back!”
That makes me a bad person. But I must not be alone, because America has a new favorite Christmas movie. A Christmas Story, the 1983 tale about Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a 9-year-old in 1940s Indiana, and his lust for a Red Ryder air rifle, is everything Wonderful Life is not: satiric and myth-deflating, down to the cranky store Santa kicking Ralphie down a slide. (“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”)
(VIDEO: The Best Christmas Movies)
And it’s overtaking Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and the rest, with demographics on its side. In a 2006 Harris poll, respondents from 18 to 41 years old named it their favorite holiday movie, while their parents and grandparents picked Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. The 24-hour Christmas Story marathon on TBS is in its 11th year, with rising ratings. “The best movies tend to fade over time [in reruns],” says Ken Schwab, TBS senior vice president of programming. “This one has defied gravity.”
This is one of those little pop-cultural shifts — football overtakes baseball, salsa defeats ketchup–that signal bigger changes: here, in the relationship between 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!) In the end, the characters discover an authentic holiday outside the usual traditions — as when Ralphie and family, their turkey devoured by the neighbor’s dogs, discover “Chinese turkey” (Peking duck) at a chop-suey restaurant. It’s the individual Christmas that matters. Bedford Falls can take a hike.
Christmas Story lampoons holiday greed but delights in it too — there’s no platitudinous ending about how Christmas isn’t really about presents. That’s perfect for a society of people who tell pollsters that Christmas has become too commercial yet spend north of a grand on it on average. Just as voters hate Congress yet re-elect their Congressmen, so do we think that everyone else’s Christmas is corrupt while our own is full of meaning.
That’s not to say Christmas Story or its viewers are cynical. It’s nostalgic — but for the past’s faults, not its imagined perfection. It’s the nostalgia of its Gen-X and -Y fans, who remember childhood in terms of divorces and bad haircuts.
Ironically, Christmas Story takes place decades before they were born. Ralphie could have been one of George Bailey’s kids. But he and his friends don’t twitter about bells and petals and angels’ getting their wings. Christmas is about the kids’ getting their due. It’s a time of disappointment and bullies but also of dreams — even as they discover it’s one of the many ways that society converts dreams into money, as when Ralphie sends away for a Little Orphan Annie decoder pin, which tells him to drink his Ovaltine. (“A crummy commercial? Son of a bitch!”)
Neither Christmas Story nor Wonderful Life, though, has an exclusive on the spirit of Christmas. The holiday is full of paradox: sacred and secular, giving and gorging, loving others and suffering them. It’s not so bad to get that cornball annual reminder that Bedford Falls needs you. But it’s not so terrible either to wonder whether, sometimes, you’d be better off without Bedford Falls.