Surprising Results From a Marathon Viewing of ‘A Christmas Story’

Even if you don’t give a hoot about Christmas and haven’t seen A Christmas Story seven million times, you may find The Triple Dog Dare shockingly charming.

There’s a leg lamp in my living room. Not the full size one. I’m not a superfan of A Christmas Story, but I’ve probably seen the movie somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 times, not including all the times it was on in the background as my family decorated the tree or opened presents or engaged in other holiday activities. My wife celebrated Hanukkah growing up and is a Major General in the so-called “War on Christmas”. In second grade, she convinced a half dozen kids at recess that her father shot Santa Claus when he heard the sled land on the roof. Your dad murdered Santa?! Knock, knock. “Mr. Friedman, at school today, your daughter said…”

My own father strongly resembled — in both angry physical demeanor and hard-assed parental philosophy — the Old Man in A Christmas Story. I got plenty of soap in the mouth as a kid. We kept the artificial Christmas tree in the basement, and one year after the tree was up, my dad took the four of us kids into the basement — and pulled out an air rifle that we didn’t even know he had. We loaded it up with BBs and shot the hell out of that Christmas tree box. Somebody got it in the thigh, too, though all of us came back upstairs with no eyes having been poked out.

Despite these facts, my father’s favorite Christmas movie has always been It’s a Wonderful Life. Never mind that most of the film is a depressing black and white meditation on alcoholism and suicidal ideation; my dad lived for those last few moments when George is all good somehow and the angel gets his wings. We’d always have to drop whatever homework we weren’t doing and march downstairs to watch it when he hollered up to us that it was time.

He was a hard man to buy gifts for (“Hurray, another sweater and some floppy disks!”) and one year I really thought I’d nailed it — a copy of It’s A Wonderful Life on DVD, so he could watch it any time he wanted. Instead, I watched as the still cellophane-wrapped case began to collect dust.

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He never even opened it, giving what I thought at the time was the stupidest reason possible: that watching it on DVD just isn’t the same. Joanna Wilson, who I suppose we should refer to as the world’s foremost expert on Christmas-themed film and television, would agree with my dad. In her most personal work in the field to date, The Triple Dog Dare, Wilson watches a 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story and survives to tell us all about it. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Christmas movie content takes a back seat to some considerations of form, and the resultant writing product is both wise and engaging.

Frankly, I agreed to read this book because I thought it would suck in a manner that would be hilarious. Who wants to read along as a crazy Christmas lady deep dives into obscure movie trivia, no matter how beloved the movie? How scholarly could a hokey sleep deprivation experiment be? I have an aunt who goes nuts about Christmas stuff and I was pretty sure this book was made to be read by that oh so narrow slice of the populace. But actually, The Triple Dog Dare is a treasure trove of insights for those in performance studies or even a passing interest in film as a medium.

The book purports to be about A Christmas Story and there is a fair amount of movie-related content examination sprinkled throughout it, but this book is really about its author. It’s about the less than subtle cognitive psychology of marathoning one plot over and over again, hyper-viewing versus our more modern invention of binge-watching different stories arch across a single series. It’s about how many hours a middle-aged woman — a pretty cool one, her extreme devotion to the study of Christmas notwithstanding — can endure without sleep or social interactions. It’s about adventures that only seem like a good idea at three o’clock in the morning and whether we can laugh at racist depictions of Chinese restaurant servers anymore. It’s about how to discuss a holy day in a secular manner and how to sustain a holiday spirit all year long.

Yeah, it’s also about how people will make a museum out of anything and why Ohio is a lame place to live. It’s also about how hilarious and awful commercials were in the ’80s and the simple pleasures of the VCR. It’s also a “six degrees of Christmas” kind of thing, where pretty much anything you hold dear is just two logical leaps away from someone or something from the apparently ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon of A Christmas Story. The chapters are organized chronologically to give some impression of continuity, but Wilson returns to key threads over and over on a minutely differentiated loop, performing an analysis that is a parallel experience to her lifelong viewership of this movie.

Some insights are on repeat while others fade away only half finished. Even if, like me, you don’t give much of a hoot about Christmas and haven’t seen A Christmas Story seven million times, The Triple Dog Dare is shockingly charming. It’s about turning lived experience into stories, making the stories into a movie, and then inserting that movie back into the context of our lives.

RATING 6 / 10
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