The first Saturday in December in Cleveland is chilly and gloomy, with an icy bite in the air that serves as a harsh reminder winter is coming. But neither gray skies nor unfriendly temperatures have dampened the spirits of visitors amped to tour the modest house featured in the 1983 film A Christmas Story. The yellow-sided house with dark green trim is something of a hidden gem: It’s tucked away on a narrow, nondescript residential street in Cleveland’s popular Tremont neighborhood, diagonal from the circa-1906 neighborhood bar the Rowley Inn.
However, the looming holiday season means that the area around the house is bustling. Cars slowly drive down the street looking for parking, and groups of people mill around taking selfies in front of the house and examining era-specific sights like a vintage red car. In the cozy gift shop, the line to buy tour tickets snakes through displays of merchandise: racks and shelves stuffed with A Christmas Story-themed T-shirts, holiday ornaments, neckties, mugs, shot glasses, DVDs. Books by Jean Shepherd, whose 1966 effort In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, largely inspired A Christmas Story, are stacked close to the door. A penny-flattening machine features the film’s bespectacled protagonist Ralphie dressed in pink bunny suit pajamas.
Outside, two men sporting full-size bright-pink bunny suits are waiting in line for their turn to tour the house. A not-insignificant number of visitors makes a beeline for the house’s porch for a photo opportunity with one of the tour’s star attractions: a shapely leg lamp with a fringed shade, lit up brightly in the front window, just like it was in the movie. Appropriately enough, the gift shop also sells a generous array of leg lamps in multiple sizes, so you can (as the film puts it) experience the “soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window” of your own home.
Nearly 40 years ago, when A Christmas Story filmed on this very street, it’s safe to say nobody involved could’ve predicted the house would eventually become one of Cleveland’s most popular tourist attractions, with an average of 75,000-80,000 paid admissions per year.
After all, almost nobody thought A Christmas Story had cinematic staying power either. Just ask Patty Johnson. The Cleveland-based actress, who appeared in the movie as the cranky head elf tasked with dragging kids to see Santa, is cheerfully blunt about the film’s lukewarm reputation back in the ‘80s. “I didn’t even have it on my résumé for years,” she admits. “I didn't want to be associated. I was like, ‘It's just a dog of a stinker. Nobody needs to know I was in that thing.’”
Johnson certainly doesn’t feel that way anymore. And she’s not the only one who’s had a change of heart: Over the decades, A Christmas Story has grown into a full-fledged festive phenomenon—a family Christmas tradition on par with baking cookies, Elf on the Shelf, and putting out milk and cookies for Santa.
The film’s memorable catchphrases (“You’ll shoot your eye out!” “Fra-gee-lay—it must be Italian!” “It’s a major award!”) are part of pop-culture lore. Every Christmas Eve, a 24-hour TV marathon of the movie is an annual event. There have been multiple movies both directly and tangentially related to the original Christmas Story—most recently, HBO Max’s A Christmas Story Christmas, which premiered in November—and a musical, A Christmas Story: The Musical.
In even bigger news, the town of Chickasha, Oklahoma, recently installed a 50-foot-tall leg lamp statue in a public park, in honor of the artist and art school teacher Noland James, who is said to have come up with a prototype that inspired the movie’s own leg lamp.
So how exactly did A Christmas Story evolve from an embarrassment to a universally beloved piece of holiday pop culture? It’s not from drinking Ovaltine—though you don’t need Little Orphan Annie’s decoder ring to tell you that.
A Christmas Story was made for a measly $3.3 million (a figure equivalent to $10.19 million today) by director Bob Clark, who was fresh off helming a decidedly non-family-friendly movie: 1981’s raunchy, sex-obsessed Porky’s. A Christmas Story co-starred veteran actors Darren McGavin (The Night Stalker) and Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as exasperated but loving parents to bespectacled dreamer Ralphie, portrayed by 10-year-old Peter Billingsley, who wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but is stymied at (nearly) every turn by the adults in his life.
Author and scholar Joanna Wilson, who has studied and written extensively about the history of Christmas on television and published a book, Triple Dog Dare: Watching—& Surviving—the 24-Hour Marathon ofA Christmas Story, says the “structure of the storytelling” driving A Christmas Story makes the film stand out.
“The story is told from the perspective of young Ralphie with commentary by adult Raphie,” she explains. “This looking back or reminiscing about a previous Christmas is an activity that most people do each year at Christmas. By setting the film in the 1940s, the story adds nostalgia on top of it all—another popular activity most people indulge in at Christmas time.”
A Christmas Story also stands out because of its casting. Instead of generic supporting characters, you have a deep bench of vivid personalities: cruel bullies, dramatic teachers, adult authority figures, irritating siblings, snot-nosed kids.
According to Yano Anaya—who portrayed Grover Dill, the mean sidekick to head bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward)—this depth of character helps A Christmas Story resonate. “People can relate to their childhood and a schoolyard bully, or relate to their father being that strict or their mom really trying to do her best to give you more opportunities, right? All of these little nuances that are in A Christmas Story—[they] relate to a lot of people's experiences in life.”
When the film came out ahead of Thanksgiving 1983, reviews of A Christmas Story were mixed. A syndicated review published in The Charlotte News called it “the first Christmas movie in years that wouldn’t turn Santa into Scrooge overnight,” while The Daily Record (New Jersey) dubbed it a “piece of fluff that lets you laugh at corniness and feel only a little ashamed.” However, The New York Times review minced no words: “There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in A Christmas Story, but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them.” A Christmas Story placed third in its first week in theaters—trailing The Big Chill and Amityville 3-D—but grossed just $12.8 million overall. A theatrical re-release the following year didn’t perform much better; it generated a paltry $1.3 million.
But a funny thing happened: A Christmas Story eventually found an audience. Johnson says after the movie was released on home video—and was available in rental stores like Blockbuster—it started to draw attention. “They started doing categories like Halloween movies, Christmas movies,” she says. “And I think that's where some people started to find it, because it was on those shelves.” That the movie kept being reissued in other formats also helped.
A Christmas Story also found new life on TV. Johnson noticed that awareness increased after the film began airing on cable channels in the late 1980s. In 1997, the channel TNT first programmed a 24-hour marathon of the movie on Christmas Eve—a tradition that continues to this day.
The availability on home video, coupled with the marathon turning into an annual event, was crucial to the movie’s endurance, says Wilson. “The 25-year legacy means that many people—a generation of now-adults—have experienced that 24-hour marathon of the movie cycling through the background of their Christmases of the past,” she says. “Since celebrating Christmas in many ways is about tradition, many people return to watch A Christmas Story with their families because it's what they did last year, and the year before.”
Clevelanders have immense pride in the fact that A Christmas Story was partially filmed in the city, in no small part because so many have personal connections. For example, I’m always delighted to see the now-defunct Higbee’s in the film—as a young child growing up in the area during the 1980s, my parents took me shopping there every year—and my late grandmother recalled seeing festive vintage decorations hung up in the city’s Public Square during filming.
Unsurprisingly, references to the film crop up everywhere in the Cleveland area, especially during December. The beloved (and delicious) Rudy’s Strudel and Bakery in nearby Parma makes A Christmas Story pierogies stuffed with potato, cheddar, and meatloaf, while bars and houses all over Cleveland boast leg lamps as décor. You can visit a replica of the Santa slide at Castle Noel, a year-round Christmas destination.
An annual A Christmas Story-themed 5K or 10K run for charity, where runners often showed up in costumes inspired by the movie, is due to return in 2023. And, as of a proclamation issued last month, November 18—the day the movie premiered in theaters back in 1983—is officially known as “A Christmas Story Family” Day in Ohio.
Family and tradition are central to why the movie appeals to Arekand April Helcberger. The former grew up on a Cleveland street with the kind of houses seen in the film. “The movie reminded me a lot of my childhood,” he says. April, meanwhile, grew up watching the movie with her brother—and continued this tradition after she married Arek. “We started watching together—and now we get to watch with our kids.”
In 2015, when the Helcbergers wanted to renew their wedding vows after ten years of marriage, they leaned into their love for the movie. “[We were] like, 'we should get married at the A Christmas Story House,’” April says. “They hadn't done anything like that at the time.”
Sure enough, the house was happy to accommodate. The couple, their kids, and select family members had a ceremony inside the house’s cozy living room. “We were able to get married by Santa,” April says. “They made it so nice for us. It was really a special time.” Arek also has a permanent place in the neighborhood: A sketch he made of Ralphie in 2020 now hangs in the museum.
That the A Christmas Story House is in Cleveland has always resonated with Ryan McCartney. Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, he sought out the abode even before it was spruced up and open to the public. Part of that was because he likes to see the real-life locales where movies were filmed. However, the local connection also made a difference.
“I would love to know how I would feel about it if it didn't have the Cleveland connection,” he says. “I don't know if I’d feel as close to it, because that's what really drags me in, knowing that so much of it was done right here in our backyard.”
McCartney’s A Christmas Story fandom extends beyond the house to a full-size leg lamp: “We usually put it up November 1. We like to get two good months out of it.” Since getting married, he and his wife Jessica have sent out elaborate custom Christmas cards based on scenes from the movie, often starring their dogs and daughter.
This year’s card design was particularly special: The couple surprised their friends with a card that doubled as a pregnancy announcement. “I'm holding a mini leg lamp wrapped in a blanket,” he shares. “It says, ‘It's another major award.’ And my daughter, who's now three, is in the picture, [and] of course [also] my wife and me. [And] the real leg lamp is in the background.”
Much like it took decades for the movie to catch on, the house in A Christmas Story grew into its status as a tourist mecca over time. Growing up on the West Coast, current owner Brian Jones and his family were fans. But all Jones wanted to do was be a jet pilot and astronaut. He was on track to fulfilling his flying dreams, studying aerospace engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy, until he failed the vision test for flight school. To make him feel better, his mom sent him a leg lamp as a joke.
Jones never forgot this gift. In 2003, he decided to start selling leg lamps out of his 1,000-square-foot condo. The business grew much quicker than he anticipated; at one point, he sold 2,100 leg lamps in one year. A few years later, the house that appeared in A Christmas Story went up for sale on eBay. Jones purchased it for $150,000 in 2006.
Then the work began to make the house an exact replica of what you see in the movie. “Basically, it was a complete gut and a re-do,” Jones says, noting they had to do things like move windows, re-do the electrical system and reinforce the floors. “I went through the movie frame-by-frame and I handed the contractor [directions]: ‘Make it look like this.’”
That attention to detail was important. “The house is a big star of the movie,” Jones says. “When I first saw [the house] I was like, ‘Wow.’ I got goosebumps.”
McCartney recalls being similarly in awe when he saw the A Christmas Story House for the first time. When it opened to the public in 2006, he stood in line for hours waiting to get in. Today, McCartney’s been back many times, and has a standing tradition with his mother to have lunch together and make an annual pilgrimage to the house and museum.
“Every time we go, we're in line and we're talking to people, and they're like, ‘Oh, I’m from Minnesota,’ or whatever. It's like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It’s like, ‘Well, we wanted to make a weekend of this, check this out.’ There was probably a time in my life where I thought the reach was mostly local. And that's definitely not the case.”
While reporting this story, something unexpected happened: The A Christmas Story House and the surrounding properties were put up for sale. The asking price for the complex, which totals 1.3 acres and includes five buildings, several parking lots and two empty lots, wasn’t disclosed.
“I am selling because it is simply time for me to move on to a new adventure in life after 20 years in this endeavor,” Jones wrote on the house’s official Facebook page. “It has been an honor to be the steward of such an amazing piece of Americana. All founders need to eventually move on so that their creation can reach its full potential.”
A week later, during his conversation with Thrillist, Jones reflected briefly on his role in bringing the house to life. “It's going to stay a piece of Americana, a piece of pop culture, forever, regardless of who owns the place,” he says.
As news of the sale broke, one potential buying group emerged rather quickly: a group of original A Christmas Story cast members, led by Yano Anaya. The actor has fond memories about shooting the film, and made many life-long friendships on set. In fact, Anaya and many of the other cast members have remained close for years, thanks to their participation in events, autograph signings, and various fundraising efforts for charity.
In the years immediately following A Christmas Story’s release, Anaya struggled to nab acting gigs, but landed two additional roles in a Van Halen music video and 1985's cult favorite Better Off Dead. Decades later, an unexpected business endeavor arose. While owning a fitness facility, he met a marketing-minded coach who happened to be a mega-fan of A Christmas Story—and was blown away to be in the presence of the Grover Dill.
Upon learning Anaya’s identity, the coach proposed an idea: an online community where the film’s cast and fans could interact. At the suggestion, Anaya reached out to his "movie family" to gauge their interest, and from that spark of an idea grew A Christmas Story Family, a jaw-dropping display of A Christmas Story fandom: its Facebook group boasts more than 50,000 members, a membership-based VIP community, and a gift shop full of movie-related merchandise.
For Anaya, A Christmas Story Family is as much about securing A Christmas Story’s future as it is about celebrating the past. Deepening that connection and legacy is one reason Anaya sounds excited about potentially buying the A Christmas Story House and complex. In fact, the actor said he reached out to Jones to congratulate him on the proposed sale and express his excitement for whatever was next.
The pair had a “great conversation,” Anaya says, but noted he isn’t in the financial position to put in a bid, adding that raising money from investors seemed the most likely route if the sale is going to happen. “We just have to get all the information about the property so that we can develop a proper offer.”
Not long after Thrillist had these conversations, another unexpected wrinkle emerged. TMZ published a video of an incident between Anaya and Jones that happened on November 15—before their chats with Thrillist took place. It’s unclear what spurred the argument: Anaya is taking pictures on the porch of the A Christmas Story House, ostensibly with fans, and then Jones appears and yells at him to leave the property.
According to a post in the A Christmas Story Family Facebook group, a fan started a GoFundMe to purchase the house that was never publicized or shared; in fact, it was deleted before it even reached the fundraising stage. Per TMZ, "[Yano's business partner Emmanuel Soba] tells us that a volunteer member of their group did make a GoFundMe, but it was never active and doesn't understand why this caused him to lash out."
In the incident's aftermath, Jones issued an official statement via the A Christmas Story House publicist. "I apologize for the way I expressed myself; however, it was out of concern that fans could be misled into contributing to a GoFundMe campaign that will not result in the purchase of the house. I am not selling the house through GoFundMe, so fans should not contribute to that fund under false pretenses, thinking their money is going toward buying the house. I am entertaining offers only from qualified buyers through my real estate broker."
At any rate, the house is still on the market, and it’s business as usual for tours and overnight stays this holiday season. The only tangible sign of the sale itself are several prominent “for sale” signs visible near the house.
The negative press and vibes surrounding, frankly, anything to do with A Christmas Story felt deeply out of character. Both the movie and house offer nearly unanimous good vibes—and the kind of transformative optimism that makes Christmas great.
Arek Helcberger and his family moved to Cleveland from Poland in 1988. During his first Christmas in America, he worried about whether Santa was going to be able to find him in his new home. This was an especially pressing issue because he wanted an original 8-bit Nintendo system—the 1980s equivalent to the Red Ryder BB gun.
But just like Ralphie and his own much-wanted gift, Arek received the Nintendo on that Christmas morning. “[When I saw] the movie for the first time, it was exactly that feeling,” he says.
Arek experienced a similarly strong reaction to HBO Max’s new A Christmas Story Christmas. Set in the 1970s, the charming film finds Peter Billingsley reprising his role as Ralphie, only this time as an adult with two kids of his own. An aspiring writer struggling to find his place in publishing, Ralphie comes home to face Christmas without his Old Man, who has just passed away. Shenanigans ensue, partly involving the grown-up versions of some kids from the original movie. But the references to mortality and navigating cruel passage of time are deeply affecting; like the original A Christmas Story, family is an anchor even when the real world is stormy.
“This is very much the origin story of A Christmas Story,” Billingsley says. “You really learn that at the end of the movie. It’s very much in homage to the Old Man and to Jean Shepherd, who wrote the source material.”
The Helcbergers were invited to watch a screening of the new film with cast members, including Anaya. The environment, coupled with the movie’s themes, invoked a deep emotional response. “It really tugs at your heartstrings,” Arek says. “I lost my dad in January of 2021. And this movie just brought all that to the forefront, of not having your dad for the holidays.”
At the end of the day, the charm of A Christmas Story is its familiarity and simplicity—and the way it transcends eras and genres and gets at the very things that make us human.
“It’s a celebration of the ordinary stuff that we have to go through,” Billingsley says. “In the original movie, there's no big set pieces. It's not some complicated, overly plotted movie. It's just those things you want to go right that invariably go wrong. It’s trying to light the tree, trying to buy a tree, trying to make a turkey. For the kids, it’s just trying to get to school without the weather or bullies trying to conspire against you.
“It’s these very low-tech things, but they mean so much to the characters,” he continues. “And it is that pressure we all feel during the holidays. You want it to be right, but it can bring out the worst in people,” he says with a laugh. “And you have to forgive and you have to forget. Ultimately, Christmas Day hopefully has a way of taking care of all that.”
Annie Zaleskiis a writer and editor in Cleveland. Follow her@anniezaleski.