With a gauzy nostalgia perfect for the holiday season, A Christmas Story, released in 1983, focuses on a nine-year-old boy’s obsession with receiving a Red Ryder BB Gun. But fans of period kitsch remember it fondly for introducing the iconic and ironic Leg Lamp.
Young Ralph’s father, the Old Man, has his own obsession: winning a crossword puzzle contest. He bursts with pride when a telegram arrives announcing the award is on its way. “A major award!” as he brags turns out, of course, to be the now famous lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg wearing a fishnet stocking with a tarty fringed yellow-skirt lampshade. Imagine if Jack Nicholson had gotten the part of the Old Man, as he’d wanted! (Nicholson was considered too expensive, and cut from consideration. Darrin McGavin, who landed the role, was deemed the perfect choice.)
The plot of A Christmas Story was cobbled together from In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, humorist and radio star Jean Shepherd’s first book, published in 1966. A memoir-ish novel, it casts a fond look back on Shepherd’s Depression-era childhood in a collection of vignettes narrated by Ralph, who has returned to his hometown of Hohman and joins his buddy Flick in a bar to reminisce about the innocent good old days. (The actor who played Flick in the movie fell on hard times and wound up in the porn industry.)
The Leg Lamp stars in its own chapter, “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” Advertisements for Nehi, a popular soft drink at the time, inspired Shepherd to create the lamp. Reminiscent of the era’s pinup style, the ads show a woman’s leg, from the knee down a shapely calf to her feet in pointy high heels and was meant to help consumers pronounce the brand: knee-high, get it? Though Shepherd doesn’t credit the soda company in that chapter — the crossword the Old Man is trying to solve is sponsored by an unnamed pop company whose name was a “play on words involving a lady’s knee” — Nehi makes an appearance three other times in the book. (The Nehi logo also makes a cinematic appearance in the 1973 movie Paper Moon, in a scene where Ryan O’Neal buys daughter Tatum a Nehi.)
The Leg Lamp chapter is full of suggestive and vaguely erotic language, some of which made its way into A Christmas Story. “The switch clicked. Instantly the room was flooded by a wave of pink light that was pure perfume of illumination. ‘Now that is a real lamp!’” Even more explicitly, Shepherd writes, “The living room was bathed … with the soft glow of electric Sex,” which became a famous line in the movie. (The only thing that can drag young Ralph away is the BB Gun, ahem.) When disapproving Mrs. Parker breaks the precious trophy in the movie, it launches what Ralphie calls “the battle of the Lamp.”
Director Bob Clark got the idea for A Christmas Story when he heard Shepherd on the radio reading one of the vignettes from In God We Trust. Clark, driving with a date, kept circling the block until the story ended, displeasing his date but giving him the idea for the movie. Shepherd got his own part in the movie, as the narrator and as a man in line behind Ralphie waiting for Santa.
For an inanimate object, the Leg Lamp figured large in the public’s imagination. When a Broadway musical was created from the movie, the lamp got its own delightful number, “A Major Award,” with the Old Man leading a chorus of kicking fishnet-clad dancers.
When A Christmas Story was first released in 1983, it wasn’t an immediate critical or box-office hit, attracting a small if devoted audience. Over the decades, it’s secured a place in the Christmas-movie canon, reliably landing on “best of” lists and warming up TV firesides in countless U.S. homes. Turner Classic Movies airs an annual 24-hour Christmas Story marathon starting on Christmas Eve.
You can see the Leg Lamp in situ for yourself in a tour of A Christmas Story House, in Cleveland, the actual house featured in the movie, which a mega-fan purchased off eBay for $150,000 in 2004 (true story!) and turned into a museum. Or buy a replica from any number of savvy retailers who’ve tapped into the kitschy kick. Be sure to exclaim: “Fra-gee-lay, it must be Italian!”