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Christmas on the radio: "Christmas Story" from Gunsmoke

Saturday 12/9/23

A second seasonal radio offering for 2023, the "Christmas Story" episode of Gunsmoke, another that I've been interviewed about, with that interview archived somewhere in the On air section of the site (which is one of the only parts of it close to up to date, though that will be rectified).

"Christmas Story" was the thirty-fifth episode of Gunsmoke and aired December 20, 1952. We are still early in the run of what is America's greatest radio program. I don't see how you effectively argue any other program into that top spot. Gunsmoke was legit art in addition to high-grade mid-century entertainment that is still compelling now. One week after this broadcast, the episode called "The Cabin" aired, and it might be the series' highpoint; it's close to as good as dramatic radio got.

This particular episode is more of a mood piece; that is, it's rather minimalistic, plot-wise. Marshal Matt Dillon is returning to Dodge on Christmas Eve after having completed his duties elsewhere. You'd see that often on the show--he'd have to take a prisoner to some other town, or he'd be out on the prairie hunting down bandits.

His horse breaks his leg, so he has to shoot it. He's a ways out from home. Long walk ahead, with his saddle on his back. You never just left your saddle behind.

Along comes a man whom we learn used to make his living at sea, but the Kansas prairie is pretty far away from the briny deep. He offers Dillon a ride atop his animal, and they share the beast of burden.

I like that idea of phlegmatic, "manly" men--for that's what these guys are--in such close physical proximity--it's almost intimate--in what is really a tender-hearted episode, of warmth and vulnerability.

The former seafarer hasn't experienced Christmas--at least not Christmas in a town, with people--in a while, and he asks Dillon to tell him about Christmas in Dodge. He becomes like a child, asking for more information. More story, you could say. We end up learning about his past, and why he's out here.

The Christmas carol "I Saw Three Ships" might seem odd on the surface, because we don't associate the sea with the birth of Christ. Those three ships, though, could have been in reference to the camels ridden by the magi, and when we take that into consideration, the visuals of this Western tale, with its seafaring man--and the three heads between the two men and that beast of burden--has fitting resonance.

It's a very conversational and stirring episode. Frankly, there aren't a lot of Gunsmoke episodes where no one gets killed, but this is one of them, unless you wish to count the horse, but that happens before we enter the picture anyway.


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