I have never understood why people go on and on about A Christmas Story (1983) like it is the Citizen Kane (1941) of holiday movies. I thought this despite having never seen it, until recently. It is one of those films, though, that everyone seems to know without having seen it. The tongue stuck to a metal pole on a winter’s day, double-dog daring, Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) dressed in the bunny outfit, and the leg lamp, are all moments from the movie that have been burned into our cultural conscious. Thus, while finally sitting down to view this film after all these years, the only thing that moved the entertainment needle for me at all was the mental ticking off of the expected moments. I do not mean to sound too negative. At the same time, based on all I had heard about it, I expected to be roaring with laughter throughout. The few half-hearted chuckles lightly sprinkled here and there while watching it bely an eternal truth: expectations can be dangerous.
Our narrator (Jean Shepherd) is the adult version of Ralphie, and A Christmas Story is his. His reminisces begin with him as a nine-year-old, his face pressed against the window of a downtown department store, and dreaming of getting a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle. It should be mentioned that it is set during the 1940s, and purchasing weapons for children was common then. I mean, pay attention to the lyrics to “It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas” some time. The imaginary son in the song wants a “pistol that shoots.” I digress. The Red Ryder Rifle becomes an obsession for Ralphie, the inspiration for his daydreams as he goes through his daily activities in the days leading up to Christmas. Instead of being an hour and a half of his fevered imaginings, the movie rounds itself out with various vignettes to explain the crazy Parker family. The main one is the Old Man (Darren McGavin), Ralphie’s dad, winning a contest to get the famous leg lamp. Over his wife’s (Melinda Dillon) objections, Mr. Parker proudly displays the lamp in the front living room for the whole neighborhood to see. There is also Mr. Parker’s constant battles with the family’s ancient, smoke-belching furnace. None of these side-stories relate to the plot outside of the fact that they happen to Ralphie’s family. No matter what goes on, his main goal is to do what he can to get the rifle. He remains fixated on this prize despite the fact that everyone, from his mom to his teacher, even the department store Santa (Jeff Gillen), tells Ralphie that he will shoot his eye out with the gun. He continues to drop subtle and overt hints to his parents that the weapon is his one Christmas wish. When asked by his teacher, Ms. Shields (Tedde Moore), to write an essay, he takes this opportunity to make his case for having the gift, believing the strength of his prose will persuade Ms. Shields to plead his case to his mother. On Christmas Day, Ralphie and his brother Randy (Ian Petrella) greedily tear through their presents, Ralphie hoping against hope that his efforts were not in vain. This seems to be the case, particularly when the most significant gift he receives is from a crazy aunt, a bunny outfit that he is horrified to don. At the last moment, though, the Old Man points Ralphie in the direction of one last present out of clear sight in the corner of the room. It is, of course, the rifle. Unsurprisingly, Ralphie takes it into the backyard and nearly shoots his eye out when an errant shot ricochets and hits his glasses. Then, in searching for them, he steps on the lenses, breaking them. Making his way back inside, he lies to his mother that the accident is the result of a fallen icicle, believing the truth will result in his long sought-after prize being confiscated. After a Christmas meal eaten in Chinese restaurant, the result of the neighbors’ horde of dogs trampling the house, Ralphie goes to bed gratefully clutching his new toy.
A Christmas Story is, if nothing else, an honest look at a holiday that, for this Catholic, has become so disjointed from its Christian roots as to be practically unrecognizable. I often wonder how many people realize that “Christmas” and “Christian” share the same root word, or if they do, they associate it with its true meaning. The film is an example of this trend, which is sad when you consider that it was made in 1983, and is set during the 1940s. The stereotype is that these were more traditional times when people would, as the bumper stickers you sometimes see proclaim, keep “Christ” in Christmas. The word “Catholic” is mentioned once in the film, but you do not see them going to church (or Mass) on the title day. That is puzzling when you consider that these days it is on the big religious days like Christmas and Easter when churches are at their fullest. With this logic, you would expect to see a scene where the Parker family attend services. I suppose this is a minor complaint, but it seems out of phase with what one would expect. Then again, there I go with my expectations. . . .
One positive thing I will say about A Christmas Story is the thankfulness Ralphie displays when he gets his treasured rifle. The Christmas season, which, in this country, is kicked off by Thanksgiving, is a time when we are called upon to be grateful. It is also a month’s worth of weeks of anticipation. I must posit my disappointment that many seem to be anticipating the gifts they will receive, a feeling parents feed their kids. The true preparation is supposed to be for the coming of Christ into the world. There is that word again. You can discount Jesus’ divinity all you want, but we would not have this holiday without His birth. If nothing else, that is something for which to be thankful, to be joyful. For us Catholics, the period leading up to this day is called Advent. It is not meant to be spent thinking about the new air rifle you hope to get, but to grow in your heart the hope that is a Savior born to us that we may no longer be slaves to death. Faith is this fact leading everlasting life. You see these feelings in Ralphie, and it is nice to see the satisfaction on his parents’ faces when they see their son’s happiness. However, the source is all wrong. This Christmas, direct them to the source of everything you see around you because without Him none of it would be happening.
Again, I am not trying to be too critical of A Christmas Story, partially because I do not wish to incite an angry mob. For me, it is just okay, and it remains that way because it is a bit too materialistic. Perhaps, if I did not have a passing familiarity with so many aspects of it, the jokes would have been a little funnier. As it is, all I can say is that I have finally seen it, and can cross it off the list. For those of you who like it, I hope I have not ruined anything for you.