Thoughts on A Christmas Story
It is impossible to be an American, and especially a child of the 80s, without having watcheda hundred timesthe classic film, A Christmas Story. A Christmas Story is narrated by the inimitable Jean Shepherd of pre-Limbaugh-Hannity-Savage radio fame. Its based on a chapter in Shepherds book, In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash), and it tells the story of 9-year-old Ralphie Parkers quest for the ultimate Christmas gift: An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action, 200-Shot, Range-Model Air Rifle. But, of course, thats not the only thing it tells us.
I first saw A Christmas Story on cable TV a few years after its 83 theatrical release. I dont remember when it was, exactly, because I was pretty young back then, and I wasnt acquainted with calendars yet. But it was only the first time of many anyway. I soon received a VHS copy taped off Showtime by a family friend. I wore that copy out (and can still remember the station logo appearing on screen when the Old Man heads outside to admire his leg-shaped lamp in the window). A few years ago, I bought a new copy on DVD. And then last year, I bought it againthis time, the 20th Anniversary special edition. You can call me a sucker, if you want to. I probably deserve it. I mean, with the countless times they show it on TV each holiday season, I could just as easily watch it for free (and I often do). But that wouldnt be the same. I must own it. I must make it my own.
All this hardcore fandom would probably lead you to believe I relate to this movie in some deep and meaningful way. But, strangely, I dont. I identify with it, but I dont relate to it.
Im not sure if that makes much sense.
Let me put it this way: You know how some books or movies so resemble your life they might as well be written about you? Yeah, well, for me, that isnt the case with A Christmas Story.
(Incidentally, Carly Simon once wrote a song accusing me of thinking she wrote a song about me. But I wasnt so vain as to think that one was about me, either.)
Ralphie and I had much different childhoods, which is why I say I dont relate to this movie. For instance, he lived in Indiana. But me? I lived in Jersey and never went west of Ohio. And whereas he campaigned for a B.B. gun, I wanted a Masters of the Universe Snake Mountain playset and later a hoverboard. (Note: Im still waiting for a hoverboard.) More importantly, unlike Ralphie, I know nothing about the Great Depression, except for the stuff they taught me in high school and college. For me, the early 90s recession represents the depths of economic despair. Its not nearly the same thing.
So if you go based on look and feel, or time and place, or even a little bit of both, A Christmas Story is much more relevant to my grandparents generation than my own. Its old fashioned, this movie. Its a throwback, a wonderful life, a miracle on 34th Street.
And unlike Ralphie, I have nevereverlooked forward to anything remotely connected to Little Orphan Annie.
(All right, maybe once.)
(All right, twicebut that is my final offer.)
But with all this in mind, what is it, exactly, that makes this movie so special to me? Is it just the fact that it accurately captures the magicthe simplicity of purposeof being a kid? Well, it certainly does that, but a lot of movies do. If thats all there was to it, I wouldnt be writing this. It goes deeper, I think.
Indeed, it comes down to this: A Christmas Story doesnt remind me of things that have happened in my life. It reminds me of things it inspired in my lifeall the times I quoted from it, or reenacted scenes.
Im pretty sure Im not the only one who feels this way. A Christmas Story is something a lot of folksespecially folks my agehave in common. How many of us have copied Ralphie saying fudge (instead of that other F-word) to his father, with our own fathers standing in? How many of us have imitated Ralphies brother imitating a pig while eating meatloaf? Or contemplated sticking our tongues to frozen flagpoles? Or heard Jean Shepherd narrating stuff in the back of our heads? (Hey, it could be worse. It could be Daniel Stern doing his Wonder Years gig up there.)
Ive heard it said that human beings use art as a prism through which to understand life. Sometimes we do it with Carly Simons Youre So Vain. Other times we do it with A Christmas Story. Usually, we dont do it with Youre So Vain, but I think you get the idea. The point is, I learned to read during the first Reagan administration. I cant speak for everyone in my generation, nor will I try to, but as one member of many I can tell you this: Due to some strange alignment of time and space, A Christmas Story happens to be one of the constants in my life. When I first watched it, I was younger than Ralphie. Then I caught up. Then I surpassed him. And to date, Im still watching, still finding new perspectives from which to enjoy it each year. In this way, I say I identify with itbecause it helped shape a small part of my identity.
A Christmas Story is one of my two favorite movies ever (behind only Back to the Future; and by the way, Im still waiting for a hoverboard). Ten months out of the year, I barely know this movie exists. But when it swims into view again, I cant help but watch it. My parents never charted my growth with marks on the wall when I was a kid; this movie sort of replaces that.
A Christmas Story isnt about Ralphie Parkers quest for the ultimate Christmas gift. It isnt even really about Christmas. It transcends the holiday season. It transcends schoolyard bullies, leg lamps, and triple dog dares. It transcends childhood and even transcends generational gaps. This is no longer a movie about traditions; it is now a tradition all its own. Many of us have seen it what seems like a hundred times. And the way TNT plays it 12 times each Christmas, maybe weve seen it even more. The only thing left for this movie is for characters in other Christmas movies to watch it; then it will take its place alongside Its a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, and the cycle of life will be complete.
If you ask me, it couldnt have happened to a better flick. n