On the spectrum of holiday moviedom where the warmth of It’s A Wonderful Life stands at one end and the blacker-than-coal comedy of Bad Santa lurks at the other, A Christmas Story is positioned right in the middle. It’s a film that can be appreciated by people who wear Christmas sweaters with no sense of irony, as well as semi-Scrooges who humbug each holiday-party Evite in their inboxes, but still show up, begrudgingly, at every soirée.
It’s also one of those movies that people love unconditionally without stopping to consider why, or whether it’s as good as they think. Like so many holiday traditions, viewers embrace it with a deep sense of affection and obligation, the same way they re-watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, listen to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” or shove candy canes and peppermint bark down their throats. But during this, the 30th-anniversary year of A Christmas Story, it feels right to ponder why so many people continue returning to the tale of Ralphie Parker and his insatiable hunger for an aggressively marketed weapon of very minor destruction.
A Christmas Story doesn’t necessarily stand out for its direction, although the late Bob Clark—also responsible for directing the previous year’s Porky’s and 1974’s groundbreaking Christmas-themed slasher film Black Christmas—made adventurous choices that sometimes whiz by underappreciated after so many repeat viewings. The way the camera spins wildly as Ralphie gets shoved into the lap of that deranged department-store Santa, for example, captures not only the disorientation children feel during such heightened, stressful moments, but also how the holidays often feel in general. In the weeks leading up to December 25, sometimes it really does seem like the whole damn season is rotating out of control, pausing just long enough for a rude elf to shake her hat-bell in our faces while screaming, “We’ve got a lot of people waiting here, so get going!”
That shot was a key element in the TV commercials for A Christmas Story that aired back in 1983, and a signal that this family romp might be less conventional than the standard holiday fare. As an 11-year-old who saw it in the theater and reviewed it for my elementary-school newsletter, that off-kilter tone was what appealed to me most. (Unlike The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, whose scathing 1983 review basically shot this movie’s eye out, I gave it three out of four stars.)
Though I would never have used this word to describe it back then, something about the movie seemed subversive. This was a Christmas movie about kids who used words like “smart-ass” and accidentally dropped F-bombs in front of their parents, who lied to their teachers and harshly realized that Little Orphan Annie decoder pins decode nothing but crummy commercials for Ovaltine. Ralphie, Schwartz, and Flick were at an age I had recently reached, where the world still seems wondrous, but also increasingly disappointing and full of false pretense. The older Ralphie who narrates A Christmas Story—voiced by Jean Shepherd, the writer whose In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash inspired the movie—never explains why he focuses his remembrances on this particular Christmas. We can assume it’s due to the passionate nature of his quest for a Red Ryder BB gun, and the happiness that resulted from fulfilling it. But I think Ralphie recalls it with special fondness for another reason: It was the last year he truly believed in Santa Claus.
It always seemed a little odd that Ralphie still thought good ol’ Saint Nick could be the connection capable of hooking him up with that irresistible rifle. Ralphie is 9, arguably past the age of blind, unwavering faith in Santa. Plus, given the kid’s cynical streak, he seems a little too jaded to buy the idea of some guy in a beard sliding down the Parker family chimney every year. Yet when Ralphie’s father suggests the Red Ryder gun that suddenly shows up on Christmas morning is a gift from Santa, Ralphie doesn’t question it. He probably can sense in the man’s blatant glee that really, he’s the one responsible for this gift. But the truth is, the kid’s so excited, he doesn’t care where the thing came from. He’s just thrilled that the object of his obsession arrived on schedule, like manna complete with itty-bitty BB bullets. The child’s Christmas Day heart wants what it wants, and the details are irrelevant.
“Nevertheless, it’s still a little weird to root for a kid who wants so desperately to have a gun that really could shoot someone’s eye out.”
Unlike all those holiday movies that emphasize the importance of family, spiritual connection, and continuing to believe in Kris Kringle, A Christmas Story in many ways is a movie about people single-mindedly coveting things: BB guns and decoder pins, leg lamps that double as major awards, and Christmas trees procured at the lowest possible price. There’s something recognizable, honest, and deliciously Hallmark-flippant in that. But what happens after that perfect Christmas, when you get the ultimate shiny, exciting thing you asked for, then realize it can’t get better than this? A Christmas Story doesn’t say, but we adults know what happens: The wanting of mere things starts to lose its glittery seasonal appeal. The magic of childhood yuletide fades, and eventually morphs into something else.
There’s a moment in the season-two Christmas episode of The Wonder Years—a TV series that does a much more sentimental version of the narrated-flashback trick from A Christmas Story—when narrator Kevin Arnold describes that transformation as one where the holiday stops “being about tinsel and wrapping paper” and starts “being about memory.” If you believe that’s what happens to Christmas when we grow up, then it makes total sense that narrator Ralphie looks back on the Christmas Story December with such wry wistfulness. It’s because very soon after, possibly the following year, Christmas turned into a time for him to look back, instead of looking forward.
The warm, achingly bright glow of nostalgia is what makes Christmas such an emotional holiday, and it’s also what draws some people to A Christmas Story. In his 1983 review, critic Roger Ebert took note of that. “Of course. That’s what I kept saying during A Christmas Story, every time the movie came up with another one of its memories about growing up in the 1940s,” he wrote. “Of course, any 9-year-old kid in the ’40s would passionately want, for Christmas, a Daisy Brand Red Ryder repeating BB carbine with a compass mounted in the stock. Of course. And of course, his mother would say, ‘You'll shoot your eye out.’ That’s what mothers always said about BB guns.”
My mother, who was born the same year as Ebert and died a year before he did, absolutely loved this movie. She responded to it for the very same reasons his review mentions. As a period piece, A Christmas Story gets all the little details right, so right that it’s easy to overlook how right they are. From the suspenders and long johns to the vintage milk bottles and Look magazines, the Parkers’ home feels true to its time even to those too young to remember how it was back then. For those who do remember, the experience must be like peeking through a one-way mirror at the selves they once were, the same way Stand By Me is for those who grew up in the early 1960s, or Dazed And Confused is for the class of 1976.
Of course, the past also can remind us of behavior that seems less appropriate in the context of modern life. That’s why watching A Christmas Story now, several decades removed from both the 1980s, when it was released, and the 1940s, when it is set, can be cringey at times. Take the scene where the Parkers have dinner at a Chinese restaurant after the Bumpus hounds make dog food out of their Christmas turkey. The most famous laugh comes when the owner and waitstaff serenade the family with a version of “Deck The Halls” that, due to their Chinese accents, doesn’t quite “Fa la la” the way it does when Americans sing it. This cracks up the Parkers in a manner that’s believable but slightly uncomfortable to witness through a 2013 lens, in the same way every Long Duk Dong scene in Sixteen Candles now feels terribly wrong. Any contemporary parent watching A Christmas Story with kids in the room will likely issue a disclaimer at this point: “It’s really not nice to laugh at people who sound different. You do know that, right?”
And then there’s the whole gun thing. Yes, I know, I know: It’s a BB gun, and this movie takes place in the 1940s, when marketing BB guns to young children was commonplace. I get it, and also get the fact that this plotline is part of what makes this film so authentically retro. Nevertheless, it’s still a little weird to root for a kid who wants so desperately to have a gun that really could shoot someone’s eye out. (I’m sorry, Mrs. Parker is right!)
Those aren’t the only flaws in the film. Some moments—the tussles with the furnace and the fuse box, little brother Randy’s need to treat his supper plate like a pig’s trough—arguably wade too far into sitcom territory. A few even stand as examples of blatantly amateurish filmmaking. Watch closely when the Old Man slams the door on the tail of one of the Bumpus dogs. If anyone actively attempted to make that tail look more fake, it probably wouldn’t be possible. Yet watching what is clearly a piece of fur on a wiggling stick somehow doesn’t detract from the movie’s appeal. The goofy screw-ups and over-the-top sight gags may make it even more lovable. Like nostalgia, a lifelong affection for a particular movie can often cloud one’s vision of reality.
In a recent Moviefone piece, Gary Susman wrote that A Christmas Story is “one of the only films about Christmas that shows the way a child actually experiences the holiday, as an occasion marked by both awe and greed.” It’s true. At the end of the movie, when Ralphie drifts off to sleep on Christmas night with that long-desired gun finally in his arms, his greed satisfied and his awe struck, it’s a simultaneously twisted and sweet version of a happy ending. But there’s an equally important moment just before the official happy ending, one that focuses on Mr. and Mrs. Parker as they sit beside each other in the soft glow of their Christmas tree, marveling at fresh snow that’s just begun to fall outside.
Together, these snapshots may explain what makes A Christmas Story such an enduring favorite: It is simply a movie about people who get what they want for Christmas. When you’re 9 years old in 1940s Indiana, what you get is a BB gun. When you’re an adult, then or now, hopefully you get twinkly lights, luminous powder falling from the sky, and someone right there, to share all of it with you. Those are the two extremes in the Christmas Story version of the happy American home, in the era of Norman Rockwell. Upstairs, the children are nestled all snug with their guns. And downstairs, the parents can finally find some peace.