Making the Grades
A Christmas Story celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. That’s good because it’s taken me that long to appreciate the movie. I first watched it when my kids were little—little enough that some of them were a little nervous about a visit to Santa. The scene in the movie where Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his brother Randy (Ian Petrella) encounter the bulbous-nosed department store Santa (Jeff Gillen) and his crotchety elves would have been enough to put them off good ol’ St. Nick for years. (Luckily I didn’t watch the movie with my kids.)
A couple decades later, I have a new appreciation for this seasonal cult classic. The film still isn’t for little kids. But the story embraces a certain charm for those old enough to be wise to the ways of Santa and yet young enough to remember the earnest hope that Christmas wishes really would come true.
All Ralphie wants for Christmas is an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two hundred shot B.B. gun. But he’s smart enough to know he has to be subtle about his hints. His mother (Melinda Dillon), after all, is afraid he’ll shoot his eye out. So he puts a carefully placed ad for the gun in the middle of her woman’s magazine. He writes a stellar school essay about his desire for a gun. And he even makes a, albeit tragic, visit to the store Santa in hopes that a B.B. gun will be under the tree Christmas morning.
Set in the 1940s in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana, A Christmas Story is as much about the era as it is the firearm. Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) spews profanities like a drunken sailor with a pinched finger. His mother tries to smooth things over in the family while boiling up yet another batch of chopped cabbage for dinner. There’s the brace-faced bully (Zack Ward) and his toady who repeatedly chase Ralphie and his friends down the alley. And a schoolyard dare leaves one boy (Scott Schwartz) with his tongue frozen to a flagpole. Dogs run wild in the streets. Kids get their mouths washed out with soap. And sponsors of weekly radio shows offer gizmos like a secret decoder pin to listeners.
Like The Sandlot, this movie is about boyhood memories, a kind of Norman Rockwell vision of Christmas past—but with a satirical overtone. It’s narrated in a voice over by the adult Ralphie (Jean Shepherd). Although the film had an underwhelming opening in November 1983, it has since become a holiday staple for many adults and families.
If A Christmas Story didn’t grab your attention before, it may be worth a re-visit. After all, things change. Like the mom in his movie, I worried about my boys shooting their eyes out with a B.B. gun. However this year, I not only gained a new appreciation for Director Bob Clark’s work, but I’m buying clay targets for my sons to shoot at.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about A Christmas Story.
How does this depiction of Christmas resemble your own?
Why is Ralphie’s Dad so excited about the lamp? What does it signify for him?
In case you ever find your tongue, or that of a friend’s, stuck to a frozen pole, here are suggestions for removing it.
Learn more about the real life Red Ryder B.B. guns.