Everybody remembers that one Christmas/Hannukah/Holiday/Birthday/Whatever present they really, really wanted as a kid, but they just could never get their hands on it because their parents thought it was a bad idea. And most of the time, the parents were right; that thing you wanted really was a hunk of junk or was dangerous, or was otherwise inappropriate for you. But by the powers, you wanted that thing so bad you could taste it, and you would stop at nothing until you got that certain something in your hot little hands. For every kid who has ever experienced this (a.k.a. just about every kid who ever lived), there is a movie out there specifically for them. Oh, yeah. You know the one. A Christmas Story.
Set somewhere in a fictitious Indiana town sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, the story involves young Ralphie, an all-American kid who wants a Daisy “Red Ryder” BB rifle for Christmas, but everybody he tells about it has the same answer: Are you kidding? You’ll shoot your eye out with that thing. Undeterred, Ralphie spends that unendurable childhood purgatory that is the month of December as he tries to convince his parents, the department story Santa, and even his school teacher that he really ought to get this BB gun for Christmas. And time and again, as he is told now, his resolve only stiffens as he puts his every ounce of childhood ingenuity to achieving the unachievable. Along the way, he is distracted by the everyday onslaught of misadventures that are going to befall a pre-TV kid, from an Ovaltine-driven injustice, to using foul language in front of the parents, to licking a frozen flagpole. For poor Ralphie, it isn’t a matter of when he makes it to Christmas. It’s a matter of if. Because if he doesn’t get this BB gun, he’s gonna die. He just knows it. Missing an eye would be a step up, as far as he’s concerned. If only every other adult he talks to would see it his way.
This is a movie that came and went in 1983 with nary a ripple, a low-budget story recollecting some of the childhood tales of the great raconteur Jean Shepherd as he weaves a tale of Midwestern, Yuletide growing up. But once the movie started seeing regular rotation on cable TV, it began to develop the juggernaut of an audience it enjoys today, and is now widely regarded as one of the best Christmas movies ever made. And why not? The story knows when to borrow from reality and when to fill in the gaps with fiction, creating a kind of fairytale narrative in a Midwest that never really existed, but seems awfully familiar to anybody who ever lived a Middle American lifestyle when they were kids. Likewise, the story occupies either a late 1930s when there was no Depression, or an early 1940s when there was no WWII on the horizon, or perhaps mashes them together into a kind of fantasy yesteryear recognizable to anybody who lived through those times, or has a reasonably detailed enough idea of what it might have been like. Everywhere is the verisimilitude of a story your uncle tells you, but all the while, going places and reaching highs (and lows) that most kids would experience one of in a childhood, let alone one every single day. But that’s alright. This is the kind of story that in festooning us with an embarrassment of anecdotes and details, we all find a little bit of our own childhoods within them, whether or not we lived in the Midwest or during the 30s/40s.
Ralphie’s tale is marked by a series of episodes that fill in the kind of Charlie Brown childhood he’s having. Most other kids in the neighborhood are having the same experience, only for Ralphie, he’s just aware enough that things could be better if only something changed. He’s not sure what that something is, but he knows if there was a certain X-factor in his life, everything would be different. He fixates on the BB gun because he’s a 9-year-old kid, and when you’re that age, a BB gun might as well be Excalibur. So of course, if he gets it, he’ll become the neighborhood hero and his folks will stop favoring his little brother, and the teacher will give him better grades. But deep down, we all know that’s not going to happen. All the BB guns in the world won’t stop Ralphie’s mom from dressing him like a dork in the wintertime, or make his father less of a crabapple with a deep fascination for tawdry Italian lamps. (“Says, Fra-GEEL-ay.”)
Ultimately, we do see a glimpse that Ralphie’s moping won’t last forever, and somewhere he possesses the reserve it needs to make his own way in this world. When neighborhood bully Scut Farkis beans him with a snowball one day when Ralphie is already at the end of his rope, Ralphie tearfully hands out one of the most satisfying beatdowns in motion picture history as he turns the sneering Farkis into a squealing puddle of blood and tears, avenging not just his own wounded pride, but getting one in for every kid who ever had to endure the taunts and terror of the local hoodlum.
It is such a great moment, but for pure Christmas spirit, even that pales before the end, when Ralphie, having endured yet another humiliating Christmas full of gifts he doesn’t want, is instructed by his old man to get one more present hidden away in the corner. Ralphie knows what it is. We know what it is. The old man knows. And even if mom doesn’t approve, dad knows what it means to sometimes call an audible and get the boy the thing he’d die for. Ralphie might promptly shoot himself in the face with it, but he’ll always remember that time his dad was looking out for him. Respect.