“I watched the first 15 minutes, and then I had to turn it off. I couldn’t take it.” That was my friend’s analysis of A Christmas Story.
So, I said to him, “Why don’t we watch it together, and I’ll see if I can decode it for you?” He agreed.
We watched the first 15 minutes together, and then I thought, “Why do I like this movie? How can I recommend it? Is this my award for defending this Christmas classic?” But then the plot began to unfold, and the reason it was a classic stood out to me like a lamp in a window on a dark winter’s evening. Now, A Christmas Story is not just a movie to me, it is a work of comedic art. Here’s why.
1. Nostalgia. We love Christmas stories because of the nostalgia. A Christmas Story is as nostalgic as it gets. There is the middle class house, the brick school, the toys, the snow, the downtown, the tree, the turkey, the family, the fighting, the carols, the Santa, and on and on. This movie is packed full of all sorts of things that evoke a nostalgic remembrance of Christmases past.
This movie is about nostalgia. Nostalgia is the feeling of connection to the bigger picture of life, to it is broader story. It is a powerful sentiment that helps give our lives meaning. It produces joy and longing. The movie itself represents the narrator’s own nostalgia as he remembers the best Christmas gift ever.
2. The narration. The perspective of the narration is that of a boy of nine years old. The language is that of an educated man. This is hard to pull off, but A Christmas Story does it convincingly and with humor. Here are a few examples.
- His description of the wonder of Christmas: “But no matter. Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas…around which the entire kid year revolved.”
- Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher, says, “Don’t you feel remorse for what you have done? That’s all I’m going to say about poor Flick.” The narrator then says, “Adults love to say things like that. But kids know better. We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught.”
- One of the big challenges in the movie is the schoolyard bully, Scott Farkus. When they first meet him, the narrator says, “In our world, you were either a bully, a toady…or one of the nameless rabble of victims.”
- After their first encounter with the bully, the narrator turns to another scene, “In the jungles of kid-dom, the mind switches gears rapidly.”
- My personal favorite is the narrator’s description of his father’s cursing: “My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.”
The adult Ralphie narrating the story provides a convincing kid’s perspective in the artful language of an educated adult.
3. The plot (spoiler alert). The story is about Ralphie’s desire to get an “official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.” This is the story of a hero with a thousand faces. It is the boy who needs to grow toward manhood. It is a quest for a specific item, but it represents his engagement with a broader world.
In this quest, there are five cycles. Three of them conclude with the infamous “mother B.B. gun block”: “you’ll shoot your eye out.” His mother is the first challenge. She asks Ralphie what he wants for Christmas. Ralphie rattles off his description of the Red Ryder. And, of course, Mom replies with the notorious B.B. gun block.
Second, Miss Shields assigns a theme on the topic, “What I want for Christmas.” Ralphie turns his theme in with great hope that it will be of such high quality that his parents will be forced to gift him the Red Ryder. He is disappointed when the theme earns him a C+ with the “p.s.”: “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie concludes, “Oh no! My Mother had gotten to Miss Shields. It was the only possible explanation.”
Third, he seeks out Santa. Santa puts his boot in Ralphie’s face literally and metaphorically. Even Santa uses the classic mother B.B. gun block.
Finally, on Christmas day, after all the presents are opened, he finds one more gift back in the corner. It is the Red Ryder B.B. gun! Where Mom, Miss Shields, and Santa disappoint, Dad comes through.
The final cycle occurs when he goes out to shoot the gun. He fires it and believes that he has shot his eye out. He realizes that the new level of power may contain its own challenges.
4. The sub-plots. One thing that draws people back to this movie is the numerous sub-plots. It’s not just that they are funny. They are memorable. They are memorable because they are so vivid: Scott Farkus, the bunny pajamas, the Christmas turkey, the beheaded duck, the decoder ring, the Bumpus hounds, the Santa boot, the flag pole, and, of course, the leg lamp. Mention any of these to people who have watched the movie, and you are almost certain to elicit a smile. This is the brilliance of the movie. Jean Shepherd (the writer) ties each story to these clear images.
After getting past the first 15 minutes, my friend started to enjoy the movie. As we discussed it, we found ourselves laughing together at each new scene. No doubt, we will quote it to each other throughout the coming year and watch it again next Christmas, and all will be right with the world.
Disclaimer: the movie does contain some profanity and innuendoes. Use your own discretion.