"Ho, ho, but no matter. Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year revolved."
I tried that once. Only I didn't have the guts to stick my tongue to a flagpole, so instead I tried repeatedly to stick my tongue to the metal plate inside my parents' freezer. I was a kid who had just watched A Christmas Story more than five times over the Christmas holiday, and I wanted to see if my tongue would stick. No one else was around to egg me on -- and though I grew up with kids like Flick and Schwartz, I was determined to go at this one alone. So my tongue ... yeah, it didn't stick. Well maybe for a second or two, but that was it. If it was any other time of year, I probably wouldn't have tried it. But, for a kid, Christmas is heaven. Knowing the holiday is approaching brings a jolt of life to the kid spirit; they're invincible, nothing can stop them. Trying to decide what you want for Christmas, as a kid, is also the most important decision you'll make all year. No job, no mortgage or rent to pay, no wife or girlfriend or family to buy presents for. Nope. Your only responsibility is to anticipate great things to come. And no other movie captures that mindset, that energy, that love for life better than Bob Clark's A Christmas Story.
Starting in just a couple hours from now, TBS will air this movie for 24 hours straight; a yearly tradition for the television station. In my house, these are the rules: We must leave the TV on when we fall asleep, and the set must be tuned into A Christmas Story. I attempt to watch the first half before I fall asleep, and then I time it to wake up and watch the second half before the wife, dog and I hop out of bed and open presents. I do this (and the wife just goes along because I'm nuts and she doesn't have the time nor patience to argue my insanity) because after all the shopping, the hustling, the re-arranging and the spending of money I'd rather save, this film helps raise my spirits, helps me prepare for the onslaught of Christmas dinners to follow and it brings me back to that time as a kid when the cold, the lights and the tree meant we were in store for something special. To a kid, that something special is a gift; a reward for being young and full of glee. To an adult, that something special is togetherness; a bonding moment with the ones you love.
It's a simple story really: Young Ralphie spots the perfect Christmas gift in a storefront window; an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle! Thus, he makes it his mission to receive this gift, from Santa, on Christmas Day. Of course, in between, he'll need to convince his parents, his teachers and a jaded Santa Clause that this is a perfectly sane gift for a kid and that he will not shoot his eye out. His younger brother Randy is a lost cause; he hops around, eats his food like a little piggie because there are starving people in China and he barely makes it to school underneath the several layers of clothing his mother insists he put on. Ralphie's Old Man is a disgruntled blue-collar worker who fights with the furnace, fights with the neighbors' dogs and longs for a few moments of silence with the newspaper. Mom just goes along for the ride and tries to keep a happy home.
There's a bully -- Scut Farkus -- and he has yellow eyes. So help me God ... yellow eyes! Ralphie and friends take their turn with Farkus, saying Uncle, until one of them finally decides enough is enough. And the film carries along, never straying from the central storyline: Ralphie's desire to own a Red Ryder Air Rifle come Christmas morning. Though filmed in the early '80s, the film succeeds because it feels vintage (set in December, 1940); like an old pair of reliable socks -- the kind you refuse to throw out because they remind you of another time, another place and another you.
A Christmas Story is partly based on Jean Shepherd's book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which was a collection of short stories based on his own childhood. Shepherd also narrates as the adult Ralphie -- evoking a calm, poetic fondness for his childhood -- and can also be seen in a cameo performance as the guy in the department store line who informs Ralphie that "the line ends here; it begins there," while Shepherd's wife is the woman standing behind him. Director Bob Clark also has a cameo as the neighbor who walks over and admires the leg lamp's electric glow in the front window.
There's not much more to say about A Christmas Story. There aren't many religious themes; this isn't a film about celebrating the birth of Jesus. This is a film about celebrating the holiday; the spirit of being a young, naive kid who still believes Santa will bring him the gift he wants if he makes all the right moves. It's also about a kid growing up; learning how to take responsibility, but also learning how to work the system. There's a good chance this is Ralphie's last year before realizing the "awful truth," and from then on out Christmas becomes a very different holiday. But it's that moment in time represented here -- that state of mind, like I said before -- that helps bring us all back year after year. It's films like this that keep whatever little magic is left alive.
For more, check out a post I wrote last year on 24 reasons why you need to watch all 24 hours of A Christmas Story.