Christmas week has always been a time to watch my favorite movie – A Christmas Story. This year, however, an insurance company commercial, about children turning into their parents, really started me thinking about the reason this movie is so special and offer some speculation as to why this movie is a tradition with many families. But first, allow me to tell you about my own history with A Christmas Story.
It was December of 1985 and I was making my first of many annual business trips to the west coast and then onto Asia. My first stop was always California, then Hawaii and on to Japan, the Philippines, Guam and back again – a trip lasting nearly a month that allowed me to make it home just in time for Christmas. I was much younger then with small kids and traveling so far was not ideal but it was a part of my profession at the time.
Getting into the holiday mood was difficult when being on the road, especially in areas where tropical conditions and thundering downpours replaced the snow and cold. It just didn't seem right. During these trips, Manila was the operating base of my work and although it was decorated for the season, temperatures in the mid-eighties and high humidity just was not conducive to feeling the Christmas spirit.
My business took me to many of the islands in the Philippine chain, including
Cebu, where the only white Christmas to be had there was the pristine sands on the beaches. I recall staying in a well-regarded hotel that featured small lizards crawling on the walls of my shower and upon complaining, was asked if I would rather be sleeping with biting insects. Choices, as they say.
These trips also took me to Tokyo, where the weather was much more holiday like and on one occasion even featured a snowstorm. The locals did celebrate the trappings of Christmas, like shopping and light displays, even though most are Buddhist or Shinto. But even then, my first trip was one of being homesick. It just didn’t seem like the holidays.
At the end of the trip, I was boarding my flight in Tokyo and ready to return home. It was now mid-December and I had missed Thanksgiving and most of the build-up to Christmas Day. We were flying directly to the west coast on the “red eye” flight and then on to New Jersey. Normally, I would read but it was dark and I chose to watch the movie and hopefully falling asleep for the long flight home.
Settling in, I plugged in my earphones for the entertainment. According to the on-board brochure, they were showing A Christmas Story. Up to that point, I had never heard of it and was turned off by the name and the fact that it was made in 1983.
I remember thinking, what movie of any worth about Christmas was made after the 1950s? They could have shown the movie based on the Dicken’s classic, A Christmas Carol, or Holiday Inn, based on the Irving Berlin musical. Maybe White Christmas or even Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, but no, we got a 1980s Christmas movie.
As the opening credits rolled, things got even worse – with Darren McGavin as one of the stars, how good could this flick be? This was a guy who had an ill fated TV series called Kolchak where he was a reporter chasing vampires, and now, he’s in a Christmas movie? But, don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a movie by its opening credits. And now, some three decades later, A Christmas Story has become a part of my holiday season for so many reasons.
Reasons that seem to change as I get older.
For those who haven’t seen it, the story centers around a nine-year-old named Ralphie, who longed for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 shot Range Model air rifle, politically incorrect today but perfectly acceptable at that time.
Ralphie was played by Peter Billingsley, who was already a successful child actor in commercials in New York in the 1970s (appearing as “Messy Marvin” for Hershey’s, selling hot dogs with New York Yankees manager Billy Martin, and promoting video games with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). According to the movie’s director, he auditioned some 8000 kids for the role and settled for Billingsley, who in retrospect seemed to be an obvious choice.
Then came Darren McGavin, the “old man” as he was called, who was always grumpy, gruff and spewed obscenities like there was no tomorrow. In real life, McGavin's own life experiences prepared him for the role. He was kicked out of his house by his parents when he was a teen and forced to scrape by to make a life for himself. His portrayal of the hard-boiled old man came easy and was believable to the audience. And in the end, this ornery old cussing cur was proven to actually have a heart after all.
Melissa Dillon was the mother, married to the old man and following behind him trying to clean up his messes. Dillon, for those who don’t know, was also a starring character in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Throughout the movie, characters and situations were introduced that reflected back on our own childhoods (for those of my age and even today). In fact, the narration throughout reminded me of the 1960s radio plays called “Mystery Theater”, which I listed to on radio station WEST-AM in Pennsylvania. This movie was certainly no Miracle on 34th Street, it was better because it was real!
What A Christmas Story had that the other movies did not was a sense of
nostalgia – that carries over to today. As I sat on that plane, thousands of miles from home, the situations that Ralphie and the family experienced had the same themes as those which I grew up with. It was funny, comforting and poignant. It was Christmas at my house. It was the craziness of my family.
When the old man won his coveted “leg lamp”, it reminded me of my own father’s holiday treasure – the Bradford Snow Making Christmas Tree, guaranteeing everyone a white Christmas.
This contraption consisted of a huge green cardboard base with a hollow green tube that stretched up the trunk of the tree to an Angel tree topper. A small suction machine in the bottom sucked small Styrofoam particles up and blew them out onto the tree, portraying snow falling gently through its branches. It was wonderful in theory but did not work as advertised.
Although the “faux snow” came flying out, there was noting gentle about it. It was poorly thought out when being used on a real tree as the particles would get stuck to the sap that flowed freely due to the warmth of the house. And the base, which was supposed to capture the falling snow and recycle it back into the blower and up into the angel, wasn’t large enough to be effective. This resulted in quite a mess on the floor, much to the consternation my obsessive-compulsive mother. The house vacuum ran more than the snow machine during Christmas and each year, Dad had to by another bag of the fake white stuff.
But as with all good things, the end came quickly for the snow maker, much like the broken leg lamp in the movie. One year, my brother and I decided to surprise Dad by setting up the machine while he was at work. During the process, the suction mechanism fell into the water that fed the real tree and sucked up the liquid, shorting it out and spelling the end for Dad’s favorite Yuletide toy. We never told him what happened, letting him think that it just died a natural death, but for our mother, the demise of the snow-machine was the best gift she received that Christmas.
Likewise, the incident where Ralphie’s classmate's tongue froze to the
flagpole. Although I never had the urge to stick my tongue onto cold metal outside, I did decide to try and lick up a piece of popsicle frozen to the bottom of our freezer. This adventure not only left a piece of bloody tongue skin on the freezer bottom but I also received a smack to the back of the head for good measure from my mother who had to scrape the tissue free.
And of course, who could forget the turkey scene in the movie, where the family dog made off with the holiday meal. As a child, we never had an animal steal a meal in my house but I did remember one Christmas dinner where my mom decided to make homemade ravioli for the first time and for whatever reason, they ended up being the size of a small frisbee.
As we sat down to dinner, my father, cracking wise said, “This ravioli is out of this world.” To which my mother, smiling, replied, “You really like it?”
And my father said, without missing a beat, “I don’t know, I haven’t tasted them yet. I mean they look like flying saucers from Mars.” With that, I could see Dad’s lips curl up, trying to get those words back but it was too late. This not only led to a very quiet meal, but the mood in the house for the next week was colder than the winter weather outside.
What I experienced then and continue to experience with this movie is what draws me to it every year – and why the insurance commercial made me think. Some thirty years ago, the “old man” in the movie was my old man, something I swore I would never be. But now, retired and smarter, I have become the “old man”. And just what is so bad about that? What’s wrong with becoming like our parents?
Sure, they made mistakes, and we surely will, too. Life is a series of missteps and bad choices from which we learn. We experience marriages, divorces, births, deaths, kids getting in trouble and on and on, but the overwhelming majority of us survive, learn and grow from these experiences. I remember an older neighbor saying to me one time, “be careful about judging your parents, because some day, you're going to have kids who will judge you.” Truer words were never spoken.
The first time I met Attorney Connelly, I was interested in what would compel a relatively young man to specialize in elder law. It was immediately apparent that he had a deep respect for seniors, what they accomplished through the years and the importance he placed upon assisting them through the aging process.
He told me that his first realization of the value of those who are older came while working on a boat as a young man. He remembered climbing masts, running on gangways, checking pumps while the captain sat in the stern holding the tiller. In his mind, he would quietly tell himself that while he did all the work, the pilot “just sailed the ship”.
“As I grew older and matured, I realized just how faulty my youthful thinking
was,” said Connelly. “Although the pilot was not doing the work that I or the other young men were doing, what he did was much more important than the work we performed. I came to realize it was not by muscle or physical endurance that great things are accomplished, but by reflection, character, judgement and experience. It is this that makes our seniors not poorer by old age, but richer – sometimes beyond what younger people can truly comprehend until they themselves mature.”
It is this statement that really explains A Christmas Story. As I have aged and matured since first seeing the movie, I first saw my father in the old man character and now I see myself. Where I once reflected upon my childhood, I now reflect upon my relationship with my children and grandchildren while watching the movie.
Ralphie’s family is our family, warts and all – and that’s the charm of the movie. Today, my grandchildren watch A Christmas Story and are glued to the screen. No special effects, car chases or cartoon characters. It doesn’t matter what the race or the ethnicity of the children watching, because what they see is their family. And as they grow, they too will begin to experience the importance of the movie’s message and realize that in time, this will be them. They will become “their parents” at some point.
But you know what? There is no shame in that.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.