The Lessons of "A Christmas Story"

Why "A Christmas Story" Continues to Resonate with Families

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Most movies that we see are forgettable, in the theaters for a brief time, make their way to pay-per-view, and then onto cable TV to run on late-night cycles. Then there are those that are classics, forever etched into our memories, "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind", just to name a couple.

But with the arrival of the holiday season, there is one movie that says "classic" to me and that's "A Christmas Story". And why is "A Christmas Story" such a classic? Well, let's discuss this and I'll give you my own experiences with this movie.

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 a month meaning that I managed to make it home just in time for Christmas every year. I was obviously much younger with small kids and traveling this distance was not ideal, but it was a part of my profession at the time.

Getting into the holiday mood was difficult when 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 were not conducive to feeling the Christmas spirit, especially for someone who grew up in the Northeastern United States.

My business took me to many of the islands in the Philippine chain, including Cebu, where the only white Christmas to be had there were the warm and gentle Pacific Ocean waves lapping the pristine opulent white sands of the beautiful beaches. I recall staying in a well-regarded hotel that featured small lizards crawling on the walls of my shower and upon complaining about them to the hotel staff on my first visit, was asked rudely "would you rather be sleeping with biting insects?" So, I learned quickly to sleep with nature's pest controllers.

A "Manila" Christmas - palm trees and all.

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 a holiday.

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 Newark, New Jersey. Normally, I would read but I was tired, and I chose to watch the movie, hoping to fall asleep for most of the long flight home.

Settling in, I plugged in my rented earphones for the onboard entertainment. According to the airline 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 Dicken’s classic, "A Christmas Carol", or "Holiday Inn", adapted from the Irving Berlin musical. Maybe "White Christmas" or even Capra’s "It’s A Wonderful Life", but no, we got a 1980s Christmas movie. It seemed like it would be an even longer trip home now.

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 played a reporter chasing vampires, and now, he’s in a Christmas movie.

But alas, I was always told not to judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a movie by its opening credits - and boy was I glad I remembered this advice. Now, some three decades later, "A Christmas Story" has become a part of my holiday season for so many reasons. Reasons that continue to change and evolve as I get older.

An ad from decades ago

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 eight thousand 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, however, 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 easily and was believable to the audience. And in the end, this ornery old cussing cur was proven to have a heart bigger than the house they lived in.

Melissa Dillon was the mother, married to the old man, and followed behind him forever 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.

The "old man" and family

Throughout the movie, characters and situations were introduced that reflected 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 would listen to on radio station WEST-AM in Pennsylvania. This movie was certainly no "Miracle on 34th Street" -- it was much better because it was realistic and evoked long-forgotten memories.

What "A Christmas Story" had that the other movies did not was a sense of nostalgia that carries over even 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 with which I grew up. It was funny, comforting, and at times quite poignant. It was Christmas at my house and yours. It was the craziness of my family and of every family.

The "coveted" leg lamp

When the old man won his coveted “leg lamp”, it reminded me of my own father’s holiday treasure, which took him three years to save for – 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, ideally meant to portray snow falling gently through its branches. It was wonderful in theory but did not work as advertised.

Although the “faux snow” came flying out, nothing was gentle about it. It was poorly thought out when being used with 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 of my obsessive-compulsive mother. The house vacuum ran more than the snow machine during Christmas and each year, Dad had to buy another bag of the fake white stuff - most of which ended up in the Hoover upright.

The Bradford "Snow Maker"

But as with all good things, the end came quickly for the snowmaker, much like the old man's leg lamp in the movie which ended up being broken by the kids in the house. 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 tre