The Endearing Lessons of "A Christmas Story"
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
As moviegoers, we often come across fleeting and easily forgettable films, having short stints in theaters before moving onto pay-per-view and cable TV, where they run on late-night cycles. However, there are films that have become classics, forever etched into our memories, such as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind".
As we enter the holiday season, one movie epitomizes the word "classic" to me: "A Christmas Story." It's a movie that has stood the test of time, and in this blog, I'll explain why I think it's such a classic, and share some of my own experiences with this film.
Away from Home
It was December 1985, and I was embarking on the first of many annual business trips to the West Coast before heading to Asia. My itinerary always started with California, followed by Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, Guam, and back again, a month-long trip that ensured that I would make it home just in time for Christmas every year. I was younger and had small kids at the time, and traveling such a long distance was not ideal. However, it was a part of my profession then, and I had to make the best of it.
Getting into the holiday spirit while on the road was quite challenging, particularly in areas where tropical conditions and thundering downpours replaced snow and cold. It just didn't feel right. My work was based in Manila, and although it was decorated to mark the festive season, temperatures in the mid-eighties and high humidity just didn't lend themselves to feeling the Christmas spirit, especially for someone like me who grew up in the Philadelphia area.
However, despite all the holiday festivities, this was marked by homesickness. As the trip ended, I boarded my flight back home. It was mid-December, and I had missed Thanksgiving and most of the lead-up to Christmas.
I was tired and ready to sleep on the plane but watched the onboard movie instead. The airline brochure advertised "A Christmas Story," a movie I had never seen before. I was immediately turned off by the name and the fact that it was made in the eighties. I remember thinking, "What kind of good Christmas movie could have been made after the fifties?"
Surely, they could have shown "A Christmas Carol," "Holiday Inn," or even "White Christmas". Instead, we got a movie with Darren McGavin, who had previously starred in a TV series called Kolchak, chasing vampires. How good could this be?
As the opening credits rolled, I was even more skeptical. But I decided to give it a watch and was glad I did. "A Christmas Story" has become a regular part of my holiday season for so many reasons. After nearly four decades, it continues to change and evolve with me. From the nostalgia it brings to the lessons it teaches, it has become a cherished part of my holiday traditions.
A Realistic Plot
In case you haven't yet seen it, the plot of this story revolves around a young boy named Ralphie, who is desperate to get his hands on a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 shot Range Model air rifle. This may be viewed as politically incorrect nowadays, but it was perfectly acceptable back then.
Peter Billingsley played the role of Ralphie, and he was already a successful child actor in New York commercials during the 1970s. He appeared as "Messy Marvin" for Hershey's, sold hot dogs with New York Yankees manager Billy Martin, and promoted video games with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The movie's director auditioned approximately eight thousand kids for the role, but finally chose Billingsley, who proved to be an obvious choice in retrospect.
Darren McGavin portrayed the role of the "old man," who was always grumpy, gruff, and spewed obscenities like there was no tomorrow. Interestingly, in real life, McGavin's own life experiences prepared him perfectly for this role. He was kicked out of his house by his parents when he was a teenager and forced to scrape by to make a life for himself. His performance as the hard-boiled old man was realistic and relatable to the audience. In the end, this ornery old man was proven to have a heart bigger than their house.
Playing the role of the mother was Melissa Dillon, who was married to the old man and followed behind him, forever trying to clean up his messes. For those who do not know, Dillon was also a starring character in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The movie is a nostalgic masterpiece that evokes long-forgotten childhood memories for those who grew up in the same era as the film's characters. The movie introduces relatable characters and situations that harken back to a simpler time. The narration style is reminiscent of the 1960s radio plays called “Mystery Theater,” which adds to the sense of nostalgia.
Unlike other Christmas movies, "A Christmas Story" is more realistic, making it even more endearing. It's not a "Miracle on 34th Street" type of movie, but it's better in its own way. It's funny, comforting, and at times quite poignant. It's a movie that captures the essence of Christmas with all its craziness, love, and family moments.
Watching this movie thousands of miles away from home on a plane, I couldn't help but feel a sense of warmth and familiarity. The situations that Ralphie and his family experience are the same ones that many of us grew up with, making it a relatable and heartwarming movie that stands the test of time.
As I watched the old man win his coveted "leg lamp," I was instantly transported back to my own childhood memories of Christmas. I remembered the holiday treasure my father had saved up for three long years to buy - the Bradford Snow-Making Christmas Tree gadget. The mere mention of it brought back a flood of remembrances.
The contraption was a remarkable sight - a massive green cardboard base with a hollow green tube that extended up the tree trunk and reached all the way to the top, where an Angel tree topper was perched. The idea was to create a winter wonderland in your living room, complete with snow gently falling through the tree branches.
But, as it turned out, the Bradford Snow Making Christmas Tree was not as ideal as it seemed. The small suction machine at the bottom of the tree would suck up small Styrofoam particles and blow them out onto the tree. Unfortunately, the "faux snow" was anything but gentle. It would stick to the sap that flowed freely due to the warmth of the house, making quite a mess on the floor.
The tree's base was meant to capture the falling snow and recycle it back into the blower and up into the angel. However, it wasn't large enough to be effective, resulting in a considerable mess on the floor. My obsessive-compulsive mother was not pleased, and the house vacuum ran more than that snow machine during Christmas. Each year, Dad had to buy another bag of the fake white stuff - most of which ended up in the Hoover Upright.
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 actual 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 and for many Christmas Days to come.
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, but I do remember one Christmas dinner when my mom decided to make homemade ravioli for the first time, and for whatever reason, they ended up being the size of small frisbees.
As we sat down to dinner, my father, cracking wise, said, “This ravioli is out of this world.” To which my mother, smiling with pride at her first try at this Italian staple, replied, “You really like it?” To which my father said, without missing a beat, “I don’t know, I haven’t even 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 in, but it was too late. This led to a noticeably quiet meal, and the mood in the house for the next week was colder than the winter weather outside.
Life's Lessons in the Movie
Every year, I feel drawn to revisit a particular movie because of my personal connection with it. The film portrays an "old man" figure who, forty years ago, reminded me of my own father. At the time, I was determined not to follow in his footsteps. However, now that I am retired, more reflective, and hopefully wiser, I find myself pondering the question of whether there is anything inherently wrong with becoming like our parents.
Like my mother and many others of her generation, the mother in the movie played a vital role in keeping the family together. She was a multi-faceted figure who juggled numerous responsibilities, from being a psychologist, attorney, accountant, chef, negotiator, and executive secretary all at once. Despite her many accomplishments, she humbly and quietly went about her work, never taking credit for the family's success. The solid foundation of love, mutual respect, and the understanding that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow, not to assign blame and shame, helped the family thrive.
It's true that we all make mistakes, just as our parents did before us, and as our children will do after us. However, the lessons we learn from these missteps and wrong choices are invaluable and contribute to our growth and development. Life is an ongoing learning journey, and we should strive to emulate the positive qualities of those who came before us, be it our parents, grandparents, or other significant figures who loved and respected us.
Unfortunately, life is also full of happiness and difficulties, from bad marriages and divorces to births and deaths, and everything in between. But despite all the challenges we face, we often come out stronger, wiser, and better equipped to handle whatever comes our way. Our experiences shape us, teach us valuable lessons, and help us grow into better parents, friends, and human beings.
I'll never forget something an older neighbor once told me: "Be careful about judging your parents, because one day, you're going to have kids who will judge you." Those words have stuck with me over the years, reminding me to always approach others with compassion and understanding, especially those who are older and more experienced than me.
Attorney Connelly's Thoughts
When I first met Attorney RJ Connelly III, I was curious about what led him to specialize in this area of law, and it quickly became apparent that he has a deep respect and admiration for seniors, and an ardent desire to help them and their families navigate the aging process with dignity and grace.
RJ shared with me a story from his youth when he worked on a boat and had a transformative experience that changed his perspective on aging and the value of experience. He recalled climbing masts, running on gangways, and checking pumps while the captain, in his mind, "just sat in the stern holding the tiller." At the time, he felt that he was doing all the work, while the captain was simply coasting along. But as he grew older and gained more life experience, he realized just how important the captain's role was, and how much he relied on his wisdom, judgment, and experience to navigate the ship safely. Today, Attorney Connelly is a licensed captain himself.
In a conversation we were recently having about "The Christmas Story" movie and the "old man" character, he stated, "I've learned, sometimes the hard way, that it's not physical strength or endurance that leads to great accomplishments, but rather reflection, character, judgment, and experience. Our seniors have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and wisdom over the years, and we should all strive to learn from and honor their contributions. Age is not a liability but an asset we should value and cherish."
Attorney Connelly's statement about "A Christmas Story" resonated with me deeply. As I have grown older, my perspective on the movie has shifted. Initially, I saw my own father in the character of the old man, but now, as an older adult, I see myself in him - someone with a unique set of likes and dislikes based on thoughtful choices, rather than impulsive decisions. When I first watched the movie, I reflected on my childhood, but now, I find myself contemplating my relationship with my children and grandchildren, and what I can do to ensure their future success. Sometimes, that means stepping back and simply observing.
The family in "A Christmas Story" reflects our own families, with all the imperfections and quirks. That's what makes the movie so endearing. Today, when my grandchildren watch the movie, they are just as captivated by the story as I was as a younger man. The absence of special effects, car chases, and cartoon characters is inconsequential - what matters is the relatable characters and their experiences. It doesn't matter what race or ethnicity the children watching come from, because they can all see themselves in the film's message. As they grow older, they will come to understand the importance of the movie's themes and how they relate to their own lives. Eventually, they will become parents themselves and find themselves behaving like their parents, and hopefully, they will realize that there is no shame in that.
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