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 nearly 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 so far 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 pristine opulent white sands of the beautiful beaches being lapped by the warm and gentle Pacific Ocean waves. 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 rather rudely "would you rather be sleeping with biting insects?" So I learned quickly to sleep with nature's pest controllers.
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 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 the 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. Yechh!
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, 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 seem to change and evolve 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 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.
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 would listen to on radio station WEST-AM in Pennsylvania. This movie was certainly no "Miracle on 34th Street" -- it was better, much better because it was realistic!
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 with which I grew up with. 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.
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, ideally 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 nothing 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.
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 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.
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 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 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. 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 I now ask myself, "What’s wrong with becoming like our parents?"
The mother, like my mother, and probably yours, was the glue that held things together. She was a psychologist, attorney, accountant, chef, negotiator, and executive secretary all rolled into one person -- a mother and a wife. And she accomplished these things quietly and humbly, never allowing the "old man" to know it was she who made the family work. There were no victims, no oppressed family members -- just a group making things work the best they could with a solid foundation built upon love, mutual respect, and the understanding that mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow, not blame and shame.
Except for those few abusive and horrible people who have no business having children, most of us could do well by emulating those who raised us. Sure, they made mistakes, as we surely have and our children undoubtedly will. But life is a series of missteps and bad choices from which we acquire valuable lessons, a doctorate degree program, so to speak, in learning from which we never graduate. 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 and are all much better parents and people for them. I remember an older neighbor saying to me one time, “be careful about judging your parents, because one 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 to me that he had a deep respect and caring for seniors, what they accomplished through the years, and the importance he placed upon assisting them and their families through the aging process.
He told me that his first realization of the value and wisdom of those who were older came while working on a boat as a young man. He remembered climbing masts, running on gangways, checking pumps while the captain "just sat in the stern holding the tiller." In his mind, he would quietly tell himself, that while he did all the work, the captain “just sailed the ship - big deal!”
“As I grew older and matured, I realized just how extremely faulty my youthful thinking was,” said Connelly, who is now a licensed Captain himself. “Although the captain was not doing the work that I or the other young men were doing, what he did and his importance was much more valuable than the physical labor of operating a ship. I came to understand that it was not by muscle or physical endurance that great things are accomplished, but by reflection, character, judgment, and experience, lots of experience. It is this that makes our seniors not poorer by old age, but richer – sometimes far beyond what young people can truly comprehend until they themselves mature.”
It is this statement by Connelly that really explains "A Christmas Story". As I have aged and matured since first seeing the movie, I initially saw my father in the old man character and now, many decades later, I see myself -- not someone to laugh at, but someone who has likes and dislikes based upon life experiences and thought out choices, not arbitrary decisions. Where I once reflected upon my childhood as I watched the movie, I now reflect upon my relationship with my children and grandchildren and their future.
You see, 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 what we all see -- those we love and our life experiences that lead to some of the most precious memories we will have. 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? They will discover that there is no shame in that.