On Being a Kid
Okay, let’s see: I’m a girl, not a boy. I was a kid in the 70s, not the 40s. And I can’t ever remember wanting anything for Christmas with the kind of feverish desperation that Ralphie yearns for a BB gun. So why do I feel as if A Christmas Story is lifted directly from my childhood?
Maybe because A Christmas Story, based on writings by humorist Jean Shepherd, concerns itself with the universalities of childhood, at least as it existed in America in the 20th century*. From the mysteries of life — like, Does a human tongue stick to a frozen flag pole? — to the “unthinkable disasters” of youth that are hilarious in adult retrospect, A Christmas Story taps into the bewildered and not-so-innocent child still in all of us.
Christmas is rapidly approaching, and 9-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) craves that “holy grail of Christmas gifts,” a Red Rider BB Gun, like his cowboy hero presumably uses when his six-shooter is in the shop. The scene is Northern Indiana just after World War II, but the rites of kidhood are ones I and my peers would recognize: Avoiding bullies is paramount. School essay assignments are dreaded. Waiting up for your little brother, it is generally agreed, is a drag. And Christmas is the prize we earn for getting through another year alive.
Jean Shepherd — who narrates the film as an adult Ralphie — isn’t exactly a cynic, but let’s call him realistic. The awe and sweetness of being a child? Hmm… I guess that’s hidden in A Christmas Story. But on the surface, we see in Ralphie more of what we remember, with relief that it’s over, what childhood was like. The depth of a child’s guile and cunning is demonstrated by Ralphie’s clever runaround of his parents’ objections to a dangerous thing like a BB gun: he’ll ask Santa for it. Ralphie’s innocent cluelessness is hilarious not only because he thinks he’s being so devious, but because we all were the same naïve dolts as kids. And what makes childhood, and being at the mercy of adults, endurable? Melodramatic fantasies like Ralphie’s, as he imagines a school essay about his desire for the BB gun sending his teacher into ecstasy, and daydreams about using the gun to save his cowering family from a band of marauders.
Even Christmas isn’t sugarcoated. As kids, we don’t know from “peace on Earth” and “goodwill to all men.” We just want our presents. And Story’s Christmas morning is an orgy of tearing into packages, Ralphie’s entire family “quivering with desire, [with] the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” That’s how I remember Christmas as a kid, too.
And then there’s all the lovely disillusionment of growing up. Ralphie’s was probably the first generation of kids to be inducted into the consumer culture by advertisements for kiddie programs (be they on radio or television) disguised as toys. It is with dismay that he discovers that the fan club for his favorite radio show, Little Orphan Annie, is little more than a promotion for the show’s sponsor, Ovaltine.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the oddities of Ralphie’s family, A Christmas Story is a comfortable, homey movie. Sure, his dad, whom the adult Ralphie refers to as The Old Man (Darren McGavin), is a bit of kook: His religion is “Oldsmobile,” and he “worked in profanity the way other artists worked in oil or clay,” but Ralphie’s memories are as affectionate as they could be, just as we love the people we love because of their idiosyncrasies, not in spite of them. And Ralphie’s put-upon mother (Melinda Dillon: Magnolia) is probably one most of us could call our own.
Sure, we laugh at A Christmas Story. But we laugh because we remember the agony of being a kid… and are grateful that we survived.
*I almost wrote “at least as it exists in America in the 20th century.” But — wow — the 20th century is now officially history.