We may have grown up watching “A Christmas Carol” in glorious black and white — both the 1938 version and the Alistair Sims 1951 version — but the Dickensonian milieu of the movie is not what boomers associate with their Christmases. For that, we prefer “A Christmas Story.” In fact, we love it.
The film, released in 1983, tells the story of Ralphie (played by Peter Billingsley) and his family at Christmas time, and how he got the gift he really wanted: a Red Ryder BB gun. Many people don’t know that the movie is actually a conglomeration of several short stories by humorist Jean Shepherd. Many boomers will recall listening to Jean Shepherd on the radio, which may be a contributing factor to our nostalgic enjoyment.
Mister Boomer’s theory of why the movie is tops with boomers is a simple one: the movie accurately portrays our early lives, especially those of us raised in the Upper Midwest. Though the movie takes place around 1940, much of the scenarios were customary in the fifties and early sixties, too. For instance:
Snow at Christmas
About two-thirds of the country experiences seasonal changes, including some snowfall. For us Midwestern boomers, though, it was more common to have snow at Christmas than not to have it.
We laugh hysterically at Ralphie’s little brother in his snow suit. Ralphie’s mother (played by Melinda Dillon) dressed his little brother for the winter elements, wrapping him in so many thick layers (it was decades before lightweight, warm, synthetic fabrics) that by the time his one-piece snow suit was fitted over him he could no longer lower his arms. When he falls in the snow and can’t get up (actually, he was pushed, as the video reveals), it’s a “been there, done that” moment for many of us.
Ralphie wants a BB gun for Christmas, but first his mother, then his teacher tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Thinking Santa would be on his side, he finally reveals to the not-so-jolly department store Santa his object of gift desire. Santa’s response was like the other grown-ups in his life: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Against the better judgment of the women and Santa, Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) bought him the gun.
Most of us recall receiving all sorts of potential eye-shooter-outers at Christmas. Guns, bows and arrows, projectile-shooting robots and missile launchers that would be taboo today made their way to under the tree for boomer boys. Girls had to settle for choking hazards from doll accessories, tea sets and miniature everything. They seemed to be prone to only throwing things in anger rather than as a matter of course.
A Handyman Dad
Boomers grew up in a time when men were supposed to fix things around the house. The truth of the matter is, though, many men weren’t all that handy. Ralphie’s dad fell into that category. When the overloaded electrical socket blew a fuse, or the furnace was “on the fritz,” his dad trudged down to the basement. There, the family could hear him through the heat registers, clanging pipes and swearing profusely.
The Behemoth Furnace
Though the furnace is never shown in the movie, boomers can picture it exactly. There is no doubt it was a behemoth octopus of a contraption, with many arms reaching out to the different rooms of the house through the basement ceiling. As portrayed in the movie by the black soot blown through the registers, it was powered by coal. Many of us boomers played in the coal bins of our family’s or relatives’ basements, even after the coal furnaces were retro-fitted for natural gas.
The Department Store Santa
Boomers recall that many stores had Santas available for visits, but it was understood that the main department store in the area had the “real” one. As was the case with Ralphie, many boomers recall freezing up in the presence of the Jolly One, sometimes even becoming paralyzed with fear and driven to tears.
Restaurants On Christmas
When the neighbor’s dogs break into the house and attack the Parker family’s Christmas turkey, they were left with no choice but to go out to dinner. Boomers recall that when we were growing up, Christmas dinner was strictly a family affair. Restaurants were not open on Christmas Day. The movie accurately portrays the only area restaurant open was a Chinese restaurant, and it was empty when they walked in.
Homemade or “Useful” Gifts
Come Christmas morning, Ralphie and his brother opened gifts, quickly passing by the socks and pajamas to get to the good stuff. Ralphie had the misfortune of receiving a pink bunny rabbit suit from his aunt. His mother insisted he try it on, which he did reluctantly. Standing at the top of the stairs, his mother found him adorable, while his father recognized his humiliation.
Many of us recall aunts or grandmothers who knitted or sewed outrageous sweaters, vests, hats and mittens. And many of us were forced to wear the items, if only in the presence of the gifter.
Neighborhood or Schoolyard Bullies
In our day, every neighborhood had groups of kids that hung out together, but in every neighborhood and schoolyard, there were bullies. Fed up with getting pelted with snowballs and taunts, Ralphie went ballistic on his bully, giving the boy a bloody nose and making him cry. For many of us, that was a boomer vicarious thrill.
When Ralphie lets loose the F-bomb in front of his mother, she shoves a bar of soap in his mouth. Nowadays a parent might get some unwanted legal trouble for this type of discipline, but boomers will recall that punishment as the norm for uttering “dirty words.”
In the end, the Parker family had a good, yet far from a Norman Rockwell, Hallmark kind of Christmas. That turns out to be another thing we boomers can identify with in the film. Mister Boomer knows other boomers who can recite swaths of dialogue from the movie. If by some crazy circumstance you’ve missed it on TV these past few years, pick up the DVD. It’s a fun trip down Christmas memory lane.
What’s your favorite Christmas movie, boomers?