Why Boomers Love “A Christmas Story”

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.

Snow Suits
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.

Dangerous Toys
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.

Boomer Mouthwash
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?

Christmas Shopping the Boomer Kid Way

As young children, we boomers faced many challenges when it came time to shop for Christmas. Our first challenge, of course, was transportation. As youngsters, we were at the mercy of our parents. Once we got to be eight or so, walking (with our neighborhood group) to any stores within a couple of miles became possible, but in earlier times, the family car was it. “Family car” was singular, because it was extremely rare for a middle-class suburbanite to have more than one car in the 1950s and 60s.

In that era, stores were not open every night of the week. More than likely, they were open two weekday evenings, plus Saturdays … and never on Sunday. With dinner being served between 5 and 6 p.m., that left little time for actual shopping since stores would close promptly at 9 p.m.

When it came time to jump into the car and visit a store, chances are it was to a major department store. Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck and Company were the biggest, though there were regional department store chains that had also expanded to the suburbs. The different departments gave each member of the family the opportunity to search for something on their list.

The typical plan of action was to split up into two camps, with some of the children going with the father, the others with the mother. It was not unusual for families to have two to six boomer children in tow. Splitting up enabled the children to shop for the siblings or parent they were not attached to at the moment.

Children were expected to use their own money to purchase gifts. It helped those who received an allowance to learn the virtues of savings. Mister Boomer did not receive an allowance, so money at the pre-teen age came by way of birthday gifts from grandparents, snow shoveling and pop bottle redemption. Sometimes a parent would sweeten the pot and contribute a few dollars to Mister Boomer’s Christmas fund.

For many families, including Mister Boomer’s, the Christmas shopping season was not complete without a visit to Downtown. There, children could visit the “real” Santa, since we all knew the suburban stores only used his helpers. Even more, families could make a day or evening out of viewing the holiday decorations and window displays. Dressed in snow suits and galoshes, our mittens were attached to our coat sleeves by way of clasps on either end of a small piece of elastic. We’d trudge through the snow and marvel at the festive lights, giant snowflakes and ornaments hovering on lampposts, and garlands of evergreens scenting the air with the unmistakable aroma of the holidays.

The major department store that sponsored the Thanksgiving Day parade always had the most elaborate window displays. Animatronic characters in seasonal tableaus told a story in each window. Macy’s, in New York City, had begun the tradition of holiday window decorations in the late 1800s as a way of luring more Christmas shoppers. Now, in boomer time after the War, Downtown stores took up the banner as a way to lure the new suburbanites back Downtown. For the most part, it worked.

Mister Boomer vividly recalls one such Downtown visit. After the obligatory visit to Santa (Mister B was a non-Santa believer by then, thanks to his skeptical nature even at age six, but the final straw came by way of his brother’s prodding), Mister B and his sister were lead to a special “Children’s Shopping Land.” The store had sectioned off an area where parents weren’t allowed, and children could shop on their own. Mister Boomer walked through the entryway of giant candy canes, holding the hand of his younger sister who trailed behind. Inside, a single aisle snaking around displays kept children moving in the right direction, with helper elves along the way. Display bins were filled with low-cost items children could afford. Getting near the end, Mister B hadn’t found anything he deemed acceptable. Finally, he hovered at a bottle of bubble bath for his mother. It was a large, opaque white glass bottle with a flower painted on it. His indecision, though, sprang from the price – it was above the budget he had in mind. After some whining from his sister, Mister B decided to purchase the gift. The path lead directly to the checkout register and ultimate exit, where parents could collect their children. Mister B’s parents did just that, but his brother said the children weren’t done shopping yet. Taking charge of Mister B and his sister, he lead them to another area of the store.

Mister B’s brother had seen a Norelco electric shaver — the same one that was advertised on TV — that he thought would be the perfect gift for their father. There was no way he could afford the gift on his own, so he needed his two siblings to contribute to the purchase. Arriving at the counter, a good-natured man in a white shirt and tie removed a hard-shelled, rounded corner case from the display and opened it for us to view. An electric shaver with pivoting circular blades appeared. It was a true symbol of modern man, and what they wanted for their father. Gathering their last bit of dollars and change, they were just able to come up with the cost of the gift.

This is the commercial that had caught Mister Boomer’s and his siblings’ attention. Of course, he saw it in black & white.

Arriving back at the designated meeting spot, the family made their way to the store exit as the announcement was made for closing time. They quickly made their way through the revolving doors; all but Mister B, that is. He had hesitated. The whirl of the doors was just too much for him. The speed was too fast and it didn’t seem likely to him that he would make it through. Now on his own on one side of the door while the family was on the other, they urged him to “come on!” but he froze in place. Finally, with more shoppers gathering behind him, he garnered the gumption to step into the whirling doors. He entered with such conviction that as his arms reached up for the door handle, the bag containing his bubble bath gift swung like a pendulum, abruptly stopping at the glass with a large, ominous crack. “Oh NO!” he thought, but there was no time to dally, he had to get out of the door. Stepping into the outside, the family began their walk back to the car. Mister B, trailing back a few steps, carefully reached down and felt the outside of the bag. It seemed OK. Evidently his family, focused on coaxing him through the door didn’t notice this secondary drama going on, so it looked as if he might get a pass on his latest bout with clumsiness.

Once home, Mister B took the bubble bath bottle from the bag and carefully inspected it. It was a Christmas Miracle! The bottle remained completely intact. All that was left was to wrap it and place it under the tree.

Mister B cannot remember what his mother thought of the bubble bath. But attending his father’s funeral a couple of years ago, Mister B came across the Norelco shaver in his parents’ house. Bearing the marks of years of use, it was still in its case as it was when the Boomer children wrapped it up a lifetime ago.

How about it, boomers? Is there a gift you purchased that you can point to that helps define your early boomer years?